Into the fold

As a child on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, Carl Etsitty was both profoundly respectful of nature, declaring to Mother Earth that “I will forever be a steward of the land.” His reverence for the environment was paired with intense curiosity, but those attitudes clashed in the early 1990s when Etsitty went to college. His Navajo elders revered frogs for their association with life-giving rain; his professors wanted him to dissect frogs.

Decades earlier, this dilemma might have discouraged Etsitty from pursuing science. But in 1996, he found a way to reconcile his heritage and his career goals through an NSF-funded initiative launched at UCAR that year. The Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science program (SOARS) began to bring promising undergraduates from underrepresented groups to Boulder for several summers of intense mentorship to provide the tools and foster the confidence needed for success in graduate school.

Etsitty worked with NCAR science mentor Lee Klinger, whose research involved the interrelationships among atmosphere, biosphere, and other parts of the Earth system. With that grounding, said Etsitty, “I have been able to embrace strategies that allow me to study science with my heart and with my mind.” After completing a master’s in environmental science at the University of Arizona, Etsitty joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is now a regional biotechnologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Photo of two people standing in front of the Flatirons in Boulder, CO
SOARS protégé Jennifer Zabel collaborated with science mentor Alex Guenther in 1997 on trace-gas measurement analysis.

Etsitty’s is one of many success stories to emerge from SOARS, lauded in 2002 with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. The program is a bright spot against a worrisome backdrop: the persistent lack of diversity within the atmospheric and related sciences. When SOARS was founded, about 20% of the U.S. population was African American, American Indian, Hispanic/Latino, or Native Alaskan. However, those groups made up only about 2% of members surveyed by the American Meteorological Society.

In 1994, UCAR president Richard Anthes and human resources director Edna Comedy proposed SOARS as a much-needed expansion of a previous diversity program that brought students to NCAR for a single summer. What was really needed, they concluded after consulting participants, was a much more comprehensive, multiyear bridge to graduate school.

Each SOARS protégé has several mentors: one for carrying out research, another for building communication skills, and still another for navigating the cultures of NCAR and Boulder. The protégés also mentor each other, passing on their perspectives to newcomers. “We know that learning in communities is more effective than learning as individuals,” said SOARS founding director Thomas Windham. More than 100 UCAR employees have served as mentors, and the program has grown to involve NOAA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other partners and cosponsors.

Atmospheric science remains less than fully diverse, but SOARS participants—more than 120 to date, with nearly 100 now holding graduate degrees—are making their mark in varied ways. For Shirley Murillo, a hurricane researcher at NOAA, the program served as a springboard for a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii in a topic of lifelong interest. In contrast, Christopher Castro switched from prelaw to meteorology only a year before joining SOARS. Castro is now on the faculty of the University of Arizona’s department of atmospheric sciences after completing his doctorate at Colorado State University (see page 67).

With their eyes opened through SOARS, many alumni find themselves discovering new talents and forging creative careers. Douglas Gavin shuttled between NCAR and Jackson State University, a historically black institution, as a SOARS protégé in 2006–07. Three years later, he was working as an ice analyst for NOAA and completing his master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the University of Maryland. According to Gavin, “This program is life-changing.”

 

Today — Listening and learning

Photo of Stephanie Rivale

"We have to broaden the pool of interested students."

—Stephanie Rivale, University of Colorado at Boulder

According to UCAR’s Rajul Pandya, “So many diversity programs are about changing students to adapt to our way of doing things.” As head of SOARS and the UCAR Community Building Program (CBP), Pandya works with colleagues to turn the paradigm on its head. “Instead of constantly asking what we can do to make students interested in our science, we’re asking what we can do to make our science more interesting and relevant to the lives of students and their communities.”

Even as he champions the merits of SOARS, which is focused on UCAR’s traditional bread and butter—doctoral-level education—Pandya recognizes that much more is needed if atmospheric and related sciences are to reflect the priorities and interests of a nation and world going through rapid demographic and environmental change. Toward that end, CBP is working to expand the UCAR community to include tribal colleges, two-year colleges, historically black and Hispanic-serving institutions, and other educational avenues for groups that are underrepresented in science.

CBP was sparked in part by “Planning for Seven Generations,” a unique UCAR-hosted conference in 2008 at which more than 100 participants, many from American Indian and Alaska Native communities, examined climate change from the perspectives of indigenous knowledge as well as western science. “Elders who’ve been living on the land for half a century or more have a really deep, sophisticated understanding and wisdom about their environment,” said Shannon McNeeley, who joined NCAR as a postdoctoral researcher in 2009 after extensive field work involving Native Alaskans and climate change. Daniel Wildcat (Haskell Indian Nations University) discussed the value of each tribe’s environmental experience—“truths that emerged out of their long histories and interactions with particular landscapes and seascapes on this planet.”

Photo of a man standing at a lecturn
Nisqually leader Billy Frank Jr. delivered the keynote address at the 2008 “Planning for Seven Generations” meeting hosted by UCAR.

CBP also facilitates a growing body of research that melds atmospheric and human variables. In one such project, Google.org and UCAR have partnered to develop a system that uses 2- to 14-day weather forecasts to anticipate the arc of yearly meningitis outbreaks in Africa, thus helping steer the flow of life-saving medicines for a disease whose spread is curbed by rainfall.

The common thread in CBP is developing scientists and projects that bring atmospheric science to bear on the needs of a changing world. In line with Pandya’s view, the first step often involves careful listening, as was the case at a 2010 meeting held in Denver to increase Latino involvement in weather and climate science. It was cosponsored by Metropolitan State College of Denver, a UCAR academic affiliate and one of the nation’s largest undergraduate-only institutions. “We are broadening the definition of ‘weather and climate professionals’,” says Richard Wagner, head of Metro State’s meteorology department.

The meeting’s participants emphasized the need to engage Latino students and their families early, so that atmospheric science and “green economy” jobs carry as much appeal as medicine, law, and other fields that promise immediate community benefit. “For me it was reaffirming,” says Stephanie Rivale, a SOARS alumna who directs K–12 engineering education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

 

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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.