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SHU Physics Prof. Awarded $250K NSF Grant

FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Sacred Heart University has received $252,060 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help advance climate science. This grant will help fund an undergraduate physics research program introducing juniors and seniors to cutting-edge scientific research, intended to bridge major gaps in climate modeling. 

The initiation of powerful thunderstorms by sea-breezes is currently poorly represented in most Global Climate Models (GCMs), with models only just starting to incorporate the impacts of sea breezes and boundary layer particles (such as soot or ash). This is particularly problematic over island-rich ocean regions, in which islands with a range of sizes, terrain and particulate emissions, can determine storm severity, precipitation rates and cloud type. 

The principal investigator, Frank Robinson, director of SHU’s 3+2 engineering program and assistant professor of physics, said, “In our warming world, the strength and frequency of extreme weather events are likely to increase. However, current global climate models have difficulty predicting such events, in part because [the events] are often triggered by processes unresolved in the climate models. The ultimate goal of this project is to improve the physical representation of two potential triggers of severe storms, namely, sea-breezes and atmospheric aerosols (such as soot or ash). Better prediction of severe storms around the planet could have a huge impact on society, both in terms of storm preparedness and in building public acceptance of society’s impact on current climate.”

Three SHU undergraduates will be recruited to work on observational and numerical modeling tasks. They will be simulating storms by running scientific computations on The National Center for Atmospheric Research’s supercomputer Cheyenne—one of the world’s most powerful computers. They also will work with MATLAB, learning how to manage and analyze gigabytes of satellite and radar data. Thus the program will appeal to those looking to enter data science professionally, as well as those passionate about climate change. The student researchers likely will come from the 3+2 engineering program, though they could come from other related programs at SHU.

The students will also learn how to detect trends in observational data, merge data with a satellite simulator and attempt to identify causality mechanisms in simulations and observations. This will require them to look for statistically robust patterns in the data and will familiarize them with the way atmospheric science can progress. The students will be required to enroll in a selection of computational boot camps offered by the computer science department and attend a workshop on using the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model held in Boulder, CO. Robinson expects them to base their senior thesis on their research.

Before coming to SHU, Robinson was a research scientist and lecturer in Yale University’s department of geology and geophysics for 16 years. At Yale, he received a $350,000 NSF grant to study how tropical islands affect storm severity. 

“Since cloud processes remain one of the ‘Achilles’ Heels’ in global climate modeling, this program may ultimately contribute to improved simulations of future climate by shedding new light on processes governing convective clouds and improving their representation in global climate models. This is an exciting opportunity for undergraduates at Sacred Heart,” Robinson says.

Students interested in this opportunity should contact Robinson at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or 203-371-7711.PHOTO CAPTION: Physics Professor Frank Robinson, standing, teaches class at Sacred Heart University. Photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek 10/9/19

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About Sacred Heart University

As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s eight colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 385 Colleges–2020 Edition, “Best in the Northeast” and Best 252 Business Schools–2019 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theater. www.sacredheart.edu

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