ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Spring 2010

Mentoring Undergraduate Innovators

ESRL's John A. Ogren guides "clinic team" from alma mater


Some call it luck; others call it fate. For John A. Ogren (Global Monitoring Division), becoming a sponsor for one of this year's Harvey Mudd Clinic Program teams was merely a "remarkable set of coincidences."

Since Harvey Mudd College's inception in 1965, seniors at the southern California school have been receiving practical, hands-on experience tackling real-world problems. Teams of three to five students take on open-ended problems identified by sponsors; there are no textbook answers, just the imaginative limits of the team. Those problems- from the need for a motion-sensitive prosthetic limb to the fast deciphering of text on a crumpled paper- come from software companies, the medical device industry, engineering companies, and even government laboratories. In January, the four directors of Harvey Mudd College's renowned Clinic Program visited ESRL, proposing a formal collaboration. Ann Thorne (ESRL education coordinator) and Tony Tafoya (NOAA EEO) hosted the visitors.

Ogren earned his undergraduate and master's degrees at Harvey Mudd, and his masters thesis focused on the role of the stratosphere in Los Angeles' ozone smog. He attended the January meeting thinking he could answer questions from scientists interested in sponsoring a team (from his alumnus perspective), but ended up getting more than he bargained for.

At the meeting, Engineering Clinic Director Patrick Little mentioned that he had a specific project in need of a technical advisor. One clinic team, working to create a cheaper instrument for the measurement of black carbon in developing countries, had lost its technical advisor mid-year. Coincidentally, Ogren's Ph.D. research was on atmospheric black carbon, and ESRL is actively involved in developing instruments to measure black carbon. Ogren sat down with Little for more details. After receiving the interim report and group proposal, Ogren agreed to act as the team's technical advisor.

Ogren said he landed his first job at Meteorology Research, Inc. because of his own clinical project, so he understands the program's benefits. "It is a very good teaching technique...and good for sponsors because it gives them access to a lot of talent and enthusiasm on the part of the students."

Ogren said he believes it would be mutually beneficial for ESRL to look into sponsoring a Harvey Mudd Clinic project. "It would be a useful way to pursue projects that NOAA researchers do not have time to go after themselves."

Nathan Jones, the Harvey Mudd student team leader, said his team has quickly come to rely on and appreciate Ogren's understanding of black carbon monitoring. "The help that John Ogren has provided for our team has been outstanding. We are glad to have him as a resource," Jones said.

The team hopes that the prototype low-cost black carbon monitoring device could be "deployed anywhere and provide relative information about the air quality trends in a region, signifying to authorities when additional, more accurate measurements should be taken."

- by Miyuki Kei Kauffroath