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Visiting NCAR to talk about collaboration, Solomon Bililign, a professor of physics at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT), left with a vision of creating an atmospheric science class. Bililign, director of NOAA's Interdisciplinary Scientific Environmental Technology (ISET) at NCAT, had several graduate students whose research would benefit from a course in atmospheric chemistry. While the university had hoped to hire an atmospheric scientist, limited funding hindered this goal.
However, in meeting with Bill Randel and John Orlando, director and deputy director, respectively, of NCAR's Atmospheric Chemistry Division, and the other scientists in ACD, Bililign came up with the idea of running a distance-learning, semester-long atmospheric science class taught by NCAR scientists.
"Not only would the NCAT graduate students be taught by excellent atmospheric scientists, they would have a chance to talk to, learn from, and get hands-on experience working with chemists doing work similar to what the students expect to do upon graduation," says Bililign.
"ACD already had an atmospheric chemistry text book that former director Guy Brasseur had created and ACD scientists contributed to," explains Orlando, who was the main ACD contact during the program. "We used the chapter topics as a course guide for the curriculum covered in this pilot program."
The class met weekly throughout January and February via video conferencing. Different ACD scientists – specialists on the day's topic – ran the class, with Orlando, when not teaching, attending each meeting. Then, during NCAT's spring break, the students came to NCAR for a week. Their visit included several hours of class each day, as well as opportunities to meet with scientists to discuss individual end-of-term projects. They also toured NCAR's facilities, including the chemistry labs, the Research Aviation Facility, and the Design and Fabrication Facility.
Throughout the semester the five students worked on a project related to their field of study and, where possible, future dissertations. In April, when the class finished, each presented a talk on their project and its outcomes to their classmates, NCAR scientists, and NCAT professors.
Anthony Cochran a PhD student at NCAT worked with ACD's Mary Barth, who models clouds and chemical transport. Cochran in previous summers had worked at the USDA Fire Sciences Laboratory and on NOAA's CALNEX field campaign looking at the importance of isocyanic acid (HNCO) in the troposphere. Under certain circumstances, HCNO can impact human health, ranging from atherosclerosis and cataracts to rheumatoid arthritis.
Having also worked with NOAA scientists in Boulder's Earth Systems Research Laboratory the previous summer, Tony wanted to build on the summer-2010 observing experiments by replicating observed outcomes in a model and, upon achieving this end, model what he had not been able to do experimentally. Cochran wrote a Fortran program, which generated HCNO model output that he would expect to get in the lab.
"I put these values into a box model to show how isocyanic acid – particulates commonly found in smoke from forest or similar fires, among other sources – might interact with cloud particles," Cochran says. "Like me, Mary was excited about the results, which closely matched my earlier observations."
Cochran will include the modeling results in his dissertation, and hopes that the findings might also provide him with a publishable paper.
Darkus Jenkins, a fourth-year PhD student who had Bililign as an advisor for her Masters degree, works on chemical luminescence, trying to understand interactions between metal complexes like acetyl-nitrol and various volatile organic carbons (VOCs). When these species interact, Jenkins says, they luminesce.
"A coating of acetyl-nitrol is used as part of satellite filming technology, making it easier for instrumentation to detect VOC presence in the atmosphere as a result of smoke from fires or similar processes," Jenkins explains. "The metal coating causes these features stand out (luminesce) in the resulting images."
A talk by Frank Flocke, which occurred during her visit to NCAR, helped Jenkins feel more confident in her understanding of the chemical interactions and processes occurring in the atmosphere. She also had an opportunity to work directly with a number of scientists, including Flocke, Orlando, Louisa Edmonds and Christine Wiedinmyer, who assisted in her successful pursuit of answers essential for her final project.
Further exchanges between NCAR and NCAT, one the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), are anticipated. This pilot program builds on previous collaborations between NCAR's Advanced Study Program and another HBCU, Howard University; NCAR and four HBCUs (NCAT, Howard, Hampton University, and Jackson State University) have a memorandum of agreement to foster scientific understanding and exchange between institutions.
Based on the spring 2011 experience and the desire to further such collaboration, Jean-Francois Lamarque submitted a proposal to NCAR's Diversity Program and received funding to set up a student workshop that would be similar in nature to the week-long experience of the NCAT students. With a focus on bringing in students involved in NOAA's ICET programs, as well as students from minority-serving institutions, and international students, Lamarque and Orlando hope to build on the NCAT program and expand participant numbers to 15 to 20 students, with tentative plans for this to occur in summer 2012.