Emily Serman: Investigating Global Climate Change at NASA

Climate change threatens everything from the safety of coastal communities to the purity of the air we breathe. To better understand this phenomenon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration operates an extensive environmental program. Playing a key role in the program are paid interns like University of Rhode Island student Emily Serman (’14).

The civil and environmental engineering student spent four summers interning at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, a hub for the agency’s weather-related research. The first year, she analyzed phytoplankton. During the next three summers, she served on a team studying the behavior of ozone, which protects the Earth from the sun’s rays but can also cause disruptive temperature changes in the atmosphere.

Emily Serman
Emily Serman interned at NASA for four summers.

At NASA, Serman calibrated data collection instruments, reviewed reams of data and organized atmospheric observations spanning many years so scientists could identify long-term trends. In later summers, she ran calculations to determine the contours of ozone in the atmosphere’s multiple layers. Finally, she brought it all together in presentations to NASA administrators.

“It was more than just doing calculations on paper,” Serman says. “I saw how it fit into the real world. Plus, when you are at NASA you feel like you’re in a special group of people.”

Every day, Serman met scientists renowned in their fields. She saw a rocket blast off from Wallops Island and witnessed the last Space Shuttle launch from an auditorium packed with NASA scientists.

The environment proved exhilarating and Serman applied for the internship program year after year. NASA accepted her four times and Serman had the distinction of being the only intern from a Rhode Island university.

But Rhode Island was never far away. Serman found herself applying her classroom learning to her internship tasks, a process that strengthened her understanding of topics she learned at URI.

Serman, of Newark, MD, also knows that technical experience is only half of what makes a good engineer. The daughter of environmental scientists understands that environmental solutions require global cooperation and an appreciation of different cultures. To bolster her global education she joined the college’s five-year International Engineering Program where students earn two degrees: one in an engineering discipline and one in a foreign language. Students also live a year abroad and Serman spent the 2012-2013 school year in Germany.

In Germany, she studied at the Technical University of Braunschweig and then held a paid internship at Züblin, a German construction and engineering firm. At Züblin, she managed the distribution to engineers of plans drawn in England for a metro line in Qatar. She conversed in German and absorbed a culture that demonstrates environmental sensitivity by operating extensive recycling programs and encouraging renewable energy development. Like NASA, Germany showed Serman that internships provide a way of seeing various fields – engineering, math, culture and language – come together.

“To me it’s all about being well rounded,” Serman says. “I like to look at the big picture.”