Month of Earth Day events culminates with 8th Annual Earth Day Symposium

Published: May 3, 2024

group photo of about 25 people on a wooden footbridge, green trees in the background
Some of the Earth Day Symposium attendees braved the heat for a walk to UMBC's Pig Pen Pond, part of the Conservation and Environmental Research Area on campus. (Photo by Kamal Aryal)

UMBC’s strength in environmental research spans all three colleges and the university’s NASA-partnered centers, and Earth Day is always a special time on campus. This year, UMBC partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to host more events than ever before. A committee led at UMBC by Rhonda Plofkin, a Ph.D. student in geography and environmental systems (GES), organized 18 events throughout the month of April.

Volunteers led by enthusiastic students and Office of Sustainability staff removed invasive plants on campus; a panel at the AOK Library & Gallery discussed how various disciplines, including the arts, can engage with environmental conservation; the UMBC community watched a partial solar eclipse on campus; and much more.

The month of festivities culminated with the 8th Annual Earth Day Symposium on April 29, organized by graduate students in atmospheric physics and geography and environmental systems (GES). Nearly 150 attendees from at least six universities and five federal agencies gave talks, participated in panel discussions, presented 26 research posters, and even went on a hike through UMBC’s Conservation and Environmental Research Area on an unseasonably warm day. 

“A tradition we are really proud of is that this event is 100 percent planned and implemented by our graduate students,” shared Zhibo Zhang, professor of physics at UMBC. He noted the event not only benefits the attendees, but also the planning team. “I’ve seen their confidence grow every day as the event came together,” Zhang says.

“It has been a great experience for us to invite such a wide range of people with shared enthusiasm for Earth science to UMBC,” shares Kamal Aryal, Ph.D. student in atmospheric physics and the lead organizer for the Earth Day Symposium. “Having students, early career scientists, and university professors from many universities and from NASA’s PACE mission, including the lead project scientist for PACE, attend our symposium creates great opportunities for networking and professional development.”

group photo of 10 people - the Earth Day Symposium planning committee - on a stage in front of a screen. The top portion of the screen is visible and reads "Earth Month."
Planning committee members for the Earth Day Symposium and other Earth Day events with President Valerie Sheares Ashby. Left to right: Sharad Pandey, Adeleke Segun Ademakinwa, Kamal Aryal, Tony La Luna, Roshan Mishra, Rhonda Plofkin, Valerie Sheares Ashby, Tolulope Ale, Erin Hamner, and Maurice Roots. (Image by Zhibo Zhang)

Monitoring the environment—from above Earth’s atmosphere to underwater

First organized in 2017, the Earth Day Symposium has grown in stature, size, and scope every year. This year’s theme was “monitoring planetary health,” a nod to the recently-launched NASA PACE mission carrying HARP2, a polarimeter designed and built at UMBC. HARP2 will improve our understanding of the roles various particles in the atmosphere—like dust, water vapor, and pollutants—play in climate and health. Previous symposium themes have included the environmental impacts of COVID-19, the synergy of scientific disciplines, and equity and environmental justice. 

Vanderlei Martins, professor of physics at UMBC and the HARP2 team lead, gave the first presentation, which was followed later in the morning by a panel discussion including PACE scientists from UMBC, NASA, and Morgan State University. 

The three main instruments on PACE have complementary roles. Each sees Earth a little differently, and will provide important data on plankton populations in the ocean, the role of clouds in Earth’s energy balance, and much more. “Each of these instruments is unique, and together, they are amazing,” Martins says. HARP2 “has capabilities we’ve never had before,” he adds. “I cannot even imagine everything we are going to learn.” 

Between Martins’ talk and the panel, Vanessa Vargas-Nguyen, a researcher with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), discussed her work on monitoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. UMCES produces one of several report cards for the Chesapeake Bay, collecting data on everything from populations of bottom-dwelling critters to concentrations of elements like phosphorus and nitrogen, which are commonly found in fertilizers. Now Vargas-Nguyen is expanding her group’s work to look at the entire watershed more holistically, including adding social factors like economic activity, governance structures, and population density. 

five people sit at a table with microphones in front of them; a large screen behind them shows a satellite image of the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding ocean with different colors representing different plankton communities in the ocean.
Panelists discussed the PACE mission. From left to right: Ivona Cetinic, senior research scientist with Morgan State University through the Goddard Earth Science and Technology Research Center (GESTAR) II; Susanne Craig, scientist with UMBC through GESTAR II; Kirk Knobelspiesse, researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Pengwang Zhai, professor of physics at UMBC; and Jeremy Werdell, project scientist for the PACE mission at NASA. (Photo by Kamal Aryal)

A hub for environmental action 

After the post-lunch hike, a poster session featured student and faculty research from UMBC, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Jing Wei, from the University of Maryland, College Park, discussed remote sensing methods for monitoring air pollution, and Robert Foster, from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, explained his work on monitoring microplastics in the ocean. Kandis Boyd, from the EPA, emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary and cross-sector partnerships.

Throughout the day, the ballroom buzzed with energy as students, UMBC faculty, and researchers from around the region shared their science and connected with each other. A shared sense of purpose guided the event, grounded in UMBC’s commitment to promoting a sustainable future. 

As Charles Ichoku, director of the Goddard Earth Science and Technology Research Center II, one of UMBC’s NASA partnerships, and a professor of GES, put it, “UMBC is a young university that does great things.”

Whether taking immediate action to improve the campus landscape, conducting research on global climate, or training the next generation of Earth scientists, the month of Earth Day events demonstrates how UMBC has positioned itself as a hub for environmental action.  

Tags: , , , , , ,

Scroll to Top