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Newly-hired professor researches geoengineering with undergraduate research assistants

Professor Valentina Aquila sits in her office in the Beeghly building at American University, awaiting an undergraduate research assistant for a meeting on their climate model coding project. (Photo by Katya Podkovyroff Lewis)

American University

WASHINGTON - Professor Valentina Aquila’s office sits at the end of a dimly lit hallway of American University’s Beeghly building. Her office door remained propped open for her students taking her Energy and Resources course this semester. With a background in climate monitoring and geoengineering, Aquila said she was always interested in teaching even though it’s something she just started a little over a year ago.

Aquila was hired at American University in August 2017 but was previously a postdoctoral fellow with NASA and an associate research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. Aquila received her Ph.D. in meteorology at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, allowing her to research climate modeling and geoengineering.

Aquila’s contract with the university requires she teach two classes per semester on top of her personal research, which is currently looking at climate models with NASA.

Aquila explained that geoengineering is the large-scale intervention on the climate system in order to contradict global warming. One method of geoengineering is to inject aerosol particles into the stratosphere which would reflect solar radiation and then counteract the work of greenhouse gases.

“Using model simulations, I study the effects of what geoengineering would have on the climate because, on one side, you can reflect solar radiation, lowering the surface temperature of the Earth,” Aquila said.

On the other hand, Aquila warns that there could be negative effects of such intervention, like decreasing the ozone layer or changing wind, rain and monsoon patterns which could then possibly result in droughts or floods.

“What scientists, like myself, are doing right now is using climate models. A climate model is basically a huge computer program that simulates what happens in the Earth’s system, in the ocean and in the atmosphere,” Aquila said.

According to Aquila, the computer simulations she’s currently working on include inputting the amounts of energy, greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, and other variables in order to see how the climate will adapt.

“So the output of this climate model is in a world that could be, given certain premises. But you can test them using the past,” she said. “You try to reproduce what has happened in the past with this climate model and you have real-life observations to test them. If your climate model gets it right, then you trust it to predict the future.”

Teaching Energy and Resources this semester, Aquila said the course is more of an indirect application of her expertise, whereas the Climatology course she teaches in the spring has entire modules of what she studies. But Aquila said she always tries to incorporate her research or other recent articles and events into the classes she teaches.

“Because it makes it more interesting for me and I think it makes it more enjoyable for students,” Aquila said. “So for example, another thing that I study is air pollution, what is coming from cars and fossil fuel combustion, and that also comes in the first part of the class.”

Aquila’s colleague and former member of the committee that hired her, Karen Knee, explained that a significant component of the professors’ job contracts and how they are assessed is the research that they complete, particularly the science departments at American.

“It’s a huge part of how we’re evaluated for tenure and promotion. We also have lab facilities here that help us get our research done, there’s internal funding that we can apply for and university support for finding external funding,” Knee said.

According to Knee, another interesting dynamic Aquila has incorporated within her third semester is hiring undergraduate students as research assistants on her NASA projects that she’s currently working on.

Joseph Minnich, a sophomore studying Physics at American, began working with Aquila as a research assistant at the beginning of this fall semester.

Originally using climate models from NASA Goddard to examine the change in certain variables with respect to time, Minnich said he was working on modeling the effects of volcanoes.

“Because [we] were moving rather quickly, she recently moved me to a new project. In the new project I am doing a similar thing to climatic modeling but for Typhoons,” Minnich said.

Having never taken one of Aquila’s classes, Minnich said she reached out to him via one of his sophomore physics friends recommending him to her.

“I really enjoy research so maybe I will continue down a theoretical physics research path. All I know is that my career will exist somewhere in the junction of computer science, economics and physics,” Minnich said. “Especially because of Professor Aquila.”

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