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Unlikely Chemical Engineer
Crae Sosa was not the biggest fan of chemistry in high school, but his love of science and mathematics led him to study chemical engineering in college. After his two NASA-sponsored internships and a scholarship presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, he is confident he made the right choice.

In which NASA student opportunity projects did you participate, and how did you get involved in them?

Leonard Druyan and Crae Sosa sitting at a desk with a computer

Leonard Druyan (left) and Crae Sosa (right) review and discuss an article on Sahelian rainfall. Image Credit: Crae Sosa

I participated in the NASA NYCRI (New York City Research Initiative) Goddard Institute for Space Studies program in New York City. I became involved with NYCRI after learning about it from Otto Marte, the director of the STEM Institute at the City College of New York. The STEM Institute offers high school students the ability to take math and science classes over the summer and receive either high school or college credit.

I was motivated to take these difficult courses over my summers because, since I was a kid, I always have been genuinely interested in math and science. At the same time, I wanted to somehow merge those interests with other passions of mine, matters related to the environment. I thought if I could combine these two passions, I would pursue whatever area allowed me to do so. When I learned that the NASA program was accepting applications for a summer internship, I immediately applied and was absolutely elated when I was accepted. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, or GISS, is one of the smaller NASA branches and has a keen focus on environmental issues, particularly climate change, which is exactly what I am interested in.

Explain the research you conducted through NASA and why this topic is important.

A lot of people get the impression that NASA is all about spaceships and outer-space exploration, but my research was not. NASA GISS is focused primarily on issues that concern our planet directly. So my first research project was a study of air pollution. I worked with Dr. Barry Gross in the electrical engineering department at the City College of New York. We worked on verifying Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality data. The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality project is coordinated through the Community Modeling and Analysis System Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality is an active open-source project developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that consists of an ensemble of programs for conducting air-quality model simulations. Our primary focus was to use instruments at City College to retrieve data and create new models that would be tested against those of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality. Some of these machines included the Light Detection and Ranging Machine at City College. My research was important because it's crucial not only to understand the effects of air pollution and air quality but also to be able to hone in on where air pollution poses the most significant risk to people, and perhaps later down the line, to propose a method for remediation.

For my second research project, I worked with Dr. Leonard Druyan, a senior research scientist and the director of the Center for Climate Systems Research of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, at NASA’s NASA GISS between the summers of 2010-11. Our project involved analyzing monsoon/rainfall trends over the southwestern portion of Sub-Saharan Africa, also known as the Sahel Region.

The West African monsoon is a climate system that affects the Sahel region of West Africa. The Sahel consists primarily of grassland and is located directly south of the Sahara Desert. The monsoon rainfall, which sustains this band of vegetation, follows a cyclic pattern. The rainfall shifts northward to reach the Sahel during June to September and then retreats to the south. The region is dependent on the monsoon rainy season for its water needs. When the season is shorter than normal or beset by light rainfall, severe droughts and famine can occur, such as in 2005 and 2010. Because of the large interannual variability of Sahel rainfall, improving climate models so that they could predict rainfall trends in the near and distant future would be extremely beneficial. This capability would help the inhabitants of the region plan for adverse climate impacts.

The Regional Model, or RM3, developed at GISS produces climate data for the area of interest. Once the data from the model is retrieved, the results are compared to several sources of actual (observed) data. These validations evaluate the regional model's effectiveness and clarify its use for predicting future trends in African rainfall and future frequencies of drought. The RM3 simulations are compared to monthly precipitation averages calculated and graphed from CMAP (Climate Prediction Center Merged Analysis of Precipitation) developed by NOAA's Earth Systems Research Laboratory. The center provides an ensemble of different data sources including satellite, radar, and ground-based observational measurements. The RM3 is being validated against these regional data sets from simulations covering 1989-2007, as data become available. The model also is being validated for daily weather forecasting by comparing its daily output to precipitation and surface air temperature measurements from 51 weather stations in Africa north of the equator.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

These internships have had a profound effect on me. They have motivated me to develop a strong foundation for creating mathematical models to help solve the most critical problems in areas such as climate change, air pollution and mitigation. I take humble pride in all of the projects I have done thus far, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working on them. My mentors were very helpful and encouraging with materials that were at times very difficult to understand. The skills that I acquired by working with Dr. Gross at the City College of New York and from Dr. Druyan at GISS in the areas of air quality, air pollution, global warming, remote sensing, satellites and atmospheric composition have been absolutely invaluable.

What is your educational background, and what are your future educational plans?

I went to Bard High School Early College in New York City. The Manhattan Branch is geared towards liberal arts, and I wanted to be liberated from the arts. This concern soon became a moot point as the math and science instruction I received there was another important starting point for me in identifying my interests and a possible future career. My physics and math teacher served as my inspiration to continue in a career within math and science. I loved being challenged in school, and I remember that going to each of those classes was one of the highlights of my day. Through the support and excellent instruction and education I received at Bard, I was able to take two years of college credit, much of which transferred to my next college. I received an associate degree in the arts from Bard in the spring of 2009.

