The personal touch: How a week, a month, or a year with colleagues can boost a career
Even as a young scientist puts the finishing touches on her doctoral thesis, the next phase of her life’s work is drawing near. If the goal is a research career, the newly minted Ph.D. must quickly get her bearings in a world of inquiry where disciplines and institutions mix more freely than ever. In these potentially disorienting waters, UCAR offers a unique harbor. Here, dozens of postgraduate researchers learn from each other while gaining access to an uncommonly broad range of experts and specialties in the atmospheric and related sciences.
Joining these postdoctoral fellows is an array of other official visitors who may spend anywhere from a few days to a year on site, carrying out research or meeting like-minded colleagues at workshops. UCAR also serves as a hub for informal science education. More than 80,000 visitors each year come to NCAR’s landmark Mesa Laboratory for tours, special events, and ongoing exhibits.
A place for postdocs
NCAR’s Main Street for new Ph.D. scientists is its Advanced Study Program, which has awarded more than 400 fellowships since the 1960s. Postdoctoral fellows in ASP have up to two years to develop and carry out research of their choosing across the broad range of NCAR disciplines. Several of NCAR’s divisions and institutes also hire postdoctoral researchers in addition to those brought on board by ASP. A healthy share of ASP’s postdocs return to academia following their NCAR sojourns, teaching and conducting research at campuses across North America and beyond.
“For me, ASP made all the difference in making the transition from graduate student to independent scientist,” says Raymond Shaw. A 1999 ASP alumnus, Shaw is an associate professor of physics at Michigan Technological University. “The paradox of being an ASP postdoc is that one is surrounded by people with expertise in almost all branches of the atmospheric sciences, most of whom are eager to collaborate and advise, but at the same time one is completely free to roam and to pursue independent ideas. That combination fosters great creativity.”
ASP was a natural choice in 1996 for Charles Zender, a young scientist with eclectic interests. Zender went through three majors during his eight undergraduate years at Harvard before alighting on what he calls ”the field of my dreams”: atmospheric physics. The complex nature of radiation passing through Earth’s atmosphere became a keystone interest for Zender through graduate school and his subsequent ASP fellowship. “I’m still primarily focused on this topic,” says Zender, who is now an associate professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine. In a 2007 paper, Zender and colleagues found that sunlight-absorbing soot atop Arctic snow may be outperforming greenhouse gases in warming the region.
Only a decade after his own ASP days, Zender saw his first Ph.D. student, Mark Flanner, enter the program in 2007. According to Zender, “ASP gives you complete freedom to follow the science you’re most interested in and passionate about. That’s an opportunity few people have unless they get tenure.”
A taste of lab life
While many doctoral students have their sights set on a career in academia, others are more inclined toward laboratory work in federal or military settings. UOP’s Visiting Scientist Programs help give the latter group a window on career options. Supported largely by NOAA and other federal agencies, VSP hires and places postdocs in locations that range from NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, to the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California.
VSP’s largest single activity is the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Program, which was founded in 1995 to help stock the talent pool for addressing climate change problems. C&GC postdocs are paired with faculty hosts at universities across the country to work on topics ranging from paleoclimate to biogeochemistry to El Niño and other large-scale patterns of variability. “The level of professionalism in VSP and genuine concern for the postdocs is unmatched,” says Heidi Cullen, a C&GC alumna and former NCAR scientist who now serves as the Weather Channel’s on-camera climate expert.
Irina Marinov, now at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, became the C&GC program’s 100th postdoc in 2005. Through global modeling of ocean nutrients and carbon, Marinov found that the southernmost portion of the Southern Ocean—where waters flow toward Antarctica and then sink to the deep—plays an outsized role in the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She wound up as lead author of a paper that appeared in Nature in 2006 and was herself featured in the journal’s “Making the Paper” series. “I’m very grateful for the fellowship support. It was essential for this paper,” says Marinov.
Exchanges of expertise
NCAR and UOP cultivate scientific visits well beyond the postgraduate level. Each year dozens of university faculty spend part or all of a sabbatical at Boulder, strengthening their collaborations with NCAR and UOP peers. Such sabbaticals have been part of the center’s lifeblood for decades. However, the logistics of arranging and funding faculty visits to NCAR—especially for relatively short periods, on the order of three months—can be a challenge. Likewise, NCAR scientists haven’t always had the resources or flexibility to make extended visits to collaborators at a university campus.
