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NASA Scientist & MU Alum Says Stay-at-Home Orders Have Profound Effect on Pollution

Back in his undergraduate days at Millersville University (MU), 2010 alumnus Ryan Stauffer – now Dr. Ryan Stauffer – couldn’t have imagined that one day he’d be working as a research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

As he put it, Stauffer just knew he was always interested in the weather. “The weather, and snowstorms especially, always fascinated me growing up,” he explained. So when it came time to choose a course of study and college, he decided on meteorology. “I knew Millersville had a good reputation and an excellent meteorology program,” noted Stauffer. “I also wanted to play college baseball. Millersville was the perfect fit for me – there really was no better choice!”

So, Stauffer set off on his journey as a Marauder. During his undergraduate experience, he discovered weather forecasting wasn’t his forte – but he still had a keen interest in the subject and knew he wanted to make a career out of it. “I learned so much about large-scale weather patterns from my academic advisor Dr. Alex DeCaria, storms and severe weather from Dr. Todd Sikora, climate from Dr. Sepi Yalda, atmospheric chemistry and statistics from Dr. Rich Clark, remote sensing from Dr. Ajoy Kumar, forecasting from Eric Horst, and computer programming from Dave Fitzgerald,” he said. “In a relatively small department like Millersville’s, all of the professors and faculty members have an impact on every student.”

Toward the end of his four years at the ‘Ville, Stauffer still didn’t know what kind of career he wanted. “At the beginning of my senior year, I wasn’t sure what to do after graduation,” he explained. “I wasn’t a great weather forecaster, and broadcasting was never of interest to me, but Dr. Todd Sikora floated the idea of grad school to me one day.” With a desire to both learn more and give himself more opportunities for a career, he decided to go for it.

As Stauffer continued his studies in meteorology, eventually earning his Ph.D. in the subject from Penn State, it became clear that research was his niche. It was also during this time that he met Dr. Anne Thompson, who had moved from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to become a professor at Penn State. “When she decided to move back to NASA as I was finishing my Ph.D., she offered to continue as my advisor and eventually, worked to bring me onboard at NASA after graduation,” said Stauffer. He started working at NASA in 2016, and he’s still there today, with Thompson, his former professor, serving as his advisor and supervisor. Current students, take note: your professors can be your biggest ally – and might even help you land a job!

In his role as a research scientist at NASA, Stauffer has several responsibilities. “I analyze data and provide technical support for a network of tropical stations that launch weather balloons with ozone-measuring instruments called ozonesondes,” he said. Those measurements, he explained, help to determine how ozone impacts air quality near the surface, where it is a pollutant and greenhouse gas, and also in the stratosphere 15 miles up, where it protects us from UV radiation.

Interestingly, the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns in some countries have had a profound effect on pollution. “It’s cleaned up the air,” said Stauffer. “This is most obvious in China and Italy, and is becoming significant in the US as well. For example, the cleaner air and recent clear views of the Los Angeles skyline are an example of what we can look forward to in the future if we continue on the path of air pollution reductions. With less people traveling by car, and some drops in electricity demand, it appears that pollutant emissions here have been reduced rather significantly.” Stauffer indicated this effect can be observed from satellite measurements and ground measurements of the air we breathe.

While reduced air pollution is a good thing for the earth, Stauffer noted that the way it’s happening currently is not sustainable, most notably for our economy and job force. But for those looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, he offered an easy solution: “Using public transportation is maybe the simplest option available to the individual who wants to help improve air quality,” he explained, “But further reduction of pollution will take effort by industry, combined with good policy. The US, Europe, China and other countries have worked hard at significantly reducing air pollution over the past decade or more, but we need to continue this hard work. We have shown historically that it doesn’t take a pandemic to clean up the air. The more effective and economically healthy way is with steady progress, as has been done in the past.”

As he reflected back on his time as a young student, Stauffer had these words of advice to other up-and-coming meteorology majors: “There are many paths forward in a meteorology career: Broadcasting, forecasting, and research to name a few –  give them all a shot. And hang in there on the math courses! It’s worth it to call yourself a meteorologist once you graduate.”

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