||By Brandi Bernoskie,
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Most people would rather have their feet on the ground rather than their head in the clouds. But for Ali Omar, having his head in the clouds has lead to an interesting career as an atmospheric scientist. Omar often spent time watching airplanes take off and land when he was a teenager, since his high school was close to the airport. He had always been interested in mathematics and considered becoming a pilot. "My mother thought it would be too dangerous," Omar reminisces. "So I decided I would learn how to design and build airplane engines."
Omar learned how to build those engines as an aeronautical engineering major in college. However, he took a variety of science courses, one in which he learned about the effects that gases from combustion engines had on the atmosphere. The topic led Omar to become interested in environmental and atmospheric sciences. He still wanted to design aircraft engines so he continued the path he was on, getting a master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a PhD in Civil Engineering.
During his time as a post-doctoral researcher, Omar's path took an unexpected turn. He began working on NASA's LITE mission, short for Lidar In-Space Technology Experiment, at the University of Illinois. The project required Omar to have his head in the clouds but in a new way. LITE was the first NASA experiment meant to improve understanding of air quality and climate from space using lidar. It used pulses from a laser in space to investigate properties of clouds and small particles called aerosols in Earth's atmosphere. Scientists used LITE data to create the first detailed views of the vertical structure of cloud and aerosols between the Earth's surface and the middle stratosphere.
Ali Omar (right) and Travis Knepp (left) work together to repair an instrument. Credit: NASA
Omar is now an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He has continued his work on air quality and climate as part of a team interpreting measurements from CALIPSO, LITE's successor. CALIPSO, an acronym for Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, uses the same laser technology LITE did to map the vertical structure and distribution of clouds and aerosols around the world. The CALIPSO team is working to distinguish different types of aerosols like dust, smoke, and pollution in the atmosphere. Omar is also an Associate Program Manager at NASA Headquarters, tracking projects in the Air Quality Applications area and overseeing progress to apply Earth science products in decision-making activities.
Omar enjoys that the work he does can make a difference. "Measurements of particle distributions, concentrations, and types from space have applications in air quality monitoring and forecasting," Omar notes. "In the long run, we hope our data reduces mortality from respiratory diseases and improves the quality of life and the ability to predict weather and climate change."
While Omar loved getting lost in the clouds when he was young, he is happy that his work keeps him grounded with its important applications. "I am glad I did not pursue a career in aviation because I really enjoy my work as an atmospheric scientist," Omar says. He suggests young students to be open to careers outside their college major fields. "Do not get defined by labels such as majors, grade point averages, or what you think are your interests," Omar advises, and recommends that students work hard in all their classes so they are prepared for any exciting turns their path may take, whether it keeps their heads in the clouds or plants their feet on the earth.