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Grzegorz Florczyk about his internship at NASA: a new approach to learning and the future of planetary sciences.

NASA is mainly associated with astronauts and impressive rockets launched into space. And while this is a big part of what this American agency does, it turns out that there is also room for other research and endeavors within the ranks of NASA. Grzegorz Florczyk, a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw (UW), talks in an interview with Coopernicus about his four-month internship with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Areas of research, work at NASA and personal projects

Grzegorz studies atmospheric physics and models atmospheric processes in the lower layer of atmosphere – the troposphere. In addition, his work is often related to code, which he uses for construction of models that scientifically predict the weather. In his work, Grzegorz is interested in what the effects of dust or air pollution are and how this affects energy transport in the troposphere.

“NASA is interested in describing atmospheres not only on Earth, but also on Mars, Venus or other planets. [Scientists at NASA] are developing scientific weather models, and my model may also be useful. It takes dust into account, and as we know dust is abundant on Mars.”

Grzegorz says of his work during the internship.

His typical day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he is interning, begins with a morning meeting with his research group and mentor. After setting priorities and discussing potential problems, Grzegorz gives himself a moment to do the administrative part of the research – emails and making appointments.

“Then I go get a coffee and sit down to continue working,”

he says.

As he says, he likes to tackle several projects simultaneously. In addition to research for NASA, he is also developing software for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. The school wants to use the software in a course for students to illustrate certain physical effects to them – also related to Earth’s atmosphere.

The third project, Grzegorz calls networking.. He notes that it’s useful to build friendships while at a well-known place like NASA.

“It’s not just doing projects in a dark room that counts here, but also networking”

–  he says.

Beginnings with physics

Speaking about his current job, Grzegorz notes that physics has always been close to his heart.

“I have been interested in physics since I was a child. Very often when someone asks me about my interest in this field, I give an anecdote. When my parents wanted me to take care of myself, they would leave me in front of the TV. And instead of watching cartoons, I would watch Discovery Science. Specifically, programmes about space.”

He also recalls his early curiosity about reality:

“When I had any questions about the world, my dad would tell me – you’re going to learn this in physics. So I always looked forward to those physics lessons.”

Both at school and in college, Grzegorz continued to develop his passion. He started looking into atmospheric physics while studying at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, where he chose to take classes in environmental physics. He says it was a blind shot, but a very good one. 

“And I moved from greenhouse gasses to particulate matter – a big problem in, for example, Krakow”

–  he adds.

Currently, his PhD is focused on a theoretical approach and modeling that shows how the atmosphere evolves and how pollutants and particulate matter affect it.

It is in this area that he is developing his research at NASA’s JPL.

Contacts at NASA and a unique approach to research

Grzegorz began his work with NASA through consultations with one of the graduates from his university – Marcin Witek – who has worked at JPL for several years. 

“First there were consultations, more and more regular, then weekly meetings, and finally there was the idea that I should visit Marcin at JPL,” he says

The four-month internship showed Grzegorz the differences between scientific work in Poland and in the States.

“You can feel the differences from the environment in Poland, or even European standards. The biggest difference compared to Poland is that you don’t have to address someone by titles, in the States you address everyone by ‘per you.’ This makes it so that no matter how experienced the person you want to approach is, you can just do it and ask a question.”

–  he describes.

After a moment’s thought, he adds:

“There is also no such assumption that only you can learn something from that person. That person can learn something from you too.”

Grzegorz praises not only the helpful shedding of hierarchies. He also talks about the so-called open-door policy.

“I haven’t seen that in Poland. [In the States] all the doors in the buildings are open. Combined with that aforementioned lack of hierarchy, this makes it so that if I have a problem or a question I find a person in the [internal JPL] system who deals with exactly that, I go there and if the door is open that means I can come in and just ask that question.”

He notes that work goes much faster because of this.

Grzegorz stresses that it’s not about casting a bad light on Poland. He himself wants to continue his scientific career in his own country. However, he sees a lot of good in gaining international experience.

New perspectives 

On broadening his horizons by interning at NASA and working with people from many countries, he says:

“It’s seeing that science doesn’t have to be done in one particular way. I think every scientist should travel and see how science is done in different places.”

Grzegorz notes that this different approach to science and the simultaneous ease and expertise of the people at NASA gives a lot of energy:

 “Establishing new contacts, gaining inspiration and motivation is strongly facilitated.”

The difference between the scientific challenges in Poland and the United States

The challenges Grzegorz sees at NASA are different from those he knows from Poland:

“At NASA, the biggest challenge is to know what to put your hands into and how to prioritize it” – he says.

He explains that it’s easy to find people at the US agency who want to help and are interested in new ideas. The only question is whether this is really what he wants to focus on in his own research.

In contrast, in Poland it is often difficult to find people who want to help you:

“Most are mainly concerned with themselves.” – he says. It’s also often difficult to get funding, despite the many programs and competitions that one has to win, and that require preparation of a lot of documents.

Grzegorz concludes that the biggest difference is: in Poland, systemic barriers, and at JPL, personal ones – what I want and what is most important to me.

The future of research and its application 

The results of Grzegorz’s research, done successfully, could aid the understanding not only of environmental problems in Poland and on Earth, but also contribute new knowledge about other planets:

“I see two applications of what I’m doing – one is the current understanding of climate change as it progresses around the world. And the other is an application related to atmospheres on other planets”

he says.

There is already a lot of research on climate change and new knowledge about the problem is constantly emerging, Grzegorz notes. He explains that there is, however, such a thing as measurement uncertainty. It is a certain scale that is used to communicate how certain is the result that was obtained. New research is trying to reduce this uncertainty. He gives an example:

“There is an estimate of the impact of particulate matter, but it has a very high uncertainty. My PhD adds a certain amount to reduce this uncertainty. So that we have a better idea of the range we are in when it comes to particulate matter, or atmospheric aerosols. This can translate into the accuracy of climate models. We’ll be able to predict what’s going to happen with more certainty.”

This is just the beginning 

Grzegorz also talks about new developments in modeling atmospheres on other planets:

“We recently got one of the first and richer data sets from Mars, in terms of meteorology. There will be more and more such datasets as we send bolder and bolder missions to different planets.”And better models of Mars’ atmosphere mean better landing trajectories or the chance for more accurate data, translating into success for future missions. Grzegorz thinks about the future of science in his area of research with undisguised enthusiasm: “NASA needs people who are involved in so-called ‘planetary science’. This is just the beginning. The space sector is starting to look for people like me. What’s exciting for me is the direction this will take.”

This article has been authorized by Grzegorz Florczyk, an intern at JPL at NASA, a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Physics, Institute of Geophysics, University of Warsaw.

Barbara Niemczyk
Bio:
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
Written by:

Barbara Niemczyk

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