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Working With NASA to Benefit Society
A red and white weather balloon being deflated by people in a meadow

During a NASA P3-B Orion fly-over of the Howard Beltsville site, the sensor payload on a balloon supplied ozone, nitric oxide, temperature, relative humidity and aerosol concentrations. Image Credit: Howard University

Howard University in Washington, D.C., is home to the Beltsville Center for Climate System Observation. BCCSO was established at Howard University through a cooperative agreement with NASA as a part of NASA’s University Research Centers project. The URC project is designed to achieve broad-based, competitive research capabilities at some of the nation’s minority institutions. Howard University, a Historically Black College and University, was awarded the URC designation in 2008.

The university and NASA established BCCSO to promote research and education in the study of atmospheric sciences. The research and training at the Beltsville Center specifically addresses questions posed by NASA regarding atmospheric science. Those questions are:
  1. How is the global Earth system changing?
  2. What are the primary causes of change in the Earth system?
  3. How does the Earth system respond to natural and human-induced changes?
  4. What are the consequences for human civilization?
  5. How will the Earth system change in the future?
Studies to improve the ability of satellite measurements to more precisely quantify the effects of pollution on weather and climate is a specific example of BCCSO research to address question two above. At Howard, the students studying at BCCSO have access to the university's talented faculty in the departments of atmospheric science, physics, chemistry and engineering. The center works closely with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Sciences Division, government laboratories, private sector partners and two academic institutions -- The Pennsylvania State University and The Research Foundation for The State University of New York, University at Albany.

The result of the collaboration between Howard University and NASA has had a resounding impact on both the university and the students attending the graduate program in atmospheric science. Likewise, NASA has benefited from the work being done by BCCSO. The work at the facility directly correlates to NASA's missions within the Earth science division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Much of the work performed by Howard's NASA URC students involves field work where ground data is taken, calibrated and then sent to NASA. This data is compared against the data NASA receives from satellites in orbit over Earth. It allows NASA to determine if the data and readings from the satellites are accurate, assuring NASA researchers that the information they are gathering and reporting on has been verified. Additionally, BCCSO students are engaged in more fundamental research such as developing new remote-sensing technology methods based on lasers that will enable NASA and other atmospheric scientists to more accurately probe the composition of the atmosphere as it relates to climate and weather processes.

Students walk along a concrete path in the middle of a field with a large weather balloon

Students at Howard University are involved in field work where ground data is taken, calibrated and then sent to NASA. Image Credit: Howard University

Working on NASA missions benefits the students by preparing them for real life work, plus their participation gives them access to some of the brightest and most dedicated scientists in the field. Students who are involved in the research being done at BCCSO in turn produce a well-qualified, diverse workforce in a field that's typically underrepresented by minority graduates. Having NASA involved in their atmospheric science graduate and postgraduate fields at Howard has allowed the school to recruit outstanding students who originally might have attended other schools. Says Dr. Everette Joseph, Director and Principal Investigator at Howard, "Having NASA ... at Howard allows the university to bring in some of the top students from underserved and underrepresented areas, and provide them with access to top facilities and mentors from within NASA and the world."

As a result of the program and other efforts, Howard University has helped to increase the U.S. graduation rate of African-American doctoral students in atmospheric science. The Howard University URC NASA grant program manager, Katherine Cooke Mundle, states, "The support from the University is outstanding, as we work to create leaders in underrepresented groups and create the next generation of scientists. Our program is aligned with Howard's goal of creating leaders for America and the global community." Students have access to sophisticated resources not always available at college campuses. Students can enjoy mentoring by not only the professors at Howard University, but also by their NASA Technical Review Committee members they often work with so closely. Graduate student Monique Walker says of the mentoring she's received from NASA, "It better prepares me for what I should expect when I leave Howard and enter the professional world. They're very direct and will let me know if I'm right or wrong. It's good for me because I make sure to check my work so that I put out scientific papers where the data is solid." Monique has benefitted in that she's had the experience of co-authoring papers and participating in field campaigns along with the NASA team (Atmospheric Laboratory Validation Interagency Collaboration and Education -- ALVICE), of which she is a part.

Dr. Belay Demoz is at Howard's NASA University Research Center but was formerly a NASA Administrator's Fellowship Project recipient. While working at NASA, Demoz began teaching at Howard and eventually went full time. Of Howard's collaboration with NASA, Demoz says, "It's a great thrill for the students. It gives the students an idea of what work will be like when they graduate. They come out having a good networking ability. Students get to work on cutting-edge research, which builds their confidence and helps them to attain gainful employment."

Dr. Demetrius Venable, the Howard University URC Deputy Director and a co-principal investigator, believes that Howard's affiliation with NASA is helping to draw students to BCCSO. "Howard has a reputation for producing Ph.D.-level underrepresented minority students in atmospheric science and has significantly changed the number of Ph.D.'s in the field over the last 10 years." He knows that the staff is highly dedicated, to both the students and the project itself, and that the work they are doing not only benefits NASA by providing a more qualified workforce, but also society by graduating such high-caliber students who will work in a field so critically important to everyone.

Related Resources
› NASA's University Research Centers
› Howard University BCCSO
› Don't Quit Your Day Job

Heather Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services