REU program gives undergraduates firsthand atmospheric research experience

NSF-funded internships help chart grad school and career paths

Every summer since 2007, Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science has given undergraduate students hands-on research experience and a real-life look at what it means to be a scientist or scholar. College students from across the U.S. work with faculty members and researchers who lead their field, and interact with graduate students on cutting-edge research projects through the Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REU, program.

Justin Stow, an undergrad majoring in meteorology and physical science at Florida State University, was drawn to the CSU program’s objectives, mission and reputation in atmospheric research.

Atmospheric science REU students visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research, an NSF-funded lab, to learn about its research. Front row, from left to right, Justin Stow, Abby Stokes, Charlotte Connolly and Elana Cope; back row, left to right, Richard Garmong, Jaime Anderson, Alex Ng, Brandon Molina, Erin Sherman and Emily Lill.
Atmospheric science REU students visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research, an NSF-funded lab, to learn about its research. Front row, from left to right, Justin Stow, Abby Stokes, Charlotte Connolly and Elana Cope; back row, left to right, Richard Garmong, Jaime Anderson, Alex Ng, Brandon Molina, Erin Sherman and Emily Lill.

“This program offers a world-class research experience that allows students to discover their passions and motivate their ambitions for future endeavors,” he said.

Stow has been working with research scientists Chris Slocum and John Knaff at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, or CIRA. As part of their tropical cyclone (TC) group, Stow is analyzing a major forecasting model – evaluating its predictors, assessing how each is calculated, and trying to understand the global variability of TC environmental conditions. The team’s goal is to determine if adding more parameters improves the accuracy of the model’s intensity forecasting.

“This experience has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate collegiate career,” he said.

Ohio University meteorology major Jaime Anderson describes her experience in the REU program as “work hard, play hard.”

“We work all week, and the weekends are filled with one adventure after another,” she said. “I have met amazing people, been on many trips, and learned a lot from my mentor and graduate student.”

Anderson said her mentor, Associate Professor Michael Bell, and his research team have been welcoming and always willing to help.

“They have this mentality that my success is their success, and my failure is their failure. They do everything in their power to ensure that I am learning as well as enjoying the research I am doing,” she said.

Anderson’s research project involves using model data to compare two cases of extreme rainfall as part of the PRECIP campaign based in Taiwan. Not only has her REU experience taught her how to code, she has learned how to apply to grad school as well.

“This program has helped me figure out the next steps towards graduate school and what to look for when applying for one. Now that I know the process, graduate school has become more of an option for me,” she said.

Next generation scientists

Program Director Melissa Burt, who is also Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, said the REU program allows undergrads to develop confidence in their abilities as next generation scientists.

“It’s pretty amazing and rewarding to see the growth that happens in each student over the 10 weeks with us and the long-lasting impact this experience has on them,” Burt said.

The department’s REU program has supported 126 students, 60 percent of those women and 31 percent from underrepresented groups. Nearly all of the alumni of the program have gone on to either graduate school or professional employment in STEM, and 16 have continued to study atmospheric science at CSU.

Andrea Jenney is among them. Jenney’s REU adviser became her grad school adviser, which in turn guided her research focus. She said the program gave her confidence in her career interests.

“This was a great way to ‘try on’ a career before putting in the time and effort to go to grad school in pursuit of a career in research or academia,” Jenney said. “This REU is 100 percent the reason I am attending CSU for graduate school!”

Stow, who now intends to focus his future studies on tropical meteorology or severe weather, already can confirm that his REU experience has helped define his career path.

“The benefits that I have gained from this program have changed the trajectory of my future career and have given me many tools to succeed in my personal and professional career,” he said.

The department’s REU program is one of several offered at CSU. The National Science Foundation funds the various REU sites. Burt will submit a renewal proposal next month to extend the department’s program.

Each summer the atmospheric science program culminates in a symposium and poster session, where the REU interns present their research. These events are open to the public. This year’s symposium will take place from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. July 30, and the poster session will be held 1-2:30 p.m. Aug. 1, both in ATS West 121.