Julien Wang

  About the Research About the Researcher Julien Wang plans to put her new M.S. in environmental engineering to work on air pollution or energy policy. (Photo courtesy Julien Wang.)   As Julien Wang wraps up work on her master's degree and interviews for a job focused on air pollution or energy policy, it looks like she's come a long way from the big, dirty city in northern China where she was born. But there is a connection: Life in Shenyang afforded plenty of personal encounters with carbon emissions, aerosols, and sulfates. "It's better now," Wang says, "but in the early 90s, on most days the air was pretty much brown. If you went out for a walk, you had sand and dust everywhere, and you had to [brush it all off] before you went inside." When Wang's family came to the United States in 1993, she gravitated toward the humanities. In high school, her hobbies were black and white photography and playwriting. Looking for something new during her junior year, she joined the high school's environment club. That choice led her into activities like coordinating Earth Day events, recycling cans, and planting trees. When she graduated from high school in 2002 and chose a college major, her growing interest in the environment beat out the arts. This spring she is finishing a five-year combined undergraduate and master's program for an M.S. in environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. Graduate experience as an undergrad At Hopkins, Wang got a taste of the scientist's life through UCAR's SOARS program (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science), which she entered in 2005. Her first SOARS research was a study of the effects of climate on outbreaks of dengue fever in Puerto Rico through NOAA's Oceans and Human Health Initiative. A green roof grows in Denver. The viewing deck for this sedum-filled roof is on the 9th floor of the Denver, Colorado, offices of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's Region 8 building includes many other sustainable features. (Image courtesy the EPA.) She eventually switched out of the public health concentration in her major and into a management and systems design concentration, but she says, "I think in engineering everything ties back to humans, and human health is probably in the forefront of that connection." Greening Johns Hopkins' roof Wang's most recent project at school was to design a green roof for one of the Hopkins campus buildings. Green roofs—covered with a thin layer of soil and planted with grasses and other species—reduce the urban heat island effect, cut heating and air conditioning costs, and reduce wasted runoff water, among other benefits. Common in Europe, green roofs are also catching on in this country; for example, the Chicago City Hall, the Clinton Library, and the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in Denver have them. Wang was in charge of choosing appropriate plants for the roof, which include drought-tolerant sedum and even a tree. The most difficult part of the project, for Wang, was collaborating with students from other disciplines, including civil engineering. "There were 11 of us, so it was extremely difficult to organize everything into one comprehensive design, but at the end we were all proud." The roof they designed will be installed after the building is retrofitted to handle it. The world in her future? As Wang looks toward the future, she hasn't ruled out the possibility of working in an international context where she could use her bilingual ability. But would she consider using her degree to help clean up China itself? "The attitude in China is definitely changing and they've come a long way, but the bureaucracy is so rigid, you can't do anything without about five levels of approval. "I don't think I could work there very well—at least not now. I don't know about the future."

