UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During a summer research experience, something stood out as Alisha Wellington began contrasting forecasts with field observations for Hurricane Fred, which hit the African island nation of Cape Verde in 2015.
The forecast downplayed the pressure, wind speed and shape when contrasted with the limited observational data points. Worse, the trajectory of the storm was off.
Improving hurricane forecasting for areas like Cape Verde — which lack the resources for extensive observational data — is a focus for Wellington, a senior majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science at Penn State. She was one of 14 undergraduate students from across the country taking part in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program in Climate Science, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
It’s research that hits close to home for Wellington, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica.
“I have been able to experience firsthand how detrimental hurricanes can be,” Wellington said. “Often, many communities aren’t able to properly prepare for hurricanes because they have little information surrounding the intensity of the hurricanes and the possible impacts they may have. My cultural background has made me even more interested and invested in tropical meteorology because to me research isn’t just about learning. It’s about helping various communities around the world affected by hurricanes, especially my own people in the Caribbean.”
REU students conduct climate-science research under the mentorship of faculty, post-doctoral scholars and graduate students. This year, mentors from nine departments in four colleges participated, making this summer’s program the most interdisciplinary since its inception in 2013. Another unique aspect of this year’s program was that it was held completely virtually.
Raymond Najjar and Gregory Jenkins, professors in meteorology and atmospheric science, co-direct the program, which was initiated by colleagues Jose Fuentes and Jon Nese.
“Our goal is to give students an immersive research experience that allows them to learn about cutting-edge issues in climate science and a sense for what graduate school is like,” Najjar said.
This year, students explored topics such as urban flooding, improving estimates of water use and COVID-19’s effects on carbon dioxide emissions.
“We felt that COVID-19 and the racial justice protests across the country were teachable moments, so we highlighted the strong relationships between climate, human health and environmental justice in our programming,” Jenkins said.
For Paige Elliott, who is double majoring in meteorology and actuarial science at Central Michigan University, the REU was her first research experience. Because she’s interested in becoming an actuary, she approached climate change research from a risk-management perspective.
She assessed weather’s impact on apple bloom dates because she was interested in determining and perhaps preventing decreased apple yields.
“The REU taught me the research process and helped guide the direction of my research,” Elliott said. “I was able to gather clear results that can model bloom dates and prepare farmers for the impending challenges of climate change.”
For University of Alabama Birmingham student Juan Pablo Speer, it was a chance to apply his background in physics and math to climate change, a topic he’s passionate about.
His research group used machine learning to predict how concentrations of dissolved silica varied in about 300 watershed sites across the United States using 17 environmental predictors. Dissolved silica concentrations are important to understanding the effects of climate change because silica is the main source of food for phytoplankton, which produces half of the oxygen in our atmosphere and is the base for all oceanic food webs. Changing weather patterns lead to changing silica concentrations.
The group’s model correctly predicted the silica values of around 60 percent of tested sites. Speer noted that some of the environmental predictors contained redundancies, leading to weaker correlations, but his group — led by Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering Li Li — is looking at spotting and removing these redundancies.
The chance to work with Penn State researchers — and be a part of the scientific process — is what drove Speer to participate in the REU.
“The REU allows students to work alongside professors who are highly qualified in their respective fields,” Speer said. “The many methods that these researchers use to conduct their work is fascinating to me. The REU also pools participants into a group of their peers from all across the country. The back and forth of past experiences, opinions and new lessons is wonderful to be a part of as we all work toward the same goal.”
Though they were pleased with how the virtual program ran this summer, Najjar and Jenkins said they hope it can run in-person in 2021.
“Although we think of the researcher as someone toiling away alone in their lab, science is a profoundly social and collaborative endeavor, best accomplished when we are in the same room together, sharing ideas,” Najjar said.