Reaching for the Stars

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Brian Poe Llamanzares, C+S ’18

A paid internship and I get to work from home! Seriously one of the best jobs ever!

My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted when I grow up. I believed them, but even then, the mere thought of working for an agency like NASA seemed as distant as the moon.

You see, growing up I wasn’t the best in math and science. I won sixth place at the science fair in grade school, something my parents still look back and laugh saying, “do you remember that time Brian won at the science fair? Who would’ve guessed it?”

I wasn’t a terrible student mind you, I just had to work twice as hard as everyone else to get to the top of the class. It was a struggle but I always went above and beyond (some might even say “to infinity and beyond”).

As I grew up I realized that my strength was really more in communication rather than math and science. I developed those skills and eventually studied political science in a university in the Philippines.

Immediately after graduating, I worked in government. I felt that working on government policy was a good way to work towards my goal of helping the Philippines address natural disasters like typhoons and extreme flooding conditions. However, as time passed, I began to realize that the government was merely reacting to natural disasters rather than taking the initiative. I began to feel like more could be done.

Applying to NASA

A few years later, I enrolled at Columbia University in the Master’s in Climate and Society. With the Philippines being the third most vulnerable country to climate change in the world, I felt the need to learn about different ways of protecting the country from natural disasters.

The program recognizes the fact that scientific knowledge shouldn’t be kept for scientists alone. It trains people like me to take that hard science and try to communicate it to the people who need it the most.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Remember how I mentioned earlier that NASA seemed like a distant dream? Well, the Climate and Society program requires each student to find a summer internship program. Naturally, I sent my resume everywhere. I applied to the United Nations, the World Bank and Unicef among many other organizations. If the company or organization had something to do with dealing with natural disasters, I definitely applied there.

One day, one of my professors posted an opening for a paid internship at NASA. I thought to myself, “well, I haven’t heard back yet from anywhere else so I might as well give it a shot.”

I honestly didn’t think they’d call back, but it turns out even a big time science agency like NASA needs a policy guy like me for their disasters applications team. Imagine how shocked I was. I immediately texted my parents, and they couldn’t believe it either. But it didn’t matter, they were both very proud, and I was anxious to get started.

The Deep End of the Pool

At this point I was both excited and worried. I didn’t know whether or not I could really handle the challenges that our team would be facing. I remember walking into the first NASA internship meeting thinking, “here comes the science.”

My C+S professor Andrew Kruczkiewicz, my classmate Miriam Nielsen, and NASA’s disaster resilience coordinator Shanna McClain, were at that meeting.

Andrew explaining the difference between flash floods and other floods

Andrew opened up the discussion saying that we’d be studying flash floods this summer. I immediately started trying to recall all the coding we had just learned in class. But then followed up with, “what do you guys want to do with the project?”

I was floored. I had no idea what to say. He and Shanna basically asked us what we thought was important in studying and communicating flash flood risk.

We immediately began to set goals and deadlines. I immediately suggested that we gather research on flash floods in all of the target regions, including West Africa, East Africa, South America and Bangladesh.

The initial plan was to create a spreadsheet containing all the basic information about our target regions, including economic facts, disaster response, and the effects of floods in each country. There was so much research to be done, it honestly felt like diving into the deep end of the pool. I couldn’t help but feel worried that I wouldn’t be of much use.

Lunar Landing

After reading through almost a hundred scientific journals, news articles, and NGO websites, I finally began to realize why studying flash floods was so important. It turned out what we were facing here was a policy issue that required someone who understood the basics of climate science, but also had a background in public policy. I finally realized why I was asked to join the team!

What we found was that there are basically two different ways of viewing flash floods. Flash floods are either viewed as a meteorological event or as a humanitarian crisis, but no definition actually combines both the qualitative and quantitative nature of flash flooding conditions.

We immediately began researching different ways to try and communicate the importance of separating flash floods from other floods in the hopes of adequately preparing governments around the world for the devastation that a comes with flash flooding events.

It took plenty of hard work and grueling research but on July 16, I had my Neil Armstrong moment and reported to the NASA head quarters in Washington D.C. I was able to put everything I learned in my master’s program to good use. It turns out even a policy guy like me could help an institution like NASA. Not bad for a kid who got sixth place at the science fair, right?

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