A pristine snowscape, dazzling and delicate, untouched by mankind but for a variety of meteorological instruments peppering the forest floor, the periodic thunk-thunk of a woodpecker the only sound wafting through the still air. I studied with renowned professor Kenneth Davis ‘87 at the Pennsylvania State University Department of Meteorology, and as no experience in the natural sciences would be complete without fieldwork, I found myself spending part of my time during my Princeternship on-site, admiring the beauty of the natural world that climate and environmental scientists seek to preserve while gaining valuable hands-on experience and getting a taste of conducting research in the world of academia.
I’d like to preface my account by noting that unlike the majority of Princeternships, the one I participated in took place in academia. Furthermore, the term “meteorology” often evokes misconceptions of weather forecasters and little more; in reality, the department featured the gamut of researchers who study the natural world: climate scientists, oceanographers, boundary layer and uncertainty researchers, and even some who study the philosophy and ethics of climate change research. The field is a diverse one, and anyone with any level of interest in this general direction would be well served to partake in this amazing experience.
Our time at Penn State was brief but fruitful, informative, inspiring, and most of all, very busy. The entire department was friendly and approachable, and went out of their way to talk with us, describe their research, and share with us their experiences in academia. The first day began with a visit to the department’s weather central, an awe-inspiring room featuring a checkerboard of monitors that spanned one entire wall with shifting displays, at times depicting a map of the entire world with temperatures in the major cities, at times shifting to a view of the continental U.S. and the various fronts sweeping across the country, and even once displaying a magnified view of the sun.
Afterwards, we talked with a number of Professor Davis’ colleagues and research team members. Our conversations ranged from topics such as the experience of conducting research to one of the professors’ own research studying the long-term variability of temperature data. In short, temperatures can fluctuate wildly in a small area for a short period of time—say, a day of 20 below in Princeton—yet all these localized fluctuations always cancel each other out in the long term.
In addition, we learned about the dynamic between conducting research and presenting it to the general populace through the media, and the challenges in this regard, the lifestyle of a grad student and what it takes to continue research in academia, the ever-present uncertainty and how we deal with it in climate models, the nature of hurricanes and how some can brave the colder waters in the north Atlantic and batter the east coast while many others dissipate, among many other things. We also attended a cloud physics class and listened to a talk by renowned professor Michael Mann, a central figure in “Climategate.”
The second day, we went out to a field site, an amazing and inspiring experience that above all really illuminated our reasons for studying the climate and environment: to preserve the beauty of the natural world we sometimes take for granted. Furthermore, we also sat in on a graduate student’s thesis research discussion with Professor Davis, which revealed more about a grad student’s lifestyle, as well as participated in a research team weekly meeting with the professor, during which we observed the dynamic between a professor and the different grad students as a cohesive unit and understood more about how the different roles fit together.
All in all, this was an amazing and worthwhile experience. I can say with certainty that it has given me a greater awareness of the consequences my actions may have on the environment around me and has made me more ecologically conscious. I would highly recommend it to everyone.