Edward Geary

Ed Geary (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.) "Research prepares you for a number of careers that are not necessarily focused just on science—if you're willing to explore," Edward Geary says. Ed hasn't shied away from wearing multiple hats. A geologist by training, he combines science, education, and international collaboration in his role as director of a worldwide science education program. More than 18 million measurements The program, known as GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), is aimed at K-12 students and their teachers, who receive training and support from a mentoring network of GLOBE Partners. With the help of their teachers and partners, GLOBE students collaborate with research scientists to investigate their local environments and place their observations into regional and global contexts. GLOBE currently has 110 participating countries and has amassed a database with more than 18 million measurements. For example, since 2001 a group of schoolchildren in Cameroon has been investigating the effects of climate change on agriculture in their province. Using instruments and protocols provided by GLOBE, the students have taken measurements demonstrating that decreased rainfall and humidity levels and increased temperatures are having a noticeable effect on corn harvests. "GLOBE's mission really resonates with me because it engages students in taking action and being good stewards of the environment," says Ed, adding that his training in environmental sciences instilled in him the desire to "basically want to save the world." "The program offers new ways to think about how to engage students and teachers to take care of the planet we live on, and to expand that out to their communities," he continues. "That's what keeps me coming here every day." Students from northern Alaska and southern Argentina have been comparing their respective polar climates and environments through video conferences as part of GLOBE's Seasons and Biomes Project. The pole-to-pole interactions with students and scientists reach yet more participants from around the world via follow-up web chats, online forums, and the Chief Scientist's Blog. The Web events are part of GLOBE's International Polar Year activities. Leading an international program A typical day at work for Ed can vary widely. He spends the bulk of his time networking with partners and constituents, government agencies, and representatives from NASA, the program's main sponsor. He writes grant proposals, strengthens collaborations, and raises funds, in addition to helping his staff manage a complex international program on a day-to-day basis. Not surprisingly, he also travels often. "My role is to support environmental education on local to global levels, since that's what GLOBE is all about," he says. "We want students to do authentic research on local environmental problems and gain regional and global understanding of the environmental issues facing their communities." Ed and his staff also organize GLOBE Learning Expeditions, such as the June 2008 gathering in Cape Town, South Africa. Every four years, these conferences bring together students from around the world to present research projects to their peers, scientists, and the GLOBE community. The Learning Expeditions also give students and their teachers the chance to establish cross-cultural friendships. "It's really a marvelous benefit that the program allows this social dynamic to occur as an offshoot of doing research," Ed says as he describes high school girls from Los Angeles interacting with their Egyptian counterparts. "While very different in their clothing, language, and customs, they share a love of science, the environment, and learning about each other's cultures." The most challenging part of Ed's job is trying to manage a complex international program with diverse constituencies and competing demands, as well as handling a challenging funding scenario. He credits his staff of 27, most of whom are based at UCAR in Boulder. "The GLOBE staff brings lots of knowledge and expertise to the program, both educationally and internationally, as well as great technical support," he says. Avoiding the geosciences? The GLOBE Partner Newsletter covers topics ranging from regional news to updates about new educational products and other community information. The GLOBE Chief Scientist's Blog, by NCAR researcher Peggy LeMone, provides another source of information and interaction for this worldwide community of teachers, learners, and scientists. The newsletter, scientist's blog, and other features are available via GLOBE News Feeds. Ed grew up outside Los Angeles. He got interested in science as a child. "We used to get up at three in the morning to watch space launches," he recalls. Another influence was his participation in Boy Scouts. "It got me into the mountains and places I never would have gone otherwise," he says. Though he loved the outdoors, Ed was determined to avoid the geosciences as a major when he started college at Stanford University. "My brother had majored in geology, and I was really tired of following in his footsteps," he says. But Ed took a geology course during his first year and got hooked on the idea of going on field trips to look at rocks and try to understand complex Earth processes. "I thought, Wow, I can do something for a career that I would be doing anyway," he says. After graduation, Ed worked for the United States Geological Survey for a year in Menlo Park, near San Francisco. His boss, an ore deposit geologist, hinted that he should apply to graduate school. "I knew I wanted to go back, but he gave me the nudge," Ed says. Ed's next step was to Cornell University. While earning his doctorate in geology, he found himself increasingly interested in science education, despite the counsel of graduate advisers who urged him to pursue a research career. When he returned to California as a San Jose State University professor, he enjoyed it "because there were rewards for doing good teaching, as well as research," he says. Something Ed noticed, however, was that many of his students were arriving unprepared for college-level science. "They didn't have very strong math and science backgrounds or interest, and I started wondering why," he says. So Ed applied for and received a grant to work with teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area during the summers to enhance their understanding and ability to teach Earth sciences. The experience changed his career path. "I decided that one of the things that was needed was a bridge between the research and education communities that was founded in good, solid science but that addressed the needs of classroom teachers." His next move was to Colorado, where he spent eight years at the Geological Society of America, developing education and outreach programs. Ed then became director of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at Colorado State University for several years before coming to UCAR in 2004 to work on several science education grants. In 2005, he was appointed director of GLOBE. An analytical approach, and passion, too Ed stresses that science can serve as the foundation for many different career paths and tangents. "When you have a solid science background, it really helps you take an analytical approach to looking at issues and problems," he says. He advises students to embrace quantitative studies. "Don't avoid the mathematical part of physics, chemistry, and Earth sciences. It's an important underpinning that many people tend to avoid," he says. He also encourages young people to be open to new adventures and change in their professional lives. "Don't lock yourself into a career path because somebody else thinks that it would be good for you, or you think it's what you're going to do for 20 years," he says. "Recognize you're going to change your path, probably several times. Be passionate about what you do." Related Links More About the GLOBE Program by Nicole Gordon June 2008

