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When Amber Reynolds was growing up, she spent time at a lake house her grandfather had built in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. "To watch storms roll in during the summer was fantastic," she recalls. "That's where I really found my love of storms."
These days, it's her job to watch storms roll in, only now she observes them with sophisticated radars. Amber, who just completed her first year of graduate school at Texas A&M University, is a protégé in UCAR's SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric and Related Sciences) program.
The mission of SOARS is to broaden participation in the geosciences by recruiting promising undergraduate students from historically underrepresented groups and supporting them as they enter and succeed in graduate programs in the atmospheric and related sciences. At the heart of the program are intensive summer internships that include workshops and research projects guided by mentors.
Amber has spent the past four summers at NCAR conducting research under the mentorship of several NCAR scientists. Over time, she's evolved from a college student uncertain of her major to a graduate student confidently working toward a doctorate.
"Without SOARS, I wouldn't be where I am today," Amber says.
Amber's research has two facets. She works with colleagues to set up and operate mobile research radars during weather events such as hurricanes and thunderstorms. Later, she analyzes the radar data in order to answer questions about how storms form and behave.
She got her first taste of field work while still an undergraduate, during BAMEX (the Bow Echo and Mesoscale Convective Vortex Experiment), a major field campaign organized by NCAR researchers during the summer of 2003. As a SOARS protégé, she worked at the project operations center in St. Louis, Missouri, and also spent four weeks in the field. The goal of BAMEX was to study giant storm clusters that cause hurricane-force winds and torrential rain for hundreds of miles across the Midwest. Amber used the data she retrieved during the experiment to examine the environment of very strong storms that produce a characteristic bow shape on radar screens. These bow echoes are known for their extremely damaging straight-line winds.
Amber also worked in the field in a number of Midwestern states during the Radar Observations of Tornadoes and Thunderstorms Experiment, ROTATE-2004, and will head to Dallas later this summer for a multiagency air quality study called TexAQS II.
Her field work typically involves a long drive, then setting up the radar and/or other equipment, and then waiting for storms to form. "We make weather forecasts in the morning and then drive to the spot," she says. "There's lots of waiting, but when you get a supercell that forms it makes the waiting worth it."
"SOARS has supported me going into the field and really introduced me to field work," Amber says. She adds that the guidance she's gotten from her SOARS mentors over the years has been helpful to her as a student and personally meaningful as well. She particularly credits former NCAR scientist David Dowell (now at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory), with whom she worked for two summers.
Before she ever worked with SOARS mentors, Amber found two strong role models in her mother and grandmother, both of whom attended college and majored in math during a time when most women were steered toward nontechnical subjects. "They really encouraged me to do what I love," Amber says.
At Binghamton High School in upstate New York, she went through the International Baccalaureate program and was especially interested in biology. She began college at Pennsylvania State University as a business major, but later switched to meteorology. "I wanted something with more math and physics," she says.
Amber heard about SOARS while at Penn State and applied even though she had taken only one course in meteorology at the time. During her first summer in Boulder, she used computer programs to look at chemistry in the upper atmosphere before catching "the radar bug," as she describes her research passion.
After finishing her bachelor's degree in 2004, Amber began grad school in atmospheric science at Texas A&M, a program she chose for its well-rounded education. She plans to work as a teaching assistant before finishing her degree and would like to eventually become a university professor. "I think it's so important to get people excited about the atmospheric sciences," she says.
She's also interested in learning more about the engineering aspects of radar instrumentation. "Maybe someday I'll try my hand at building radars," she says.
This will be Amber's last year in SOARS. Her research project this summer on the large-scale dynamics of a major Oklahoma storm during BAMEX on June 11, 2003, is also the topic of her upcoming master's thesis. Although she still has a way to go until she earns her doctorate, she's not worried about staying motivated. "I get to go out and see spectacular weather events and then look at the data," she says. "I learn something new every day and that's what I love about this field."
by Nicole Gordon