Eyes In the Sky and On the Prize

Kai was selected to participate as one of 19 student leaders on the National Center for Atmospheric Research Undergraduate Leadership Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. He entered Boulder unaware that he would leave transformed forever.

When I first heard about the Undergraduate Leadership Workshop (ULW), I was clueless as to just how much it could accomplish for me.

I had originally applied for the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) summer program because I was looking for a longer summer research experience to occupy my summer. When I was informed that I did not receive admittance to SOARS I asked the director, Dr. Rebecca Haacker, if there were any other opportunities I might be able to apply for this summer. Initially I saw the ULW as a silver medal, a smaller version of the premier research program that would have allowed me to reach new heights in the atmospheric sciences research field. But I would soon discover that I was terribly, horribly, and irrefutably wrong.

Beginning with its inaugural launch in 2002, the ULW has continually played a crucial role in ensuring excellence and developing leadership within the scientific community at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). The ULW approach is twofold: (1) expose students to career opportunities and pathways in the atmospheric and Earth system sciences and (2) educate students on the definition of leadership while identifying innate characteristic traits of leadership and developing leadership potential.

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Sneak peak of ULW coordinators (from left to right) Valerie Sloan, Tim Barnes, and Rebecca Haacker working to enhance the student experience at the ULW.

The ULW selected students nationally from over 100 different UCAR university affiliates, of which I would represent the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Despite our geographical differences, we had all entered this program with common interests: a freakish obsession with meteorological phenomenon, ambitions to meet prominent scientists and use modern technology in our field, and intent to learn about the possibilities beyond our undergraduate education.

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ULW Group Photo exposing the creative and fun side of scientists-in-training. #scientistsgotswag

When I finally arrived to Colorado, what I first noticed was the landscape. Even from 5000ft above ground, I bore witness to the picturesque scenery that is definitive of the Great Plains region. The strong sense of environmental integrity set the scene for the contrasting conversations surrounding environmental pollution and global climate change science. Housed in Boulder, Colorado is the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the research center that would host our week long introduction into the lives of professional weather weenies. NCAR masterfully reflects the Boulder mission, as it promotes a research design centering on the complex processes that contribute to the climate as an Earth system while focusing on the interactions of the air, planet, and people.

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The Towers of the MESA Laboratory at NCAR in all its glory.

The success of this program can be attributed to many factors, one of which the abundance of mentors in the scientific community at NCAR. In the short time span of one week, I was immersed in the company of leaders in science, industry, and business working at the forefront of climate sciences. These leaders were eager to converse, advise, and even laugh with us in the many one-on-one social interactions that the ULW forced upon us. I am honored that graduate panels, career panels, and even National Medal of Science winner Dr. Warren Washington could all be assembled together with the sincerest intentions to impart their years of sagely wisdom to our eager minds. I would stand in admiration of the brilliant minds before us, half listening while furiously writing down notes and half bewildered at the probability of these very moments. Some were even kind enough to permit us, armed with video recording devices, into their offices so that we might catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat solving the scientific complexities they love.

A Clifford Hoang Production – the result from hours of following NCAR scientists like obsessive paparazzi

The other half of the ULW success equation was the synergy between the students. Everyone was open-minded and entertaining, with just the right amount of weird. There existed a direct relationship between the number of eccentricities within this group and the amount of time we spent together. The walls of our personal boundaries crumbled as we forged friendships that would last into and throughout our professional careers. We parted with plans for the 96th Annual American Meteorological Society Conference in 2016 in mind as our central hub for reunion. And as our GroupMe chat history continues to fill the air with talk of cloud walls in Pecan, TSA frisking, Barney Stinson, terrorizing crows and lost-and-found volleyballs, I have realized that our fates are now intertwined (and bound by candy law). This is not goodbye…

Group Hug

In the words of Heather Marie Zons from the book Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”.

After all the professional development workshops and group bonding exercises, I found it necessary to detach myself from the context of the workshop in order to properly digest the information I had acquired. The ULW had innumerable lessons to teach our group, but a lesson in self-discovery was what my soul was longing for. Before I arrived at the ULW, I had been engaged in an internal conflict between my natural affinity towards literature and the human condition and my passion for scientific discovery. Dr. Jen Henderson was the savior that I needed. She was living proof that the synthesis of social sciences and the physical sciences was not as absurd of a reality as I had previously thought. She had authority on several academic fields but the most importantly she professed that we should follow our passions wherever they may take us. Of all the lessons I have learned in my time at the ULW, I found this to be the most precious of them all.

I am proud to have attended the ULW because without it, I would not have achieved a better understanding of myself and my aspirational goals. I emerged with a newfound vigor to find a career combining the two fields I care most about in a context that will address both the societal issues and the environmental impacts of climate change. I cannot wait to start the school year in the Fall and bring back all that I have learned to my home institution and the UW American Meteorological Society chapter. With my proclamation to apply to SOARS next year and the lasting ties of friendship sheltered in my memories, I leave Boulder awaiting my next return to this promised land.

Thank you ULW for changing my life!

Kai Wave

I wave not as a farewell to the past, but as greeting to the future and all that is to come.

Digital media sources credited to Clifford Hoang and Andrew Huang.

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