Career choice flows out of care for a stream

  About the Research About the Researcher Julien Wang just earned a combined bachelor's and master's degree in environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University. Wang is a UCAR SOARS alumna. (Photo courtesy Julien Wang.)   "I just stumbled across it, a little by accident and a little by luck," Julien Wang says about her current career path. Wang's parents thought she should follow the family trade, medicine. Her grandfather was a renowned anesthesiologist. Her mother, an M.D,. brought the family from China to the United States while she was doing postdoctoral research. Nine-year-old Julien spoke no English when she arrived in the United States in 1993. She credits "the sheer volume of cartoons that I watched, books that I read, and music that I listened to" for making her fluent. Whatever she did must have worked well, because she had success writing stories and plays in her new language at school. ‘There was nobody to run the group. [So] I started taking a leadership role.’ By the time she was in high school, "I had my hand in all the arts," she says. Her parents were still urging her toward a medical career, "but after growing up in a hospital, I didn't want to do that," she says. She was leaning toward a humanities major. Something different Then, as a junior, she wandered into the environment club. "I don't know why I went," she says. "I was just in the mood for something different." She joined at an opportune moment. The club officers were all seniors, so the following year "there was nobody to run the group. I started taking a leadership role." Wang lived in a well-to-do Baltimore neighborhood, but even there, she noticed the air pollution, and people littered the local stream. "It would bother me. I think when most people see trash, they just look the other way. But if you keep on like that, eventually we're not going to have a stream. If you ignore something long enough, it's not going to be there any more." Her club organized a stream cleanup. Lessons in problem solving High school was also the first time that she ran across a real academic challenge. She credits her parents' high expectations for making her a straight-A student—until she hit a precalculus class taught by a notorious teacher. "That teacher wasn't good at answering questions, she wasn't personable, she wasn't approachable, and the rumor was that she only gave, like, 2 A's. That was one of the first times that I realized that you cannot be perfect in everything you do and that there will be people who will not be very understanding along your way. ‘I realized that you cannot be perfect . . . and there will be people who will not be very understanding along your way.’ "In retrospect, I really needed that experience," she says. "Academically, I learned something about problem solving; socially, I learned something about dealing with people." When it came time to choose a major, Wang was torn between the arts and her growing interest in the environment. Finally, she chose environmental engineering. She graduates from Johns Hopkins University this spring with a master's degree. The bilingual advantage Being truly fluent in English as well as Mandarin Chinese has given her a distinct advantage in her schoolwork, Wang says. "Language education in China is very weak. I have a lot of Chinese classmates who don't really speak English—even the [teaching assistants]. Some TAs ask me to translate very simple things for them. I don't know how professors pick TAs, but it's not for their communication skills. "Now that I am job hunting, I always put down [on applications] that I speak Mandarin. That will come in very handy if I get a job that has offices in other parts of the world." June 2008 One-minute mentor Be bold, voice your interests Wang's advice is especially for introverts like herself: "Be bold and seek out people who might be able to help you. Don't be afraid to talk to people, especially teachers; teachers can be very helpful, especially in middle school and high school. It's important to understand that teachers love it when the students ask questions because they want to understand the material. They hate it if you only ask about your grades. "Also, communicate with your parents. After my parents realized I was interested in this particular field, even though it wasn't their idea, they helped me find contacts. Be ready to voice your interests." Links for students interested in atmospheric and Earth system science: Career FAQs & Resources

National Science Board Approves UCAR Proposal to Manage NCAR

BOULDER—The National Science Board has authorized the National Science Foundation to negotiate a new cooperative agreement with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) to continue to manage and operate its flagship weather and climate center, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, located in Boulder. [ENLARGE] (Photo by Carlye Calvin, ©UCAR.) News media terms of use* UCAR has managed the center since its inception in 1960. This is the first time that the five-year cooperative agreement with NSF was opened to competition. The agreement, not to exceed $694 million, will take effect on October 1, the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year, and run until September 30, 2013. It can be renewed for an additional five years without a recompetition, pending satisfactory reviews. "We're very pleased to be able to continue our longstanding relationship with NSF in managing NCAR on behalf of the university community," says UCAR president Richard Anthes. "We have proposed some exciting and innovative ideas for research, new computing and observing facilities, and university involvement in the coming five years and we're looking forward to implementing our plans." UCAR is a consortium of 71 North American universities with Ph.D. programs in the atmospheric sciences and related disciplines. It is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, also the site of NCAR.

