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Students Look at Atmospheric Conditions

Students Look at Atmospheric Conditions

Posted by Pengxeu Thao '15, Roseville on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014

Sylke Boyd, associate professor of physics, is one of eleven professors working with students in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Summer Research Program. She is partnering with Shelby Richard ’15, Elko New Market, and Jieying Jin ’15, Shanghai, China, to research atmospheric conditions.

The project examines properties of the troposphere, the lowest portion of the earth’s atmosphere, through an all-sky camera installed on the science building. Over the summer the team developed programs to interpret and organize the thousands of images captured by the camera.

With these programs, the team kept track of sun halos, which are formed by high-altitude ice crystals, and cirrus and cirrostratus clouds. Richard developed an image analysis program in C++ that works through large numbers of images and detects halos. Jin wrote a graphical routine in Mathematica that allows modeling ray paths through an ice crystal under various incidence conditions.

“Cirrus clouds are a big player in the radiation balance and thus in climate,” says Boyd. “They are difficult to observe and quantify, leading to a large uncertainty of their influence in climate models. Collecting all-sky images and using the presence of ice halos to detect the presence of cirrostratus clouds will help to decrease this uncertainty, and in turn, improve climate models.”

This opportunity gave Richard and Jin an early start on their careers in atmospheric research. The combination of hands-on work and faculty interaction prepares them for future endeavors.

“This experience was a valuable opportunity to experience a research setting in the atmospheric field, which I'm specializing in,” says Richard.

“I really enjoyed the summer with Professor Boyd and my partner, Shelby,” adds Jin. “It is interesting to work with the atmosphere as well, and it gives me a glance at research. I think it will help me a lot with grad school work.”

Boyd’s project is based on the work of alumni Stephen Sorenson ’14 and James Froberg ’14. Richard and Jin continued this work and presented their findings at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) in July. Future studies using the all-sky camera will continue into the school year.

The Undergraduate Summer Research Program is supported in part by a grant to the University of Minnesota, Morris from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program. Additional information is available at

Photo: Shelby Richard ’15 (left) and Jieying Jin ’15 (right). Photos by Sylke Boyd.