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Christopher Castro is proof of the value of a summer internship. Castro always had what he calls a passing interest in weather. He liked to watch the summer storms roll in from the west as a boy in Oklahoma, and on a trip to Arizona as a teenager, the monsoon rains "just fascinated the hell out of me," he says. But he never thought of his hobby as a career path; he was going to be a lawyer.
Castro’s father was an animal diagnostic virologist, and his childhood was spent in a series of college towns with veterinary schools: Stillwater, Oklahoma; Davis, California; and State College, Pennsylvania. Castro chose Pennsylvania State University largely because, with his dad on the faculty, his costs were low. He enrolled as a pre-law major in 1993.
After his freshman year, his life took a different turn. He spent that summer at an internship in the civil rights office of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "After working there, I couldn’t see myself in that profession. I did enjoy the people aspect, but law was not compatible with my personality."
Now Castro needed a new career path, but he still wanted one that was relevant to the problems of today’s world. "I thought, why not do something that you’ve always had a passing interest in and that still has a connection to society?" He switched his major to meteorology, a decision he now compares to "jumping into a pool without knowing how deep it is. It was risky—very risky."
A year into his new major, he had a very different kind of summer internship: UCAR’s Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science program, then in its second year. SOARS gives college students from underrepresented population groups the experience of life as a scientist. Each student, known as a protégé, comes to NCAR or another participating lab for research projects over the course of three summers, with intensive mentorship guiding the protégé toward graduate school and a science career.
For Castro, the SOARS experience (along with his coursework) had the opposite effect of the law internship: "I got really passionate about climate and climate change." Castro went on to graduate school at Colorado State University, where his early brush with the summer monsoon grew into a research interest.
When he completed his Ph.D. in 2005, Castro says, "I had the opportunity of several jobs, including coming back to NCAR. I decided to come here [to Arizona]; I felt like this was where I was most needed. I had the opportunity to be the captain of the ship and to shape the ideas of my students instead of being in a big group and having someone tell me what to do. That’s the riskier path, but it’s more rewarding in the end.
"Also," he points out, "from the social perspective, a person like myself is important to have in a job like this. In Arizona, the population is already about 25% Hispanic, and that segment is the most rapidly growing. But I observe there is still a large socioeconomic and educational disparity between Hispanics and other ethnic groups. This can reinforce negative stereotypes and create barriers to educational opportunities. We have to start working to build up an educated and professional class of Hispanics in the physical sciences, and this is a goal of SOARS. If I can bring students of Hispanic background here, either from Arizona or from Mexico, that’s doing a little bit to fight that problem."
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.