Volunteers across nation to track climate clues in spring flowers

  BOULDER—A nationwide initiative starting tomorrow will enable volunteers to track climate change by observing the timing of flowers and foliage. Project BudBurst, operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and a team of partners, allows students, gardeners, and other citizen scientists in every state to enter their observations into an online database that will give researchers a detailed picture of our warming climate. Cinquefoil wildflowers in Colorado. [ENLARGE] (©UCAR, photo by Carlye Calvin.) News media terms of use* The project will operate year round so that early- and late-blooming species in different parts of the country can be monitored throughout their life cycles. Project BudBurst builds on a pilot program carried out last spring, when several thousand participants recorded the timing of the leafing and flowering of hundreds of plant species in 26 states. The Chicago Botanic Garden and University of Montana are collaborators on Project BudBurst, which was funded with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The project is also supported by the National Science Foundation and Windows to the Universe, a UCAR-based Web site that will host the project online as part of its citizen science efforts. "Climate change may be affecting our backyards and communities in ways that we don't even notice," says project coordinator Sandra Henderson of UCAR's Office of Education and Outreach. "Project BudBurst is designed to help both adults and children understand the changing relationship among climate, seasons, and plants, while giving the participants the tools to communicate their observations to others. Based on the success of last year's pilot program, this project is capturing the public's imagination in a way we never expected." "Project BudBurst provides an exciting opportunity for the public, particularly children, to contribute to scientific research on the effects of global climate change on plants," adds Kayri Havens, a senior scientist with the Chicago Botanic Garden. Sandra Henderson. [ENLARGE] (Photo by Carlye Calvin, ©UCAR.) News media terms of use* How the project works Each participant in Project BudBurst selects one or more plants to observe. The project Web site suggests more than 60 widely distributed trees and flowers, with information on each. Users can add their own choices. Participants begin checking their plants at least a week prior to the average date of budburst—the point when the buds have opened and leaves are visible. After budburst, participants continue to observe the tree or flower for later events, such as the first leaf, first flower and, eventually, seed dispersal. When participants submit their records online, they can view maps of these phenological events across the United States. The science of phenology, or tracking cyclic behavior among plants and animals, has a distinguished history. In Japan and China, for example, the blossoming of cherry and peach trees is associated with ancient festivals, some of which extend back more than a thousand years. Cherry trees in Japan now bloom four days earlier than in the 1950s, according to the nation's meteorological agency. A warming trend Numerous plant and animal species throughout the world are being affected by climate change. Some plants respond to warmer temperatures by extending their growing seasons. Others shift their ranges toward the poles or to higher elevations. At the same time, many insects breed and disperse based on regular cycles of sunlight rather than temperature. This can cause a mismatch between the behavior of pollinating insects, such as bees, and flowers that bloom earlier than the insects expect. Such asynchronous behavior has already been noted across many parts of the world. Along with the partners noted above, Project BudBurst collaborators include the Plant Conservation Alliance; USA-National Phenology Network; and the universities of Arizona; California, Santa Barbara; Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Wisconsin-Madison.