I then moved on to attend CUNY -- City College of New York -- to pursue a degree in chemical engineering. Interestingly, in high school, chemistry really wasn't my thing. I was the kid that broke the lab equipment and ruined the experiment for everyone. I enjoyed chemistry, but I felt as though something was missing. My mind always had been mathematically oriented, and the fact that this was lacking within the chemistry classes I took in high school discouraged me from pursuing a career in the field. Luckily, after some extensive research and talking to friends, family and teachers, I kept returning to the idea of possibly pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. At first I was a bit hesitant, but I wanted to explore that mathematical area of chemistry that I hadn't before. I am now a junior studying chemical engineering, and all of the classes that I have taken to date have combined these two fields to form something that I absolutely love. Chemical engineering was the furthest thing from my mind when I was in high school. I'm so thankful to Bard because without the guidance and instruction I received from my teachers and friends there, I might have ended up doing something completely different. And I know that I probably would not have enjoyed it as much as what I'm doing now.

I am currently attending the City College of New York, where I have begun to narrow down my focus to a possible career in the environmental sciences. I have been afforded great instruction so far that has begun to facilitate this goal at (the) STEM (Institute); my high school, Bard High School Early College; and City College. I want to pursue a graduate education. While I'm not entirely sure in what field, I know that it will be within the environmental sciences.

What inspired you to choose your education/career field?

Many people don't really see a connection between my research, which has always revolved around the environmental sciences, and chemical engineering. Chemical engineering has more to do with processes and how we produce something useful from materials that aren't as functional, or in other words, how we go from state 1 to state 2. To me, seemingly everything I have worked on, whether it's air pollution or looking at Sahel Rainfall, is directly or indirectly connected to the effects of an environmental concern -- more specifically, global warming. A degree in chemical engineering will equip me to examine the characteristics of climate and air quality variables through areas like material balances, transport phenomena, and environmental remediation classes. A degree in chemical engineering also will give me the opportunity to study the chemical composition of potentially harmful pollutants that have been released into the atmosphere and methods for remediation. In other words, I want to understand how we go from state 2, back to state 1. I want to know; I want to understand; and most importantly, I want to be involved in the latest problems we face -- not only as an engineer, scientist or environmentalist, but as a citizen of this nation.

What do you think will be the most important things you’ll take away from your experiences with NASA?

Working at NASA has really given me a sense of what it means to be a NASA scientist. One of the things you learn at any NASA facility is that you seldom work alone; every project is a team-based effort. Your mentor is always there to help you, whether it's regarding something trivial or a breakthrough idea. Being a part of NASA also has helped me develop my computer programming skills. Before I came to NASA, I was a computer programming novice. I can say confidently now that my skills have drastically improved, especially with MATLAB, a coding language that serves as an essential tool for most engineers. I like to constantly learn and improve my abilities in programming by thinking of an issue as an algorithm and then breaking it down and improving it. I think that in a research setting nothing is more important than being able to first understand the issue physically; next, being able to analyze the issue mathematically; and then recreating it virtually through a coding environment.

Tell about the scholarship that you received and how it will affect your future.

I received the NOAA Ernest Hollings Scholarship in spring 2011. The scholarship provides academic assistance during junior and senior years of college, as well as a 10-week, full-time internship position during the summer at a NOAA facility. This scholarship will not only allow me to attend City College at no cost but will help me to continue on the pipeline for a possible future career in the NASA/NOAA fields. During the paid internship over summer 2012, I will be able to conduct hands-on research with a NOAA or NOAA-affiliated scientist and continue to work on similar research within areas that I focused on at GISS. The NOAA Hollings scholarship will be an invaluable resource in that it will help me to develop networks and connections with many of the research scientists currently working in the fields that I am interested in.

What are your future career plans?

I have not decided on anything specific for graduate school or for a career, but I know that my decision will be in environmental sciences. I know that NASA has and will continue to help me realize these goals. The desire I share with scientists and engineers is the idea that we can and must continue to develop as a nation through crucial fields like chemical engineering, but we must do so in a responsible manner. I want to find out not only the consequences of our actions, but how can we change the status quo. To make this into a career is a goal that I've had for my entire life, and it's a goal that was started by organizations like NASA, whose mission as an international leader on scientific and environmental matters has placed the organization at the center of any and every environmental problem.

What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?

The fields of math and science often seem really hard and daunting. They seem to be areas that require a load of responsibility. They do. But don't let that discourage you, because through programs like NYCRI you will get all of the help and support you need to overcome oftentimes overwhelming tasks. Once you achieve something meaningful, whether it's a problem in a math or physics class, or the answer to sustaining nuclear fusion, with it comes an enormous sense of pride and fulfillment. But remember, if you're still in high school, for now just be interested, participate in a summer program, get involved in science fairs, join a science(-related) organization.

Another piece of advice: I didn't like chemistry -- now I'm a chemical engineer and I love it. My second point is that in high school, and for that matter as an undergraduate, you don't necessarily need to know what you want to do. Remember that everything you succeed at, and everything you fail to do, is a variable that narrows down your focus to what will ultimately become what you're going to do, and what you're going to love doing.

Related Resources:
› NASA New York City Research Initiative   →
› NASA Education
› NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship Program   →

Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services