Feature

Don't Quit Your Day Job
06.04.07
Students launching two weather balloons
NASA's Aura spacecraft looks at Earth's atmosphere from an altitude of 438 miles, studying the ozone layer, air quality and other climate factors. But how does what Aura sees from space reflect what is happening on the ground? NASA has a better idea of the answer to that question, in part, because Belay Demoz kept his ties to the past.

Image to right: High-altitude weather balloons launched by students and NASA and NOAA scientists were used to help validate the Aura satellite's data. Credit: Belay Demoz

While atmospheric researcher Demoz was leading an observation group at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he worked with Howard University faculty in Washington, D.C., to apply for a grant from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. NOAA awarded the grant, and the funds were used to establish the NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Howard and upgrade the atmospheric instrumentation available at the Howard-Beltsville Research site.

By the time the grant was awarded, Demoz had a new job, working as a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Despite the new position, he did not completely cut ties with his past. He remained in touch with faculty and graduate students at Howard and UMBC who were involved in research at Beltsville -- where he had invested so much time and energy.

As time passed, it became more of a strain to maintain his part-time relationship with Howard University while working his full-time job at Goddard. But then he found a way to do both.

Team members hold a tube with science instruments above their heads
In 2005, Demoz was selected for the NASA Administrator’s Fellowship Project. The fellowship is designed to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education at minority institutions.

Image to left: A NASA scientist, a Howard University professor and students from five colleges work together to launch scientific instruments. Credit: Belay Demoz

The NAFP accomplishes this goal through two different methods. Fellowships for faculty members at minority institutions provide exposure to NASA-related research and facilities, through which the faculty members can build relationships and gain valuable experience to further their professional research and teaching goals.

More importantly in Demoz' case, the NAFP also offers fellowships that allow NASA employees to teach or conduct research at minority institutions. Through those fellowships, the NASA employee gains valuable experience, and the institution benefits from the NASA employee’s knowledge.

"I think it gave me space and the time to incorporate what is close to my heart into my daily activities," Demoz said of the fellowship. "My NAFP fellowship has made me aware of a lot of the issues involved in the STEM research and education field. In addition, I had a lot of training that I attended."

One of the most memorable training sessions was on "radical leadership," he said. "I went into it with some doubt if it is going to be useful, but it has helped me a lot in my personal and professional life. I am aware of my surroundings and strive to put most of my feelings and attention where I consider are important issues."

Belay Demoz
With the fellowship, Demoz combined his two interests, remaining a NASA employee while spending a year as an adjunct professor at Howard University. In the summer of 2006, that relationship came full circle, when he was part of a Howard team supporting a NASA project.

Image to right: Belay Demoz said he was pleased with the results of the 2006 Aura validation project and his fellowship in NAFP. Credit: Belay Demoz

Demoz organized several scientists from UMBC, GSFC, and Howard, along with other universities and government agencies, to come together and submit a proposal to NASA to support validation work for the Aura satellite. Because the NOAA grant allowed Howard to build a state-of-the-art atmospheric observation site at Beltsville, Howard succeeded in receiving NASA funding to support NASA's Aura spacecraft. Launched in 2004, Aura is part of NASA's Earth Observing System, a program dedicated to monitoring the complex interactions that affect the globe. Aura researches the composition, chemistry and dynamics of the Earth's atmosphere, and studies the ozone, air quality and climate. That mission includes taking global measurements of pollution on a daily basis. To make these 400-mile-high readings as accurate as possible, data from the sophisticated Aura instruments must be compared to data from tried-and-true sensors on Earth.

Toward that end, the Howard University Research Campus, Beltsville, Md., hosted a six-week project in July and August 2006 to provide balloon and ground-truth data to help validate Aura’s measurements. The project brought together 22 students and 30 scientists in intensive, cutting-edge research collaboration and hands-on experimentation. The work has provided a wealth of new data that is being used for in-depth study of Aura and forms thesis work of several students. The project will be repeated in the summer of 2007.

Students from Smith College and Howard University prepare a weather balloon for launch
Image to left: Students from several universities worked together on the validation project. Credit: Belay Demoz

Demoz said that the validation project, named WAVES, was a success. "WAVES has been beyond my expectation," he said. "We have several groups holding periodic teleconferences now trying to figure out why the satellite and ground-based measurements differ. What instrument modifications are needed and how do we plan the next experiment? Discussions are underway to do WAVES kind of intercomparisons throughout the year at a low level of intensity. Several papers and conference presentations have detailed the results and are making an impact on the reputation of the Howard University Beltsville campus and the research that is carried out there.

"WAVES2006 allowed us to leverage diverse researchers and students," Demoz added. "Students from Howard University, an historically black university founded in 1867, and students from Pennsylvania State University, the University of Colorado, Trinity University in Washington, D.C., the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, were given a chance to interact and network with scientists from NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and many university professors. That was pretty special and unique to see happening at the Howard University Campus.

Related Resources
+ NASA Post-Graduate Opportunities

+ Earth Observing System Aura

+ Howard University -- Climate and Radiation Group

+ NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences

+ NASA Education Web Site
"Most important for me to see was, one, that the students were involved in leading-edge research, not just sitting in a classroom. I believe that science has to be useful for them to get excited. This is how we can get them into meteorology -- either it has to pay a lot, which it doesn't, or it has to be very exciting. By making it relevant, these guys get hooked.

"Two, working together made the students aware of each other's issues. They mentor and advise each other, and give each other rides to the site, eat together, help each other when in trouble. This kind of mingling breaks down a lot of biases and, I think, is a great way to learn and grow as a person."

Through the NASA Administrator's Fellowship Project, NASA continues the agency's tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. The project is directly tied the agency's major education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. Through this and the agency's other college and university efforts, NASA will identify and develop the critical skills and capabilities needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services