Native Americans, scientists to discuss climate change at landmark symposium

BOULDER—Leading representatives from indigenous and scientific communities will take part in a landmark climate change symposium at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. The March 19-21 event will bring together two climate change perspectives--one rooted in indigenous experiences and one informed by current scientific results. Climate change may have far-reaching impacts on Earth, including drought. [ENLARGE] (©UCAR, photo by Carlye Calvin.) News media terms of use* The symposium, Planning for Seven Generations: Traditional and Scientific Approaches to Climate Change, is open to scientists, Native American representatives, and members of the public. Sponsors include the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group, NCAR, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which operates NCAR. NCAR's primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation. "By bringing together the holders of scientific knowledge and the holders of indigenous knowledge, we will gain a fuller picture of the world we all live in and share—a fuller knowledge that will help us respond to the changing climate," says Professor Daniel Wildcat of the Haskell Indian Nations University. "For the health and sustainability of our beautiful Earth, it is critical that we build bridges to share wisdom and to allow us all to work together now for our great-great-granddaughter's grandaughter's generation," says NCAR senior scientist Elisabeth Holland. A primary goal of the symposium is to develop a collaborative way forward to learn more about Earth, blending traditional indigenous knowledge with experimental science techniques. Participants will discuss how different disciplines and cultures can work together, while offering opportunities for student participation. The conference will feature observations by elders of climate change and its impacts, as well as presentations of new technologies to map impacts of climate change. Traditional practices, such as talking circles and storytelling, will be incorporated into the discussions. The conference will be Web cast. Symposium speakers include: Elisabeth Holland, an atmospheric chemist who regularly provides expertise on national and international research efforts. She has served as a lead author on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Billy Frank, a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe who "speaks for the salmon" on behalf of 19 Treaty Indian Tribes in western Washington. Under Frank's leadership, the tribal role over the past 30 years has evolved into resource management. Oscar Kawagley, an Alaskan Yupiaq and associate professor of education at the University of Alaska who grew up learning Yupiaq traditions from his grandmother. Kawagley is an expert in merging Yupiaq and modern traditions. Albert White Hat, Sr., a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota who has been a Lakota language instructor for 25 years. In addition to providing Lakota translation for films such as Dances with Wolves, he wrote Reading and Writing the Lakota Language. Caspar Ammann, an NCAR climate scientist who focuses on past changes in the climate. Ammann also looks at the impacts of natural events and human activities on global climate. Denise Stephenson Hawk, director of NCAR's Societal-Environmental Research and Education Laboratory. Stephenson Hawk and her team look at human-environment interactions and provide policy-relevant science on weather and climate topics. Shannon McNeeley, a Ph.D. candidate and NCAR visiting scientist who studies climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, and the adaptive capacity of Alaska Natives in the interior of Alaska. The American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group consists of individuals committed to strengthening links among Native American tribes, tribal colleges and universities, federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.

Digital Library for Geosciences Moves to NCAR

BOULDER-The nation's most extensive collection of digital learning resources for geoscience education is now based at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The move ensures that the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE), developed with funding from the Geosciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF), will continue to serve hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and learners around the country. Karon Kelly. [ENLARGE] (©UCAR, photo by Carlye Calvin.) News media terms of use* DLESE had previously been funded through a five-year grant from NSF. During that grant period (2002-2007), the DLESE archive and program center were located at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), which also operates NCAR, a federally funded research and development center. The move to NCAR will enable DLESE and its users to benefit from NCAR's extensive cyberinfrastructure and expertise in information management. NCAR library staff will maintain the DLESE collection. Digital libraries nationwide are exploring ways to maintain continuity in a time of rapid technological change and uncertainties in funding. "NSF asked that we find some way to preserve open access to the collection," says Karon Kelly, the UCAR director of Digital Learning Sciences, a collaborative program with the University of Colorado at Boulder that supports DLESE and other digital learning resources. In determining where to move its collection, DLESE called on a group of experts in information science, geoscience education, and business as well as members of DLESE's former steering committee and advisory board. They examined potential models of sponsorship and membership and looked carefully at which parts of the DLESE collection should be sustained in the absence of dedicated funding. "Providing a long-term home for this important resource supports NCAR's educational mission and fits with the NCAR library's plans to provide increased digital services to the broader scientific and educational community," says Mary Marlino, director of e- Science and the library at NCAR. "DLESE was an early pioneer in NSF's efforts to establish digital science libraries," says Jill Karsten, program director for diversity and education in the NSF Geosciences Directorate. "Once again, DLESE is helping to lead the way for the science education community by identifying new strategies for sustaining library operations and keeping these important educational resources available for a global community of educators and students."

In pursuit of the Southwest's monsoon

 About the ResearchAbout the ResearcherChris Castro is an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science, University of Arizona. Castro is a UCAR SOARS alumnus. (Photo courtesy University of Arizona.) 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.‘Jumping into a pool without knowing how deep it is . . . was very risky’ A bend in the roadAfter 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.‘We have to start working to build up an educated and professional class of Hispanics in the physical sciences.’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.Choosing a homeWhen 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."Related LinksChris Castro's Home PageNovember 2007One-minute mentorAsk people what they actually do"Go and talk to people working in the field, figure out what they do," says Chris Castro. Any career requires more than just the ability to do the work. "It’s important to find not only something that you can click with in terms of your profession but a community that you feel comfortable with socially. The only way you get a sense of that is by going and talking with people."And don’t be afraid to take risks. "Sometimes you’re going to fail, but you’ll learn from your failures and grow more than if you always take the safe path. Your life may have more ups and downs. but it will be more rewarding in the end. That’s what defines successful people."Curious about a career in atmospheric or Earth System science? Career FAQs & Resources >

