Engineers enjoy Thanksgiving
by Liz Crumbley
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 16 - January 15, 1998
The Spanish don't celebrate Thanksgiving, but on that day Maria Cristina Sanchez called restaurants in Barcelona until she found one that could serve turkey dinners for her group from Virginia Tech.
Sanchez and five fellow Tech mechanical engineering (ME) graduate students and their professor, Robert Mahan, spent Thanksgiving week in Barcelona on an academic and cultural mission. Mahan and the six students--Edwin Ayala, Joel Barreto, Katherine Coffey, Felix Nevarez, Sanchez, and Ira Sorensen--work together as the Thermal Radiation Group at Tech.
Established in the 1970s, the group develops computer models and software to test the designs of instruments carried by NASA satellites used to study the earth's climate and atmospheric phenomena such as the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer. Currently, Mahan and his M.S. and Ph.D. students are developing models for NASA's Clouds and Earth's Radiative Energy System (CERES) program, which focuses on measuring radiation from clouds and the resulting cooling effect on the earth.
The group's trip to Spain, which was financed completely by the proceeds from short courses in infrared radiation technology that Mahan and his former Ph.D. students presented to industry engineers, included a three-day conference with students and faculty in the meteorology and physics departments at the University of Barcelona. During the conference, each of the Tech students gave presentations--in Spanish--about their thermal radiation research projects. Four of the group--Ayala, Barreto, Nevarez and Sanchez--are from Spanish-speaking countries; U.S.-born Coffey and Sorensen brushed up on their college Spanish before the trip.
In fact, during fall semester the group conducted weekly seminars on the language, government and culture of the region of Spain that they visited. All members of the Thermal Radiation Group, Mahan noted, must study or be fluent in a second language.
After their conference at the University of Barcelona, the Tech group spent two days touring the city. Sanchez, who is from Colombia, had not been to Spain before. "We saw a lot of interesting architecture, especially in the Gothic part of the city," Sanchez said. "Barcelona is a place where you can truly see history."
In addition to exchanging information about atmospheric issues with University of Barcelona researchers and learning about Spanish culture, the group ventured to Spain with a third purpose. One of the group's goals, Mahan explained, is to seek out cooperative relationships with foreign universities where atmospheric sciences are studied.
In 1996 one of Mahan's graduate students obtained a double doctorate, one in ME from Tech and the other in atmospheric physics from the University of Lille in France, by studying at both schools. In an attempt to begin an exchange program leading to a double doctorate with the University of Barcelona, Mahan suggested to faculty there that two Tech Ph.D. candidates spend a year at Barcelona. The idea is that those students would receive double doctorates and eventually students from Barcelona would come to Tech to do the same. "A double doctorate is more helpful to students from other countries, actually," Mahan noted. "Having a Ph.D. from a U.S. university can help them find jobs at home and over here."
Mahan decided to try developing an exchange program with the University of Barcelona when he was there in January 1997 as a U.S. delegate to the annual conference of the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience. The association, Mahan said, coordinates foreign exchanges of students for both education and jobs. Faculty members attend the conference to match students up for exchanges.
Sanchez, who completed her M.S. at Tech in December and began work as a Ph.D. candidate in January, said that she would like to study at Barcelona while earning her doctorate. First, however, she'll take part in another exchange arranged by Mahan--she will teach in Edwin Ayala's place at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, where Ayala is an assistant professor. While Ayala works on his Ph.D. at Tech, other doctoral students in the group will fill in for him in Puerto Rico until he can return there.