NCAR addressed these issues in 2004 by launching the Faculty Fellowship Program. It streamlines the logistics and helps support professors visiting the center, as well as NCAR scientists visiting academia, for periods ranging from 3 to 12 months. “We want to provide significant and meaningful interactions between NCAR and its constituents,” says the program’s director, Maura Hagan.
In 2007 NCAR climate modeler Markus Jochum spent four months at the University of Hawaii and its International Pacific Research Center, a U.S.-Japan joint institute. While there, Jochum served as an emissary for the NCAR-based Community Climate System Model (CCSM), providing in-person expertise on the model’s intricacies while learning about ongoing research in Hawaii. “Markus had the time to see how things work here,” says UH’s James Potemra. “He seemed to collaborate well with a lot of people here, and his research interests are very nicely aligned with ours.”
During Jochum’s visit to Hawaii, he and Potemra took a close look at how the CCSM portrays the vast and complex Australian-Asian monsoon, which provides life-sustaining rains for more than a third of the world’s population and influences weather across much of the globe. “It’s arguably the biggest shortcoming in the latest version of our model,” says Jochum. He and Potemra made headway on the problem by improving how the model depicts freshwater mixing in Indonesia’s Banda Sea, a process that strongly affects sea-surface temperature and precipitation over the surrounding area. “The discussions in Hawaii helped me appreciate the challenges we face in adequately representing the monsoon,” says Jochum. “Jim and I are confident that our future collaboration will lead to further improvements.”
Bringing social science into meteorology
Time and funding don’t always permit a lengthy visit, but even a few days spent in the lively intellectual commons of UCAR can infuse a student or scientist with new perspective and enthusiasm. Hundreds of professionals come to Boulder each year for workshops and meetings sponsored by NCAR and UOP. The friendships and ideasthat emerge often influence careers for years afterward.
After a 2005 NCAR sabbatical, Eve Gruntfest (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) set out to cultivate a new generation of interdisciplinary researchers through a series of NCAR workshops. “My whole career has been as a social scientist in a world of physical scientists and engineers,” says Gruntfest. After she analyzed the response to a deadly 1976 flash flood in Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon, Gruntfest helped develop warning and awareness techniques that are now standard. In recent years, researchers and other professionals began asking Gruntfest how they might integrate social science into their work. “This got me thinking how a methods-based workshop could bring like-minded people together and provide some new tools,” says Gruntfest. “If they had a little training in social science—and more importantly, if they knew about each other—they could do so much more than I ever did.”
Gruntfest teamed up with NCAR’s Julie Demuth to create WAS*IS (Weather and Society * Integrated Studies). The one- and two-week workshops, held since late 2005 in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Victoria, Australia, have drawn more than 140 attendees, including meteorologists and experts in communication, psychology, and other fields. Scholarly dividends from WAS*IS include several publications as well as sessions at the 2007 meetings of the American Meteorological Society and the Association of American Geographers.
Learning how to lead
Another workshop, this one launched in 2002, has quickly become a summer fixture at NCAR. The Undergraduate Leadership Workshop brings about 20 juniors each year to Boulder for a single intensive week each June. Attending is an honor, since each student must be nominated by the department head of a UCAR member or affiliate.
During their week in Boulder, the ULW students learn about graduate and postgraduate life, receive briefings from scientists in the thick of research on climate change and other topics, and get a first-hand look at facilities such as NOAA’s Boulder-based air sampling labs and the NCAR computing center. The students also gain insight into the nature of leadership. “It’s more than running an organization or being the boss,” says Kelvin Droegemeier (University of Oklahoma), the 2007 chair of UCAR’s Board of Trustees. “I want students to understand how broader and deeper notions of leadership are manifested in their personal as well as professional lives.” In a two-part presentation, Droegemeier exposes the undergrads to models of formal and informal leadership, including the critical role of ethics.
“[The ULW] let us really learn about an institution—how it operates, who works there, and how it accomplishes its mission,” says Ulyana Horodyskyj (Rice University), who attended the workshop in 2006. Another of that summer’s participants, Rebecca Boltz (Purdue University), put it this way: “It was one of the best weeks of my life.”
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