EPP/MSI alumnus Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., returns to NOAA as a physical scientist

In 2021, Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., an alumnus from the first class of Educational Partnership Program with Minority Serving Institutions Undergraduate Scholarship Program (EPP/MSI USP), joined the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory as a Research Physical Scientist. Jonathan is now looking forward to coming full circle and mentoring scholars in the program that engaged him with NOAA and its mission.

A photo of Jonathan Smith and a quote that reads "I want to encourage [young aspiring scientists] on a non-traditional path that reaching their desired position in the atmospheric sciences, or any other STEM field, is within reach."

Jonathan Smith, Research Scientist, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. (Image credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Smith/Graphic: Audrey Maran, NOAA Office of Education)

Jonathan’s path from his acceptance to EPP/MSI USP to joining NOAA as a physical scientist was a journey, like many career paths, full of hard-won opportunities, successes, and lessons learned. Prior to beginning college, he had a destination in mind: he would one day work as a meteorologist or atmospheric scientist.

Growing up, Jonathan took every chance he had in school to do a weather-related project, avidly listened to a NOAA weather radio, and even received an on-air response from a television meteorologist he wrote to with a question. As an EPP/MSI undergraduate scholar, Jonathan would have two internship opportunities with NOAA, and there was no question which office he wanted to work with: the National Weather Service. During his internships, Jonathan’s mentors taught him about science, but also gave valuable advice about which classes to take for a meteorology career. “Listen to your mentors,” says Jonathan, “their advice will save you time.”

Reflecting on his time as an EPP/MSI undergraduate scholar, Jonathan sees how the program led him to where he is today. “All aspects of those two EPP/MSI USP summers ... foreshadow[ed] my current role as a Research Physical Scientist at Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.” Friends from the internship are now colleagues, his mentors inspired him to mentor students himself, and his internships in climate science shifted his focus from only short-term weather to the multifaceted work he does today.

Following his years as an EPP/MSI undergraduate scholar, Jonathan was awarded a Big Ten Academic Alliance summer research experience for undergraduates offsite link that placed students in opportunities at prestigious Midwestern universities. That program, as well as his previous research experience as an EPP/MSI USP scholar, opened the door to a graduate program at Penn State University, where he received his master’s degree. The experience was challenging, but he persevered, “we do not have to allow our low points to define us. I could have avoided coursework challenges by overcoming my pride and asking my colleagues for help sooner. But that was a lesson I needed to learn…” He advises mentees, “Do not be afraid to ask the questions.”

Jonathan went on to earn a Ph.D. at Howard University in atmospheric science with the support of the NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology, another EPP/MSI-funded program. Further, his doctoral advisor was someone he met during an undergraduate research experience. Connections such as these are why Jonathan recommends staying in touch with your networks. “Stay connected to ... your undergraduate and graduate school colleagues and work colleagues throughout your professional career,” says Jonathan.
As a scientist in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Jonathan is using all that he has learned — from EPP/MSI USP to graduate school and several professional positions — to inform his work on Earth system climate models. Specifically, he is working to better estimate the amount of nitrous oxides created by lightning. Nitrous oxides are a potent pollutant, and though most are generated by industry, accounting for all sources, including natural sources, is important.

Jonathan is looking forward to “paying it forward” by mentoring students now that he has reached the destination he set his sight on so many years ago. “I want to encourage [young aspiring scientists] on a non-traditional path that reaching their desired position in the atmospheric sciences, or any other STEM field, is within reach,” he says.

More advice from Jonathan Smith, Ph.D.

  • Spend time in graduate school reading academic, research, government, and industry job descriptions and apply to some of those positions. It helps to keep your pulse on where your subdiscipline is moving. It also gives you a head start on those who rush to apply to jobs right after finishing their degree.
  • Internships that require you to work at the agency or company after graduation can provide job security and potential employment.
  • When searching for new professional opportunities, don't be afraid to negotiate salary, leave, telework, etc.
  • Learn how to code. Computer programming expands your employment opportunities in the atmospheric sciences and STEM.  Also, when you have written a code in any language that does something useful, save it.