June 2, 2017

Paths Through Science: Dereka Carroll-Smith

Posted by AGU Career Center

This profile represents a collaboration between AGU and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Education. It features Dereka Carroll-Smith, a NOAA Hollings Scholarship Alumna and current NSF Graduate Research Fellow and PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. AGU and NOAA are collaborating to share the diverse paths and perspectives of students in the geosciences, including atmospheric and marine sciences.

During Dereka’s NOAA Hollings internship with the National Weather Service (NWS) Forecast Office in Jackson, Mississippi, she worked on optimizing the Weather Research and Forecasting Model to predict the potential for wet microbursts in the Southeast. Wet microbursts are columns of sinking air and rain that occur within thunderstorms, called ‘invisible killers’ because they can cause extensive damage and are dangerous for air travel. The NWS internship exposed Dereka to NOAA’s mission and sparked her desire to do more applied research. She was nervous to present her research at the annual NOAA Science & Education Symposium, but ended up winning third place for her presentation.

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in Meteorology from Jackson State University, Dereka earned her Master’s degree from Purdue University in Atmospheric Sciences. For her Master’s thesis, she used an agent-based model to determine how successful evacuations were at reducing mortality. She then followed her research advisor to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s currently pursuing her doctorate. She was awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support her research on climate change impacts on tropical cyclone tornadoes. Her dissertation has both a physical science and emergency management component.


What inspired you to become a geoscientist?

I experienced a lot of severe weather events growing up in Texas and ultimately my fear of tornadoes led to my curiosity. I wanted to know more about these storms and how they formed. “Knowledge is power,” and although my fear of severe weather is still prevalent, I know enough now to remove myself from the threat of the most severe impacts.

Also, I’ve always loved math. Solving problems quantitatively has always been exciting for me. I’m really good with recognizing and mimicking patterns and that’s pretty much what math is. Growing up, I heard a lot about doctors, but never meteorologists. I did some research and found out that there are people who study weather and are not on tv (I did NOT want to be in the public eye). After learning this, I decided that I would be a meteorologist. Unfortunately, there were no programs specifically for meteorology in the STEM magnet schools where I grew up in Dallas, so I made sure that I gave 100% in all of my courses, but 110% in my math and science courses.

What skills and knowledge – including educational and technical training – have been of key importance to both securing and successfully doing your work?

I’ve found that my internship experiences have been invaluable in helping me link the theory that I learned in the classroom to real world issues. For me, it was difficult to retain the theoretical principles learned in the classroom without having something to connect them to. Interning with researchers and forecasters in my field bridged that gap for me. I was able to learn in a hands-on way how to run numerical models and develop code to run an analysis without the pressure of earning a grade. The principles I’ve connected to my various research projects are what stuck.

In addition, Khan Academy helped me through linear algebra and physics, COMET MetED modules got me through just about all of my undergraduate meteorology courses. Stack Over Flow and WRF Users forums helped me through R statistical analysis and WRF, GIS and Agent Based, modeling/plotting. I make it a point to find these additional resources outside of the classroom and never stop learning.

Did you have any mentors – in school or in the professional world – who helped guide your career path and what was some pivotal advice that they imparted to you?

I cannot stress enough the importance of having mentors. I have a mentor that’s in a prospective field, and I’m lucky that my graduate adviser is not only supervising me but mentoring me as a scientist. As a woman and African-American in the atmospheric sciences, which is still very rare, it was important to have a female and an African-American mentor. Representation matters and there are some things that we experience as a female and as a person of color that others may not understand. I believe in being surrounded by diversity (including stage and type of career; i.e. early career scientists, tenured academia, professor emeritus, program coordinators etc.) because I want to be well rounded and exposed to various opinions, careers, and backgrounds, which helps me grow both personally and professionally.

My adviser always encourages me to stay focused and to build my toolbox for the career I want. My other mentors encourage me to “stay out of my own way” and to remember “a good dissertation is a DONE dissertation,” and my favorite “you’re not trying to save the world with your degree. You finish your dissertation, and then you save the world.” All of my mentors encourage me to stay the course and remind me that I am capable of completing my doctorate and having a successful career in the field. They don’t sugarcoat post graduate life or anything else, which is what I appreciate most about all of them. They’ve imparted so much wisdom upon me, especially helping me to get through my imposter syndrome.

What thoughts do you have for students and early career scientists looking for a job like yours and what pitfalls might they avoid?  What is something that you wish you had known before embarking on your career?

Well I’m still working towards my doctorate and searching for a job. It’s really important for students not to doubt themselves or think they’re not good enough. Don’t shy away from opportunities – you don’t have to be Einstein. You just have to work really hard. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Other common graduate school pitfalls:

  1. Self-Isolation. Remember everyone is struggling with something, even if they don’t immediately show it. Utilize study groups to your advantage; they open the door to socializing. This is important, since often graduate students are isolated from close friends and family.
  2. Self confidence. You made it into graduate school (or got an awesome job), so stop believing the lie that you tell yourself that there must have been some mistake. THERE IS NO MISTAKE, you deserve to be right where you are.
  3. Self Care. Mental health is so important, many people assume grad school is intellectually difficult, but it is more mental than anything. Talk-therapy and sunshine were an integral part of keeping me sane. Take a mental health day and step away from work when you need to. Enjoy a hobby and make time for new and old friends.
  4. Funding. Never stop applying for external funding. If you are entering graduate school and even as an undergraduate, start looking early, most application deadlines are Jan-Feb. Do not wait until last minute or assume your adviser will have everything set up, they are applying for funding too so take initiative.
  5. Adviser-student relationship. Your relationship with your adviser will be an integral part of your success in graduate school. I would consider that relationship more important than an ideal location or how prestigious the university is. I am very lucky to have an amazing and supportive advisor. Remember also that you have rights and you may need to set boundaries.
  6. Resources. Make sure the graduate school has the resources to help you achieve your goals. Don’t go somewhere just because the name is prestigious.
  7. Resilience. Your accolades and intelligence may get you an opportunity, but your passion, diligence and tenacity will help you stay the course and make your goals a reality. Remember to stay out of your own way. You WILL have bad days, but they will pass. You’ve got this!