Joe Phillips (’09) makes an impact at the South Pole

I always wanted to travel and to experience nature outside of my native state of North Carolina.  So when I graduated from UNCA in 2009, my goal was to get a job outside of North Carolina, in some place new and preferably, with a lot of travel.  Like most recent college graduates, I applied for hundreds of jobs in the months following graduation and wasn’t having any luck thanks to my limited real world experience and the economy was still suffering from the recent recession.

As the economy got worse and the outlook for recent college graduates went downhill, I started to revisit a conversation I had at UNCA’s Atmospheric Science Department’s 30th Year Anniversary Symposium.  This conversation was about the NOAA CorpIMG_2580s and since I had never heard of this service and thought it to be too good to be true, I sort of brushed off the conversation at the time.  I gave it some more thought and since I had nothing to lose just by applying, I sent in my application.  Since the NOAA Corps offered a lot of travel, great health insurance, and diverse assignments, when they offered me one of the officer candidate spots in Basic Officer Training Class 116, I gladly accepted.

The NOAA Corps are a highly trained, deployable group of commissioned officers that manage and operate NOAA’s research platforms and collect science data vital to the success and protection of the United States’ domestic and international commercial and environmental interests.  We also hold high level leadership positions throughout NOAA.  Since joining the NOAA Corps, the United States’ 7th and smallest uniformed service, I’ve traveled more than I could have hoped for, held responsibilities I couldn’t dream of just a few months out of college, and assisted and lead science data collection operations in extremely remote, beautiful places around the world.

My assignments have also been very diverse and exciting.  My first assignment was to complete a variety of maritime trainings at the US Merchant Marine Academy that specialize in navigation, operations and safety while at sea.  Those days were spent enjoying the New York City skyline, driving small boats around Manhattan and applying the class work in operational situations.  Following thDSC_1155is training, NOAA gave me shipboard assignments that not only applied my nautical training and helped me grow professionally, but these positions also assisted in the deployment and recovery of many Tropical Atmosphere and Oceanic buoys along the equator that monitor the El Niño Southern Oscillation cycles and hydrographic survey operations along the Virginia, Oregon, Washington and Alaskan coastlines.  I was also tasked to lead oil, boom and marine mammal helicopter flights in the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response.

My current assignment tends to raise eye brows and seems unbelievable to most.  I’m currently NOAA’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) Station Chief at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in South Pole, Antarctica.  As the station chief, I help to maintain the facility and a suite of instruments that sample the atmosphere.  ARO sits up against what’s called the “Clean Air Sector” and since air here is free from direct human contact thanks to its protection under the Antarctic Treaty, the data collected is used to determine Earth’s background atmosphere.  A change in this background atmosphere can represent a global change and given what is known about the different climate forcings in the atmosphere, anthropogenic changes.  The instruments at ARO measure aerosols, greenhouse gases such as CO2, solar radiation, halocarbons and trace species and current levels of ozone, including the ozone hole.  We also collect a variety of air samples that are analyzed in the NOAA Boulder labs and at Scripps Research Institute.

The experiences and education I received at UNCA was a building block to where I am now and the internships and various volunteer opportunities offered by the atmospheric science department paved the way for the commission that has given me so many great experiences.  While I was a student, I was active in the atmospheric science department; I volunteered and participated in the student chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), AMS outreach, the department’s forecast line, and every forecasting competition I could.  I spent my summers interning or doing research where I could and worked part or full time continuously.  My advice to everyone still in school is to keep your grades up and take advantage of every educational and social opportunity you can.  Internships, research positions and extra circular activities help you stand out in the job hunt, make you better-rounded, and help you get a job that makes you happy.  And of course, have fun!

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