March 16, 2004
When a friend asked Jorge Vazquez to speak eight years ago to a group of high school students about his job and Earth science, the JPL oceanographer reluctantly said yes. "I didn't think I'd like it," he says. Vazquez was right. He didn't like it: he loved it. Word got out, and before he knew it, he was getting calls from high school and junior high school teachers throughout the area. "I think they have some kind of network," he jokes.
Since that first talk, Vazquez has given countless presentations to students and has become very active in youth programs for the service group Rotary International. This coming spring, he'll be stepping into a classroom again to talk to students, this time not as a guest speaker, but as the professor of a college class teaching Earth science to future teachers.
When he's not teaching Earth science, Vazquez will be practicing it at JPL, where he has been part of the ocean sciences' group for 20 years. "Here at the Lab, I wear two hats," says Vazquez. "The first is as task scientist for the Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center."
The Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center is a central clearinghouse for measurements of ocean wind speed and direction, ocean height, and sea surface temperature made by NASA satellites. It also distributes other data in collaboration with other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Navy. It is one of eight similar NASA centers, which specialize in managing a particular type of data from NASA's Earth observing missions. For example, the National Snow and Ice Center in Boulder, Colo., stores and provides data on snow, ice and the cryosphere, while the Langley Atmospheric Sciences Data Center in Hampton, Va., handles data on clouds, aerosols and tropospheric chemistry.
"Here at JPL, we archive and send out data that describes the physical state of the ocean," Vazquez says. "Wind measurements tell you about the forcing of the ocean--the currents. Sea level, or ocean surface topography measured by altimetry, shows you where heat is stored in the ocean. Sea surface temperature gives you a good idea about how heat moves from the ocean to the atmosphere."
"As task scientist, I serve as a liaison between the science community and the center," Vazquez says. "I organize the user working group, the advisory board that decides what kinds of data we want to have and plans for the future, including the kind of technology we want to use. For example, in the old days we sent data out on 9-track tape, now our goal is to make everything electronic."
"We primarily serve three kinds of data users: the scientific community, the educational community and commercial users," says Vazquez. "Commercial users, such as fisheries and weather forecasters, are a small but growing group, especially as we move toward being able to provide near real-time satellite data. This is a new direction for us; we can now get data to users only a few hours after the satellite observations are made."
"All our users are equally important," says Vazquez, "and we are very proud that all our data are provided free of charge."
Vazquez's second hat is research. "My own research involves trying to improve the quality of sea surface temperature data," he says. "The temperature of the ocean is a major indicator of climate change. The ocean remembers things a lot longer than the atmosphere does," says Vazquez. "But to use sea surface temperature to track climate change, you need to be able to measure temperature to within one tenth of one degree over a ten-year period. Creating good climate records is one of NASA's goals."
Vazquez decided on a career in oceanography while he was an undergraduate at the University of Miami. "I had originally intended to study medicine, but biology class convinced me that this was not my calling," he says. "Perhaps it was that first dissection."
"I really liked physics and I was fascinated with nature and Earth science. In my senior year, I took an oceanography class from Howard Gordon, a pioneer in satellite oceanography, and knew that was what I wanted to do."
Vazquez completed his master's degree in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and came to work at JPL on ocean altimetry. Taking advantage of the Laboratory's educational program, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California doing research on the Gulf Stream.
When he begins his formal teaching job at Azusa Pacific University this year, Vazquez will be continuing a family tradition. Both of his parents were teachers. His father taught biology and his mother taught Spanish at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, where the family emigrated from Cuba when Vazquez was three years old and his brother was six.
For fun, Vazquez likes to bike, snow ski and read historical novels. "But my passion is working with kids in high school and college," he says. "The best experience is often not from the kids who are at the top of their class but the ones who are super interested and appreciative."