Conducting Air-Tight Research
Suppose you serve a great stew at a dinner party. Will your guests be able to tease out every ingredient that made it so tasty? That’s the problem that scientists face in studying the thousands of ingredients in the atmosphere.
In his application for a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Jan Stepinski (Macaulay Honors College at City College, B.E. in environmental engineering, 2013) proposed using the data-crunching, mathematical process of inversion to identify components in the chaotic stream of information detected by atmospheric sensors.
The three-year, $126,000 NSF fellowship is the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Stepinski, CCNY’s 2013 valedictorian, is to start at the Stanford Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering in the fall.
His NSF proposal grew out of his internship at Stanford University in the summer of 2011. He says that Peter Kitanidis, a professor of civil and environmental engineering there, asked him to employ inversion to reveal the properties of aquifers, “which can indicate whether an aquifer has been damaged by fracking or oil drilling and thus requires bioremediation. Inversion also was useful in my research at City College for understanding things like the concentration of pollutants in the atmosphere or chlorophyll in the ocean.”
His core undergraduate research was with Alexander Gilerson, an associate professor of electrical engineering, who uses remote sensing to evaluate and predict ocean color.
“In one project, we investigated how the sea floor affects light that propagates through the water to the surface. This is important for understanding how animals camouflage themselves, which has implications for biology and the military.”
Despite the premise of the NSF award, Stepinski has shifted the likely focus of his doctoral research, which the NSF fellowship allows.
“When I applied to Stanford and explained my interest in inversion and background in remote sensing, [electrical engineering professor] Howard A. Zebker, who works with radar, responded to me. He offered me a chance to combine my interests. My work will still be related to environmental sciences and involve applied mathematics. But beyond that, I’ll have to wait until I get there to find out the details.”
Stepinski visited CCNY’s remote sensing lab while in high school, but he hastens to say that that did not inspire him to go into remote sensing at the time.
“I was more focused on the humanities and economics as a high school senior and in my freshman year,” he says. “But it was in the engineering school that I discovered my love of differential equations. I think mathematics in its purest form is an approximation of the world and is the closest we can get to objectively understanding it. That’s why I chose environmental remote sensing.”
Although he was born in Brooklyn, he says he “spent most of my youth upstate in the forest. If I am to protect nature, then I have to understand nature through biology and through policy. That is why I studied economics and human needs.”
Stepinski accumulated impressive honors at City College, including the Belden Medal for Advanced Calculus, the Post Scholarship from the Society of American Military Engineers and the Peggy Cornell Benline Scholarship from the Municipal Engineers of the City of New York, all awarded in 2012. He also studied at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences and Goethe University in Germany during the summer of 2011 through Macaulay’s Opportunities Fund. He graduated with minors in economics and mathematics.
“CCNY helped coalesce my interests in biology, economics and mathematics,” he says on the campus website. “By taking different classes in different fields with brilliant professors, it’s all come together and put me on a path to a career I will relish.”