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A step ahead of disaster - City Tech professional leads climate change committee

Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis. Almost on a daily basis, a natural disaster occurring somewhere on our planet makes headlines. “Improving our ability to predict such events is essential if we are to achieve our goal of substantially minimizing the death and destruction that occur in their wake,” says Reginald Blake, a physics professor at New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York (CUNY).

Dr. Blake, who has been appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to his newly-formed New York City Climate Change Technical Advisory Committee, intends to make inroads in this critical area of research with support from a three-year, $459,108 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The funds are targeted for faculty-supervised student research in state-of-the-art satellite and ground-based remote sensing.

“Remote sensing technology is at the cutting edge of research in the studies of air-quality monitoring, precipitation estimation, hurricane genesis, development and tracking, floods, droughts, global climate change and a whole host of other aspects of geophysics,” he explains. “With this in mind, we at City Tech sought an NSF grant to enable us to pursue research in these areas.”

Ten students from five CUNY colleges — including three from City Tech and the rest from City College (CCNY), LaGuardia Community College, York College and Medgar Evers College — have been chosen to participate in this NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates initiative. The co-sponsor is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that focuses on using satellite and ground-based remote sensing to study the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere.

The students will work primarily at CUNY’s NOAA Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center (NOAA-CREST), based at CCNY. Two of NOAA-CREST’s primary goals are to conduct cutting-edge research in remote sensing science and to train students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, particularly those students traditionally underrepresented — people of color, women and students with disabilities.

“City Tech’s new NSF grant will help create an educational pipeline that will produce a diverse workforce for NOAA and for the nation,” according to Dr. Reza Khanbilvardi, director of the NOAA-CREST Center. “In the 21st century, we cannot ignore the role of satellite technology and observation in understanding and predicting change in the Earth’s environment.”

The NSF grant will fund seminars, summer internships and school-year research assistantships for the selected students, who will be the future engineers and scientists of our nation, notes Dr. Blake. “For the next three years, the students will have the opportunity to work with scientists and engineers in this new, emerging area of geophysics,” he says. “Their work will be used to develop algorithms to validate and improve the remote collection of data via satellites.”

Two of the 10 students (City Tech’s Adam Atia and CCNY’s Ibrahim Siddo), will participate in one of the project’s most exciting aspects — they will conduct research aboard the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown, as it sails across the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and the Caribbean in March 2009. On board, they will assist in the study of why and how aerosols are transported from the Sahara Desert across the Atlantic Ocean and towards the US and the Caribbean. They spent part of this past summer with Dr. Vernon Morris and his team at Howard University, where remote sensing research is ongoing.

“I’m very excited to be part of this project,” says Atia, a 24-year-old sophomore from Flatbush majoring in computer engineering technology. “I care very much about global warming, the energy crisis and climate change. I want to be involved in work that seeks to solve the world’s problems. People talk about the need for change, but I think it’s important to ‘do.’ That’s what this project and this voyage are all about for me.

“And I’ll be gaining skills from a global perspective,” he adds. “When we get to the west coast of Africa, for instance, we’ll be exchanging remote sensing ideas with the scholars and people there. The possibilities for learning and sharing are limitless.”

For nine weeks this past summer, all 10 participating students — including City Tech’s Atia, Lori Younge and Jian Hong Li — commuted to CCNY in Harlem to study and research remote sensing as it applies to aerosols, vegetation, hurricanes, coastal waters and “nowcasting” (the prediction of severe weather within a short time before its occurrence). They also visited the Bronx Botanical Gardens’ Geographical Information System Laboratory, The American Museum of Natural History, the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the National Weather Service.

The students will attend the University of Texas’ Student Research Conference in El Paso later this month to make oral and poster presentations of their work.

“Educating tomorrow’s leaders in science, technology and mathematics (STEM) is central to our mission,” says Dr. Pamela Brown, City Tech’s dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who is the project’s co-principal investigator. “This grant complements our ongoing efforts to increase graduates in these fields and builds upon NSF grants previously awarded to the college, including a five-year $990,000 grant (2007-2011) to develop a mentoring network for our STEM students and a three-year $497,000 grant (2007-2009) for scholarships for students enrolled in our computer and engineering technologies programs.”

City Tech is located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

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