Raj Pandya entered the University of Illinois as a civil engineering major, but decided he might switch to chemistry. Then one day he was weighing chemicals during class. "I found myself wondering how the balance worked," Raj recalls. "I realized I should really switch to physics."
It wouldn't be the last time Raj would switch gears. Today, his different talents and interests have converged at UCAR, where he is director of SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science). The program provides research opportunities, a supportive community, and formal mentoring to promising undergraduates and graduate students from traditionally under-represented communities. Raj's path to leadership of SOARS illustrates the diverse possibilities of a career in science and education, as well as the importance of mentoring.
After he decided to major in physics, Raj spent a summer studying at Berkeley's Center for Particle Astrophysics. "It was great. It made me realize I liked research but that I didn't want to do astrophysics," he says. "I wanted to do something I thought of as more relevant." At the time, he hardly realized that the atmospheric sciences even existed. When he met another student at Berkeley a few years older doing graduate work in that field, his interest was piqued. "And so I applied to graduate school in atmospheric science," he says.
At the University of Washington, Raj wrote his Ph.D. thesis on how the large stratiform clouds that often trail long-lived thunderstorms organize. He also discovered that he enjoyed the role of educator. "I got to work as a teacher's assistant for a really good professor and saw the creativity and thoughtfulness of his good teaching," he says.
After grad school, Raj came to NCAR to do postdoctoral research in the Advanced Studies Program. With the encouragement of ASP director Al Cooper, he volunteered as a SOARS mentor to keep his interest in education alive. He also got involved with LEARN, an NCAR-based national effort to help school teachers build their science curriculum and teaching methods. At LEARN, Sandra Henderson (now chief educator at GLOBE) helped Raj discover new educational strategies centered around student-led investigation.
With these new ideas, Raj left NCAR after his postdoc appointment to teach at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. With mentoring from UOP's Mary Marlino, who was helping to launch the nationwide Digital Library for Earth System Education, and support from Unidata, he shifted his research toward investigating how to best incorporate visualizations and data into undergraduate atmospheric science courses. When a position opened in the DLESE Program Center to provide outreach and community relations , he returned to Boulder.
Raj was appointed director of SOARS in February 2004. His job is most demanding—and exciting—during the summer, when SOARS students converge at NCAR and other national labs for 10-week internships during which they work with teams of mentors to carry out original research.
As director, he hopes to help students participate in and reshape the very culture of science to make it more inclusive. The atmospheric sciences, he notes, have a dismal record when it comes to broad participation.
"Leaving out whole groups, even unintentionally, is always morally wrong," Raj says. "In science, it's counterproductive as well, since diverse perspectives promote discovery and ensure that research is relevant and usable."
He also points out that research in the atmospheric sciences has implications for society as a whole: "In atmospheric science, our research is essential to the big decisions we as a society need to make about our interaction with the planet. The best and most just decisions will come when all citizens have the opportunity to participate."
by Nicole Gordon
March 2005, updated December 2011