Nationally recognized internship program to reach more students than ever

SOARS alumni build satellite programs at universities

July 26, 2017 | As a protégé in UCAR's SOARS program during 2003 and 2004, Deanna Hence learned the key skills that would take her through graduate school and beyond, from working with data sets to coping with increasing work demands. Now a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she credits her college internship in SOARS for her subsequent career success.

"I would say that SOARS is pretty much 100 percent responsible for me being where I am today," Hence said.

SOARS, which stands for Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science, tends to get rave reviews from its nearly 200 alumni — about 80 percent of whom have gone on to graduate school and/or careers related to science or math. In just more than two decades, the research and mentoring program led by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) has helped cultivate a new and diverse generation of leaders in the geosciences.

As part of its new five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program is now working to partner with SOARS alumni at universities and develop a network of satellite programs. This will enable the benefits of SOARS to reach more undergraduate students than the 20 or so who participate in each year's cohort, which includes summer research internships at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other Boulder-area laboratories.

"We can only accept a limited number of students at NCAR, based on funding and the availability of scientists and engineers who can serve as mentors each year," said Rebecca Batchelor, the director of SOARS. "But now we have the ability to support many more deserving students with the help of our alumni network in the university community."

Hence is among the first alumni who will build a SOARS satellite program. The program at the University of Illinois consists of a summer research internship that can be based in Illinois or divided between Illinois and NCAR. Protégés will receive additional support during the year, including guidance on giving presentations, collaborating on research projects, and writing resumes.

SOARS establishes satellite programs: SOARS protege Jeremiah Piersante with Deanna Hence

SOARS protégé Jeremiah Piersante, an atmospheric sciences major at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, shows Deanna Hence results from his research into the diurnal cycle of hail occurrence. (Photo by Jeffrey Thayer.)

On the Illinois campus, Hence is recruiting professors and other departmental staff to volunteer as mentors, and the program has begun to enroll the first protégés. This year, one SOARS protégé, Jeremiah Piersante, is spending part of the summer working at NCAR with scientists Sarah Tessendorf (also a SOARS alum) and Roy Rassmussen, and part on campus with Hence. Another protégé, Amy Chen, will begin her graduate research with Hence in the fall.

"I'm excited about expanding the reach of the SOARS model to our students at Illinois," Hence said. "We want to provide mentoring year round, so students will continue to get consistent support and become more integrated into the department culture."

A success from its beginnings

Launched in 1996, SOARS quickly won nationwide attention for its innovative approach to supporting college students interested in atmospheric and related geosciences, especially those from communities underrepresented in the geosciences. In just its fifth year, the program won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

Each protégé has a comprehensive support system that includes research mentors, a writing mentor, a computing mentor, a coach who helps the student navigate unfamiliar territory and stressful situations, and peer mentors. Protégés can participate in the year-round program, including summer internships, for up to four years, bridging the leap from undergraduate to graduate school.

More than 120 alumni have earned a master's degree in science or engineering and 40 have earned Ph.D.s.

This growing alumni network is powering efforts to reach a new generation of students. For example, Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science has increased enrollment by students from underrepresented groups from 3.5 percent to 16 percent in the last decade, thanks partly to the efforts of a 2005 SOARS protégé, Melissa Burt, who is now the education and diversity manager for the department, as well as a research scientist. The department has taken a SOARS-like approach, with students working on lab research and field campaigns with university faculty mentors and getting early exposure to leadership training.

UCAR's satellite initiative goes a step further, ultimately building a network of SOARS programs at universities, led by alumni who are now junior faculty. The NSF grant includes three pilot satellites located at the University of Illinois, the University of Central Florida (led by SOARS alum Talea Mayo), and a third university to be identified later.

SOARS staff at UCAR will provide support that may range from helping a department develop career-building seminars on such topics as scientific writing and presentation skills, offering webinars on select issues, or supporting efforts to recruit prospective protégés and mentors.

"One of the most exciting aspects is we're at a point when we have SOARS protégés who are in leadership positions and now have the ability to bring students into their own institutions," Batchelor said. "So we have this multiplier effect, and that can have a tremendous impact on the next generation of geoscientists."


Partners
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Central Florida

Funder
National Science Foundation

Writer
David Hosansky

 


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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.