Grad students explore atmospheric science, community at collaborative workshop

September 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Over the summer, three Penn State graduate students participated in a workshop focused on the planetary boundary layer (PBL). This National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored workshop, originally scheduled to take place at Howard University with early-career, underrepresented graduate students from several minority-serving institutions, explored the PBL through theory, measurements and modeling.

The PBL is the part of the atmosphere that is closest to the Earth. It is affected by the Earth’s temperature and moisture, and the wind in the PBL is turbulent and erratic due to friction from the surface of the Earth and its topography and vegetation.

Each of the graduate students, all in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), is researching impactful aspects of atmospheric science.

Aara’L Yarber is investigating the Saharan dust and climate impact on disease outcomes in West Africa. Her work explores how desert dust can carry unhealthy microscopic materials long distances.

“The workshop provided me with new ways of detecting patterns in air-quality datasets over time as well as connecting pollutant levels to their source region,” Yarber said. “Knowledge of source regions is important for understanding disease because desert dust can carry fungi, bacteria and viruses from one location to another.”

According to Yarber, limited studies have assessed the impact of Saharan dust and climate on disease outcomes in West Africa.

“This is partially due to the scarcity of ground-based monitors that measure pollutant concentrations but also due to the lack of health data,” Yarber said. “I hope that through my work, we’ll gain a better understanding of how climate influences disease throughout developing countries along the Sahel.”

María Morales-Cáez participated in the modeling track of the PBL, focusing on air quality transport analysis and instrumentation used to measure PBL properties.

“My current research is focused on tropical cyclones, but the PBL workshop helped me to acquire more knowledge about different methods to determine the depth of the convective atmospheric boundary layer and understand how air quality modeling systems work,” Morales-Cáez said.

Currently, Morales-Cáez is studying the sensitivity of Hurricane Florence (2018) to high-frequency sea-surface temperature feedback using the Coupled Ocean Atmosphere Model System (COAWST).

“My research could help to improve tropical cyclone forecasts,” Morales-Cáez said, “which could help inform communities about the possible track of major hurricanes, enabling them to prepare more efficiently.”

Stephanie Lin’s work pertains to the ozone depletion in the Arctic, which is drastically increasing in temperature and has a large impact on Northern Hemispheric climate.

“The snowpack is a source of the halogens, such as bromine, iodine and chlorine, which deplete ozone in the boundary layer,” Lin said. “My work is determining if blowing snow has an impact on these ozone depletion events.”

All three students expressed the importance of diversity in science, citing facets such as the ethics of allowing all individuals the opportunity to learn and share. Moreover, underrepresented groups can improve research by offering diverse thinking, backgrounds and methods so that all aspects of science can be explored. 

“In my opinion, diversity in science is crucial as it brings together different perspectives and allows for an opportunity to learn from each other,” Morales-Cáez said. “In my personal experience, from internships and conferences, I have been able to interact with many different people from a variety of backgrounds. This gave me the opportunity to learn about unfamiliar concepts, both in science and in life, as well as improve my communication skills and expand my view of the world.”

“I was thrilled to meet other students, faculty and scientists of color in the field,” Yarber said. “I think it’s really important for us to establish a community because the Earth science field is the least diverse in STEM.”

Zachary Moon, a doctoral student in EMS, was an instructor for the workshop as was Jose D. Fuentes, professor of meteorology.

Fuentes and his colleague, David Whiteman from Howard University, are collaborating on an NSF-funded project. The workshop and the research project are examples of the collaborations between Penn State and Howard University over the years.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021