Soaring into Atmospheric Science

With increasing scientific evidence of a human impact on global climate change, and possibly on record hurricane seasons, atmospheric scientists--including those based at the NationalCenter for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)--have plenty of work to keep them busy. Sponsored mainly by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and located in Boulder, Colorado, NCAR is the nation's leading science facility dedicated to understanding the atmosphere and its interactions with the Sun, the oceans, and human society. NCAR's senior scientists, graduate students, postdocs, and technicians study a range of problems in atmospheric science, including global warming and severe weather.

That complex work requires a broadly trained staff that includes chemists, mathematicians, physicists, and engineers, in addition to the meteorologists traditionally associated with the field of atmospheric science. “Meteorology is still at the core of what we do, but the field today has become increasingly complex and interdisciplinary,” says Tim Killeen, Director of NCAR. “So while basic research is important, we also look at everything from computer modeling and pollution studies to analyzing societal impacts and benefits.”

Lifting Off

Created a little more than 45 years ago, NCAR is managed by the University Consortium of Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a nonprofit operating body of 69 North American universities that grant Ph.D.s in atmospheric and related sciences. Key research areas at NCAR include weather prediction and forecasting, severe-storm physics, pollution and air chemistry, global warming, interactions between the Sun and the Earth, and the impacts of weather on society including everything from agriculture to national security.

The work carried out by NCAR researchers requires access to powerful computers and sophisticated scientific equipment, and NCAR provides it. Technologies such as super computers and modeling software help visualize and elucidate atmospheric phenomena occurring on regional and global scales. Ground- and aircraft-mounted LIDAR--laser imaging detection and ranging--instruments reveal fine cloud particles and aerosols in the atmosphere.

The latest addition to NCAR is a new airborne research platform that will allow scientists to perform essential experiments that is only possible at very high-altitudes. The High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER, pictured above) is a modified jet aircraft that will carry investigators up to 51,000 feet in order to study the tropopause, the boundary region between the troposphere and stratosphere. Although most weather occurs in the lower troposphere, severe storm systems can penetrate up into the tropopause, where they can affect both atmospheric and oceanic currents over large regions. Built on contract by Gulfstream Aerospace, the jet is capable of traveling up to 6000 nautical miles and hauling 6000 pounds of scientific payload. NCAR scientists can now collect data form the very tops of hurricanes and thunderstorms at a level of detail that wasn't possible before.

Many of NCAR's facilities are available to the academic community at large. The Earth Observing Laboratory provides airborne and satellite-based research platforms. Nine research data centers house large collections of atmospheric and oceanographic data, while the Computational and Information Systems Laboratory supports high-end computing, data analysis, and data management--all available to university faculty. “We were running Hurricane Katrina simulations days ahead of the landfall--very accurate ones, and feeding the data into different areas of the government,” Killeen says.

Up and Away

NCAR is home to more than 950 permanent staff, including more than 120 "ladder-track" scientists. Based on the academic model, this tenuring program consists of Level 1 through 4 positions, where levels 1 and 2 are equivalent to an assistant professorship, and levels 3 and 4 cover the time frame of associate and full professorships, respectively.Transitioning from levels 1 to 2, says Killeen, is similar to what would be called a mid-term review for an assistant professor on a tenure track, while the transition to level 3 involves a tenure review similar to those taking place at universities. Level 1 and 2 positions are term appointments lasting 3 years each, but both are tenure-track equivalent. Scientists III and IV are positions without term and are considered tenured.

Who is moving into those positions? Over the last four decades, an average of 4 ladder-track positions have been filled each year, and the pace of hiring has accelerated recently. In the last 5 years, 35 people have been hired to tenure-track appointments, and 40 visiting scientists have signed up to work on contract. Killeen credits this growth to the rising awareness of environmental issues among the general public and the increasing interest in atmospheric science by corporations directly affected by weather and climate. “Many private-sector areas are keenly interested in global warming and climate change, so we’re seeing interest from the energy-utility [sectors], agricultural sectors, and transportation sectors,” he adds. “My own personal sense is that the future is extremely bright for talented young people coming into this field, and it’s only going to get more important as time goes on. It’s not only the research but also the multidisciplinary applications of the research at the local, national, and international levels, as well as in the private sector,” says Killeen.

Taking Flight

Currently, NCAR is home to more than 200 Ph.D. students and 40 postdoctoral fellows. Half those postdocs are participants in NCAR's Advanced Studies fellowship program (ASP), which lasts 2 years and pays a stipend of $47,000 the first year and $49 000 the second year. “That’s just for the salary; NCAR also pays full benefits, including medical and dental insurance,” adds Maura Hagan, ASP Program Director. The fellows have a separate $1500 budget for relocation and travel, and additional funds for professional expenses are available through internal competitions.

In addition to the decent pay, NCAR postdocs enjoy the freedom to pursue any scientific problem they take an interest in. There is no supervisor telling them what they should and shouldn't be working on. “This is quite unique for fellows, and it’s one of the strongest points of our program,” says Hagan.

