Boosting diversity in Earth system science

SOARS program celebrates 20th birthday with look to the future

July 7, 2016 | SOARS is soaring into its third decade, achieving results and collecting accolades along the way.

The research and mentoring program recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a two-day symposium that focused on how the program can leverage its alumni network to build a more diverse geoscience workforce. A reception at the Mesa Lab that kicked off the symposium drew a crowd of protégés, alumni, and alumni directors. A program of the UCAR Center for Science Education, SOARS stands for Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science.

"SOARS has helped cultivate a new generation of leaders in geosciences," said SOARS Director Rebecca Haacker, "and there's opportunity to do even more."

The cornerstone of the year-round SOARS Program is an 11-week summer research internship at NCAR or at other participating laboratories.

SOARS protege Briah' Davis
SOARS protégé Briah' Davis of University at Albany, SUNY, working with instruments with mentor Teresa Campos, an NCAR project scientist. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

Each protégé has a 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. The internships can run up to four years, bridging the leap from undergraduate to graduate school, and many have taken advantage of multiple-year opportunities.

Follow-up surveys show that more than 80 percent of the now 180-plus SOARS alumni have either gone on to graduate school or to science- or math-related careers. More than 115 have earned a master's degree in science or engineering, 36 have earned Ph.D.s, and 38 are on track to earn a graduate degree.

In 2001, just five years out of the gate, the program won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

UCAR president emeritus Richard Anthes has said that SOARS was one of the proudest accomplishments of his tenure. This year, Shay Gilpin, a mathematics student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, became the first recipient of a new SOARS fellowship named in honor of Anthes by Bill Kuo, who directs the UCAR Community Programs.

Steven Naegele, who has a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science and physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is now a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, has been a SOARS protégé since 2014. He said the program has been invaluable.

SOARS protege Steven Naegele
SOARS protégé Steven Naegele (seated, middle) with NCAR research mentors in 2014 (left to right) Sarah Tessendorf, Greg Thompson and Trude Eidhammer. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

"It has not only reinforced my love of meteorology and dream of becoming a research scientist, but it has also pushed me to be a great leader, communicator, and friend," he said. Naegele said he especially has appreciated the opportunity to work with top atmospheric scientists who have had an impact on society. His projects at NCAR have included researching Northeast winter storms.

SOARS alumna Melissa Burt said she was struggling and thinking of changing her academic major as an undergraduate meteorology student at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Then her advisor suggested that she check out the SOARS program 

"It had a huge impact on my career," Burt, a 2005 SOARS protégé, says today. "It gave me a sense of community. I'm not sure I would have gone on to complete my Ph.D. if it hadn't been for the support of the SOARS community — friends, scientists, and mentors."

Burt not only went on to receive a Ph.D. in atmospheric science from Colorado State University, but she has brought a SOARS-like approach to her job as Education and Diversity manager at CSU's Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP). Under CMMAP, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, students from under-represented groups work on cutting-edge science and field campaigns with university faculty mentors and are provided early exposure to leadership training. Since the program started a decade ago, minority enrollment at CSU's Department of Atmospheric Science has more than quadrupled from 3.5 percent to 16 percent.

Looking ahead to the next decade, Haacker said her goals include developing SOARS satellite programs similar to the one Burt has fostered at CSU, and strengthening the SOARS alumni network.

"We want to expand the SOARS model, as well as share more of what happens to protégés after they leave the SOARS program," Haacker said. "Their stories are inspiring to all of us."

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public information Officer