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A Happy Accident
Graduate Student Adelaide Clark reflects on her path into science.
October 18, 2012
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7:59 PST
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Adelaide Clark stands in front of the NRAO Radio telescope in Green Bank, WV on a Governor’s School Field Trip, Summer 2006. Credit: Abby Peltier.
Adelaide Clark stands in front of the NRAO Radio telescope in Green Bank, WV on a Governor’s School Field Trip, Summer 2006. Credit: Abby Peltier.
For me, a career in atmospheric sciences happened by happy accident. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in math and science, but two noteworthy high school experiences really influenced my decision to become a scientist. Chemistry class my junior year was the first. In it, I experienced the happy marriage of science and math. My chemistry teacher, Sarah Sawyers, was so enthusiastic. While she made chemistry fun and interesting, and also inspired me to become a chemist, she did more than that: she made me want to pass on my passion for chemistry and to inspire others. My second experience was the Governor’s School for Math, Science and Technology summer program after my junior year at Lynchburg College in Virginia. There, I took a course called “Settling the Solar System,” which involved planning comprehensive missions to Mars and Titan. Our plans entailed everything from the budget to all aspects of living on another planet’s surface. Together, these events influenced my decision to attend Emory & Henry (E&H ) College in Emory, VA as a Chemistry Education major.

Adelaide Clark works in the lab at the University of Arkansas, Summer 2010. Photo Credit: Suzi Gordon.
Adelaide Clark works in the lab at the University of Arkansas, Summer 2010. Photo Credit: Suzi Gordon.
I participated in undergraduate research programs at my college and others , where I worked on two very different projects. At E&H, I participated in research with Dr. Laura Hainsworth on the restoration of the American chestnut tree. It was a project that I found fascinating but also had an important impact (more on that in a minute). I also took part in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of Arkansas’ Center for Space and Planetary Sciences. There, I did Earth-based geochemistry, which, while interesting, was not something that sparked a passion in my heart like the chestnut project had. I loved using the analytical instrumentation on that project and employing analytical techniques to analyze data. After these two research experiences, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry at Baylor University.

Adelaide Clark helps repair an instrument on the P-3B. Photo Credit: Chris Foster.
Adelaide Clark helps repair an instrument on the P-3B. Photo Credit: Chris Foster.
At Baylor University, I joined Dr. Sascha Usenko’s Environmental and Analytical Chemistry research group. Currently, I’m studying contaminants in the atmosphere. At Dr. Usenko’s suggestion, I applied to and was accepted to be a part of the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) in the summer of 2012. Like so many of the other wonderful opportunities before I’ve had, this research program has also influenced the direction of my life. Seeing a research project from conception to final presentation was a rewarding experience. Collecting the data in real-time aboard the P-3B Orion Aircraft was an incredible experience that I hope to repeat one day. As an undergraduate student, I was going to be a public school teacher; as a graduate, a professor. SARP led me to another path, one where I could start my career in airborne sciences research then could go on to become a professor when I am ready. My experiences have showed me how many career options are available.

I say that my career in atmospheric sciences was an “accident,” but that’s not completely true. Together, the events have defined my life, but I did not consciously make any single decision to put me on this path. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be an atmospheric scientist. As a matter of fact, I woke up every day for the majority of my high school career with a different path for my life in mind. It’s important not to limit yourself. Consider all your options and take the ones that excite your soul (and terrify you a little bit). You never know where you’ll end up.

Post by Adelaide Clark, graduate student at Baylor University.

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