This freedom can be overwhelming for some, so there is a failsafe built in to the system. Within the first few months of a fellow's arrival, a research-planning meeting is held involving the fellow, the ASP director, and specialized staff scientists. A year later, a follow-up meeting is held to check the fellow's progress. At that meeting, the original plan may be reworked, depending on how the science is progressing. “That whole structure is really quite unique, and it fosters significant career development because they’re really learning how to be independent,” says Hagan

Fast Facts on NCAR’s ASP Postdoc Fellowship

Courtesy of NCAR

Research: Research at NCAR includes studies of atmospheric dynamics (on all scales), climate science, cloud physics, atmospheric chemistry and radiation, turbulence, upper-atmosphere physics (including ionosphere studies and aeronomy), solar physics, oceanography, and societal impacts related to these scientific areas. NCAR has related programs in atmospheric technology, computational science, and applied mathematics. The NCAR program also includes studies of the interaction of the atmosphere with the oceans, the cryosphere, the Earth's surface, and human society.

Qualifications: An applicant must have a Ph.D. or Sc.D. degree granted during the 4 years preceding the application date or must be able to complete such a degree and finish all thesis revisions and defense before starting the NCAR appointment. There are no special restrictions for foreign applicants.

Appointment Details: Although the number of new appointments varies annually, seven new positions will be available this year. Appointments are for a maximum of 2 years. Most fellows begin their appointments between June and October, but earlier or later arrivals can usually be accommodated. Applicants expecting to start later than January 2007 should apply to the 2007 competition. Visit the ASP Web page for detailed instructions.

Application Deadline: January 6, 2006


Christiane Jablonowski (pictured below), an ASP fellow in the final months of her postdoc, believes that the NCAR program has prepared her well. Being able to select her line of research--she chose to work on improving climate modeling--and formulating a research plan herself has been important in her growth as an independent researcher.

Throughout her fellowship, Jablonowski feels, she has had great opportunities to broaden her perspectives on research and discover new ideas in her field. “We get the big picture here since we have so many disciplines in house,” she says. “Whenever you have a question, you can go and see people in chemistry, physics, or mathematics, and they’re usually very open to this.” But while atmospheric science is indeed multidisciplinary, it is important, Jablonowski says, to have a strong home discipline and not try to be a part-time specialist in many different fields. “It’s very fashionable to say that you do very good interdisciplinary work, but it does you no good if you don’t have a very good foundation.”

Jablonowski’s time at Boulder has focused her research and helped her figure out where she can make a contribution. She is looking forward to starting a new position as assistant professor at the University of Michigan next September.

For David Baker, a former ASP fellow who has gone on to become a Visiting Scientist at NCAR, the program provided key career-survival skills. For him, the flexibility of collaborating with different research teams prepared him for many aspects of his work, but especially for grant writing and the world of competitive funding. While in the final months of his postdoc, Baker wrote a proposal that was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Three years later, that grant continues to support him in his current position, from which he develops software to model global carbon cycles. “Without such collaborative projects to work on, I think it would have been quite difficult to proceed to the next step of developing an on-going research program,” he says. Although he is still looking for a tenure-track position, he has seen many of his postdoc colleagues go on to permanent jobs, including jobs at NCAR.

What’s his advice for others looking for a career at NCAR? Be realistic in planning research projects and choose something that can be published quickly. “Our advancement really is dictated by our publication record, and, as this often ends up being as much a matter of quantity as quality, it really is important to break one's research up into nicely publishable bits.” Be aware of all the sub-fields NCAR has specialized in and where they are getting constant funding. (Both Killeen and Hagan pointed to solar physics and space weather as up-and-coming fields.) Otherwise, he says, chances of being hired to a tenure-track position are likely to be slim.

Leading Edge

Base funding for NCAR--from NSF --is $80 million per year, but is augmented by NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration, so that NCAR's funding reaches $120 million annually. Federal support for NCAR has declined in 2004 by 2%, but this decline has been offset by growth in other funding areas and is expected to do the same in 2006. “Each year we do a detailed priority-driven budget analysis and tune the program accordingly, always paying close attention to the NSF merit review criteria and our basic mission,” Killeen says, “So, while the upward curve has flattened, it has not turned downward.”

Killeen does admit that there is a perceptible decline in government work in atmospheric sciences in the last few years, but he sees more and more job opportunities beginning to appear in academia and the private sector. Still, plenty of good opportunities remain at NCAR and other government facilities and--given the importance of this science to humanity--opportunities are likely to remain at least stable in the coming years.

“I think that this makes it at least as important as the life sciences; it’s interdisciplinary, it’s challenging, and it’s global in scope and nature,” he says. “We are on the leading edge of something that’s going to grow in importance in this century.”

Go online for more information on NCAR’s research and their Advanced Study Program.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at .

Images courtesy of NCAR/UCAR

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