Our People - Luna Rodriguez

Science as civic duty

July 19, 2016 | NCAR Associate Scientist Luna Rodriguez moved from U.S. Army base to U.S. Army base as a child. She learned how to adapt to new environments and, from her father, the sense of commitment to the country.

"My dad didn't want any of us going into the military," says Rodriguez, the youngest of four daughters. "However, we grew up with a strong sense of civic duty."

Today, that sense of civic duty has been translated into her work as a member of NCAR's National Security Applications Program within the Research Applications Laboratory [RAL]. Her first brush with NCAR came in 2005 when she was a SOARS protégé.

NCAR scientist Luna Rodriguez with husband
NCAR scientist Luna Rodriguez with husband Steven Landis at Rocky Mountain National Park. They met in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. (Photo courtesy Luna Rodriguez.)

Her research then and now includes predicting how biological, chemical, and nuclear attacks or spills will affect public safety. Clients include the U.S. Department of Defense. She especially examines the atmospheric transport and dispersion of the particles, and their sensitivity to factors such as wind direction and location.

Rodriguez has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Puerto Rico and a Ph.D. in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University.

What drew you to the field?
I feel like a lot of meteorologists when you ask them why they study weather: Weather is so cool. I'm an Army brat who lived my first nine years at five different military bases along the East Coast before we moved to Puerto Rico. I think experiencing all these different types of weather led me to this field. Then, moving to Puerto Rico, I wanted to experience a hurricane. Severe thunderstorms weren't enough.

Did you experience a hurricane?
Hurricane Hortense came through when I was in middle school and Georges when I was in high school. With Hortense, we were without power and water for a month. Hortense reignited my passion for weather and Georges really cemented the idea of studying weather for a living.

What did you do when you were without power?
It was like camping inside. My sisters and I had our oil lantern, and a bucket of water for washing our hair. I remember our teacher being lenient because she knew we had to study by lantern.

How did you get into your specific field?
It was a matter of happenstance. I knew I wanted to work with data and models. I like the challenge of working with data and understanding the uncertainty that comes with measurements, and then trying to make that match a model, which has uncertainty in its parameterizations. I wound up in the field at Penn State, and Sue Haupt of RAL had atmospheric transport and dispersion [of hazardous materials] funding. I worked under the [late] Tom Warner in RAL. I think it's really great that within NCAR we have a division that helps the government. This is one way I can serve the community and give back to my country as well.

NCAR scientist Luna Rodriguez with NATO members she instructed.
NCAR scientist Luna Rodriguez (far right) with NATO class she taught in Germany in 2014 on hazard prediction and assessment capability. (Photo courtesy Luna Rodriguez.)

What are you working on now?
The government has specific questions that have to do with national security. For example, what happens if a train carrying chlorine derails. We predict how the chlorine would disperse and what the government would need to do to keep people out of harm's way.

I have a dual appointment between NCAR and STAR  [Science and Technology in Atmospheric Research] in Boulder. I do some classified work on the STAR side. I also teach a workshop to civilian and military students on how to use a hazard prediction assessment program called VTHREAT [Virtual Threat-Response Emulation and Analysis Testbed jointly developed by NCAR and STAR to detect and respond to a biological/chemical/nuclear radiation attack.]

What inspires you?
Being of service. I feel like working in RAL gives me a method of looking at and solving a problem and serving the community directly. We're given a curve ball, and we have to adapt and work with it.  We have to be flexible to move into any type of environment that requires a solution. It's what I love and it's what I hate about my work. Hate because sometimes I get attached to a project and wish I could develop it more.

What is the coolest thing about your work?
As a teenager, I set my goals small. I loved science. I thought I would be a science teacher and settle close to home. I never imagined that I would have the SOARS internship at NCAR, and that work at NCAR would take me around the world. I've taught a workshop in Vermont. I've taught at NATO in Germany. I went to Japan in 2013 to study the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

How close were you to the site?
We were within two miles. Some of my colleagues had dosimeters to measure the radiation. It's not just about the immediate fallout but how conditions can change when the winds shift. In Japan, they were lucky that a lot of the radiation went out to sea at first. Then the wind slowly shifted and came inland. You want to be able to tell the government the most accurate information you can – this is our best estimate of what will happen – plus give them uncertainty guidelines. The uncertainty is the most difficult thing to explain to the public.

What do people at NCAR not know about you?
I've been married five years, but have only lived with my husband for one year. We met in grad school at Penn State. He was still working on his Ph.D. in political science and then was a post-doc for two years in Arizona. He just moved to Colorado in April.

What are your passions outside of work?
I felt like things would finally get easier after grad school and starting work at NCAR. But it never does. There is always more to strive for. I love to have people over for dinner. I love to cook seafood, bake. I made a coconut flan for RAL pie day. I didn't feel it was great, it was an experimental recipe, but Mary Hayden and some others asked for the recipe and now I have something to live up to.

I've also always been a video game nerd. I like the Legend of Zelda game and Super Mario Brothers. I also like running. Last year, I did the Denver Colfax Half-Marathon through the zoo. That's the coolest thing I've done in Denver. The rhino started running around in its cage, it got so excited by the runners. 

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer