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Earth Science Week 2012
Earth Science Week Blog
Discovering Earth Science
Undergraduate Alex Popinga gets first-hand experience with the Student Airborne Research Program
October 12, 2012
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Alex Popinga
Alex Popinga stands in front of a NASA airplane. Credit: Alex Popinga.

My story
As a young child I didn’t have much interest in science. I simply didn’t understand what science truly is: it is more than a collection of facts to be memorized for exams; there is room for creativity and a feeling of adventure and adrenaline when discovering something new. Over time, I realized conducting science is crucial to the future of the Earth and therefore our own survival.

I learned that not all of science means sitting in a laboratory behind beakers, performing experiments and drawing conclusions from the results. This skewed view is what many students learn at school, where they are forced to memorize the infamous “Scientific Method” and repeat it for tests. In my case, it wasn’t until I reached college that I learned differently. I discovered it was more dynamic -- there isn't just one scientific method.

A way of thinking
The inherent beauty of science hooked me on research. Once I had a taste of it, I couldn’t get enough: I started doing research in evolutionary biology at my university, the University of Northern Iowa. Later I travelled to France and Taiwan through UNI’s study abroad office to conduct research in organic chemistry at L'École Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Rennes, and in neuroscience at National Chengchi University in Taipei. I also began reading books and journal articles from many different scientific fields as much as my free time would allow.

Earth Science
My first encounter with Earth Science came from reading the works of Dr. Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist, cosmologist, and science enthusiast,. Sagan is perhaps best known for his TV series Cosmos and book-turned-movie Contact, but he also wrote about other things, like the origin of life, evolution, and the perils of polluting our atmosphere. He talked about chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty purposed to phase out the use of harmful substances that damage our ozone layer. My interest in atmospheric science was sparked. Like all Earth sciences, atmospheric science is not only intrinsically interesting, but it is significance to the entire human race and impacts legislation.

The Earth system is very dynamic and complex, which makes it tricky to understand. There are many components to it – such as the atmosphere, the biosphere, the hydrosphere and more – and each of these hold their own challenges in studying them.

The NASA Earth Science Division takes on these challenges in their research of the Earth system. While NASA may be better known for its space program among the general public, it is a leading contributor to the study of Earth science and offers unparalleled and exciting opportunities for scientists who study Earth systems.

When I heard about the summer internship with the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP), I applied quickly. My undergraduate university is fairly small, and this internship allowed me a research opportunity I would not otherwise have had.

NASA airplane

When I arrived for the internship in June 2012, I had studied basic chemistry but was unfamiliar with atmospheric science. I was nervous initially, but there were interesting papers to read and a series of lectures and great instruction from the scientists brought in to advise us. I walked away from each day of lectures more confident in my knowledge of the atmosphere and in my ability to take on a project that would help fellow scientists and perhaps, eventually, people in general.

One of the airplanes Alex and other SARP interns flew on. Credit: Alex Popinga.

The cooperative nature of science was especially apparent during SARP. The interns were a diverse group, specializing in mathematics and physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and more. We helped one another, strengthening each other's weaknesses and contributing different ways to approach a problem in group discussions.

Alex Popinga outside

The students' camaraderie over the summer reflected the way Earth scientists collaborate in the field. Occasionally during lectures, senior scientists who worked together would interrupt their own – or sometimes, each other's – lectures to share a campaign story or to correct their colleagues on the date a story occurred. These scientists know each other and meet often to collect and interpret data.

Earth science is cool, and we're living in a time where being a part of these undertakings is both a lot of fun and urgently needed. What we choose to do with our time and resources in upcoming years could prove pivotal, and it will take some inquiring and dedicated minds to keep us all afloat!

Alex Popinga makes measurements outside. Credit: Alex Popinga

Post by Alex Popinga, an undergraduate student at University of Northern Iowa

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Earth Science Week 2012
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