From a threatened tree to environmental leadership

  About Teaching About the Teacher Waleska Rivera Rios shares her love for science with students at Ysleta High School in El Paso, Texas. She is an alumna of UCAR's SOARS program. (Photo courtesy Waleska Rivera Rios.)   One tree: that's what made Waleska Rivera Rios a scientist. No, make that one tree plus one school bus driver. At the age of 11, Rivera Rios was riding the school bus one day in her then-hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico, when the bus driver took a detour past her own home. The driver casually pointed at a neighbor's tree and told the children that she was tired of sweeping its leaves out of her own front yard, so she was trying to kill it by pouring bleach on its roots. "At that moment, she became a witch to me," Rivera Rios recalls. That was when she realized that she wanted to work to help save the environment. "I have always kept that moment in my heart." The bleach-happy bus driver may have steered her toward environmental science, but Rivera Rios had other reasons to incline toward some kind of scientific career. Her mother is a nutritionist, and Rivera Rios enjoyed learning about biochemistry from her. Her father worked for Fisher Scientific and has always been interested in science. She grew up reading Popular Mechanics. Because of her science aptitude, her parents encouraged her to apply to University Gardens High School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a prestigious public school with a science and math focus. She passed the entrance test with flying colors and was admitted in 1994, graduating in 1997. ‘[SOARS] taught me to do research by myself and not be intimidated by those big words in journals.’   Award-winning school days Despite her aptitude for science, during high school, Rivera Rios's plan for saving the environment was to become an environmental lawyer. But when she learned that she would need a bachelor's degree to get into law school, the obvious choice of major was environmental science. "I didn't know much about it; I thought it was solely about protecting the environment." Rivera Rios was accepted at the University of Puerto Rico, but her parents learned that a private school, Universidad Metropolitana (a UCAR academic affiliate), offered a full scholarship. She took computer science and math classes at UMET in the summer before her freshman year. "I really liked being at school there. I had the chance to take courses that were going to count toward my degree, and I didn't have to pay." Her undergrad years were funded by a grant from NSF's Model Institutions for Excellence program. But she's also proud of winning another honor: first prize in a poetry contest at UMET. Some of her poems are inspired by her love of science and nature. Another prestigious award, the Gates Millennium Scholarship, made it possible for her to enter graduate school at the University of Texas at El Paso. ‘Education ties up with the commitment I feel to nature and the fact that I studied environmental sciences.’ While at UMET, Rivera Rios applied for and was accepted into UCAR's SOARS program (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science). Although she eventually made the decision to leave research for teaching, Rivera-Rios still looks back on her SOARS experience as "one of the most influential things to happen in my life. I am deeply, deeply grateful to SOARS. It taught me to do research by myself and not be intimidated by those big words in journals, it taught me to work in a group and ask questions when I need to, to communicate. I learned to write in English. We produced wonderful things." A natural choice When she eventually decided to become a teacher, El Paso was the natural choice of locale. "Ever since I left El Paso, I wanted to come back. When I was working on my master's, I fell in love with the desert. I have friends here, and I identify with the Hispanic community. The personal relationships with my students are very important to me, and I work in a school where the majority of students are Hispanic." She now sees her career in teaching as the natural outcome of her life journey. "Education ties up with the commitment I feel to nature and the fact that I studied environmental sciences. Ever since I was doing the B.S. degree, I felt that educating people was the best way to enrich awareness toward the damage we do to the environment." August 2007 One-minute mentor Articulate your dreams Determination is the key to success, says Waleska Rivera Rios. "As long as you make up your mind to do something, from the depth of your heart, you will reach that goal. You will do it. I make my students write about their dreams, what they want and where they want it, because once I did that myself, every single thing I wrote came true." Rivera Rios has an extra word of advice for Latinos and Latinas who might follow in her footsteps: "Whoever speaks more than one language opens many doors." She grew up speaking only Spanish, but she began teaching herself English by watching mainland TV and talking to herself in a mirror. By the time she was in college, "I didn't feel scared by the language, and I could take up opportunities like SOARS." Links for students interested in atmospheric and Earth system science: Career FAQs & Resources


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