By Published: Aug. 16, 2022

Undergrad students from minority-serving institutions get hands-on research experience and mentoring from faculty and grad students

Eight students from minority-serving institutions got two months of hands-on research experience with faculty and graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder this summer, thanks to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC).

Julie K. Lundquist, associate professor in ATOC and fellow in CU Boulder’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, said the experience, which ran from May 26 through July 29, aimed to create “a meaningful, supportive, and inclusive research community” where students learn what it means to be a scientist by conducting research in atmospheric, oceanic and cryospheric science.  

“The ATOC REU provides research and educational opportunities for undergraduate students historically excluded from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Lundquist said. “Professional scientists—faculty and graduate students—serve as mentors who help students develop crucial skills like computer programming, data analysis and scientific communication so the REU students can envision possible careers as professional scientists."

2022 ATOC REU students at their poster session

At the top of the page: ATOC 2022 REU students, grad students and Sara Sanchez join Vaisala's Chris Vagasky to learn about career options in atmospheric science and launch a weather balloon from Vaisala's offices in Louisville, Colorado (photo by Chris Vagasky). Above: ATOC 2022 REU students celebrate after their culminating poster presentations (photo by Brianna Undzis).

One of those students, Rebecca Torres, a senior at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley studying environmental science, said she hopes to attend law school or graduate school to become a “middleman between the scientific world and the governmental policy making world.”

She said she enjoyed meeting people from different walks of life. “I'm from a very closed-off bubble in Texas, but with this program I was able to get close to so many people I would have never gotten the chance to meet back home,” Torres said. “And it was comforting to know that no matter what educational background I come from, a science-related career is possible if I want it.”

Another student, Sarah Womantree, a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver studying meteorology, said her mentors were helpful and eager to answer her questions. “They helped me at every step of the way in my research. They shed light on topics I didn’t understand or was curious about, which only fueled my curiosity and interest into more complex topics and research questions.”

Womantree, whose research project explored wind speeds in mountainous areas, said the REU helped her explore career options that she didn’t think were possible:

“I didn’t know you could get paid to go to graduate school, and I didn’t realize how many jobs were available in renewable energy and the private sector of atmospheric science. I learned so much, and it was definitely the highlight of my undergraduate academic career. I can’t wait to use my new data analysis and visualization skills to help understand weather and climate data in the future.”

ATOC Assistant Professor Sara Sanchez said that in addition to the research projects, the REU includes professional development seminars in applying for graduate school and industry jobs, preparing resumes, and creating LinkedIn pages. 

“We emphasize providing the students with multiple mentors and in helping them develop an identity as a scientist,” Sanchez said.

With this program I was able to get close to so many people I would have never gotten the chance to meet back home. ... And it was comforting to know that no matter what educational background I come from, a science-related career is possible if I want it."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) REU program is designed to give undergraduate students intensive research opportunities related to a theme. This summer there were at least three REU programs at CU Boulder—including this one.

This was ATOC’s second REU program, and the program will continue for at least three more years.

The department’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee decided in the summer of 2020 to create a REU, and ATOC held its first REU in 2021 virtually with 17 students funded by a mix of support from the NSF, NASA, the U.S. Department of Interior and CU Boulder’s Graduate School Diversity Recruitment Grant. Lundquist said the success of the first REU helped ATOC “make a compelling case to NSF” for funding for the summers of 2023-25. 

A new NSF grant, awarded this August and worth $525,000, will fund those three summer programs, supporting 12 REU students each summer. 

Lundquist called the ATOC REU “a great community effort” that involves nearly the entire ATOC department.

“Most of our graduate students are involved one way or another in mentoring the REU students, designing or teaching the two-week python bootcamp that opens the program, teaching the REU students how to give presentations or a scientific writeup, leading a social outing, or helping debug code,” Lundquist said.

“Faculty served as mentors or joined panel discussions about working in science. Our staff has been incredible about supporting the students, too. Expanding the scientific community requires all hands on deck.”