Daniel Vrinceanu: Champion of Science for the Underrepresented

An atomic physicist at Texas Southern University champions an emerging program in atmospheric science

By Corydon Ireland

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Physicist and mentor Daniel Vrinceanu is leading an effort to develop an atmospheric science track at Texas Southern University, a historically Black institution in the heart of Houston. Photo courtesy of Vrinceanu.

Editor’s note: The following feature story was originally published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric System Research program. The story describes a workforce-building collaboration with atmospheric scientists at DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and includes a mention of Brookhaven Lab’s sPHENIX detector.

Born in Romania amid a culture that honors the pursuit of science and mathematics, Texas Southern University (TSU) atomic physics professor Daniel Vrinceanu is a career-long expert in atomic and molecular physics and computational physics. Among other things, he has investigated exoplanet atmospheres and a class of atoms with exaggerated properties (like their large size) found only in the ultracold regions of outer space between stars.

Lately, he has brought his academic sights down to Earth.

In the fall of 2023, Vrinceanu and three other TSU colleagues were awarded a full three-year grant, “Partnership for Fostering Graduate Training in Atmospheric Sciences at Texas Southern University.” It’s part of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initiative called Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW).

With this boost from RENEW, TSU will take the first steps in creating the first-ever program in atmospheric science at this historically Black institution of higher learning in Houston, Texas.

RENEW will provide TSU chemistry and physics students opportunities for experiential training, mentoring, and data analysis.

Through a partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in New York,  TSU students taking part in the initiative will support a science focus area (SFA) called Process-Level AdvancementS of Climate Through Cloud and Aerosol Lifecycle Studies (PASCCALS).

The SFA is funded by the DOE’s Atmospheric System Research (ASR) program. As it happens, ASR program managers Shaima Nasiri and Jeff Stehr are prominent DOE champions of the RENEW initiative.

A TRACER Preview

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During TRACER, this July 2022 skyline of Houston illustrates a cloud-dominated sky. Photo by Guy Tubbs.

In the summer of 2022, Vrinceanu and a cohort of interested students got a handy preview of atmospheric science during an IOP—intensive operations period—for a one-year ASR-supported field campaign called Tracking Aerosol Convection Interactions Experiment (TRACER). In and around Houston, dozens of scientists and technicians were collecting data on the evolution of clouds and aerosols that feed the coastal region’s famously epic convective storms.

“Convective” describes the meteorological results—heavy rains, fierce winds, and bouts of hail—caused by destabilizing rapid updrafts and downdrafts from convection (heat transfer) in the atmosphere.

Aerosols are tiny particles in the air that make clouds and rain possible. Whether from pure or polluted environments, aerosols play a big role in initiating and growing storm clouds.

The Houston area’s aerosol influences include pristine sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, heavy industry to the east of the city, pollution sources in the city center, and regional farms and ranches.

TRACER investigations, accompanied by hundreds of fixed and mobile instrument systems, lasted from early October 2021 until late September 2022—an all-season interval designed to capture a full year of data on atmospheric processes linked to convective storms.

Core instruments for TRACER came from the campaign’s main sponsor, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility in DOE’s Office of Science.

‘Every Student is Different’

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During TRACER, on top of the roof of the Spearman Technology Building at Texas Southern University (TSU), Vrinceanu, second from right, poses with TSU graduate student Aaron Taylor, TRACER PI Mike Jensen, and Victor Migenes, chair of TSU's Department of Physics. Photo courtesy of Vrinceanu.

During the summer IOP, TSU students fanned out among the climate science experts to launch radiosonde balloons and help maintain complex sensors.

They were curious about this new path of inquiry, says Vrinceanu, who this fall anticipates two new courses in atmospheric science to appear in physics and chemistry course listings.

“Every student is different,” says Vrinceanu.

One wants to be a television meteorologist. Others are curious about “the geography of pollutants,” he says.

They are motivated by concerns over air quality, pollution disproportionately impacting low-income populations, the outsized effect of severe storms on minorities, and broader questions of environmental justice.

From Brookhaven, an Invitation

All this started in the heart of the Pandemic.

In 2020, Vrinceanu and other TSU faculty members used a DOE research and development pilot program to explore the idea of expanding study opportunities for students. Noel Blackburn, chief diversity officer at BNL, then suggested starting a DOE-sponsored mentoring partnership.

Vrinceanu remembers thinking: “Look, we don’t have an atmospheric science program. We don’t have much history (in that field). It was nice talking to you.”

Then things took a turn. BNL meteorologist Mike Jensen stepped in, urging TSU faculty to pursue a dialog and common points of scientific interest.

Jensen was not only head of the Cloud Processes and Measurement Science group at BNL, but also TRACER’s principal investigator (PI).

“He encouraged us to apply” for further DOE funding, says Vrinceanu, who was joined in the eventual RENEW grant by two TSU faculty co-investigators: Mark Harvey (nuclear physics), Bruce Prince (chemistry), and Victor Migenes (astrophysics). “We discovered we can actually do things together.”

Along the way, Jensen invited Vrinceanu and others to visit TRACER observation sites. (One set of instruments ended up on the rooftop of TSU’s Spearman Technology Building.)

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Vrinceanu, second from left, poses in 2024 with six of his RENEW students. Second from right is Brookhaven National Laboratory's Mike Jensen. At the far right is TSU nuclear physicist and RENEW co-PI Mark Harvey. Photo courtesy of Vrinceanu.

The Path to RENEW

From there, things unfolded fast.

In mid-May 2023, TSU hosted the first TRACER science conference as well as a two-day science meeting—the Aerosol, Cloud, Precipitation, and Climate Workshop. The latter was organized by the Aerosol, Cloud, Precipitation and Climate working group, an international research consortium that first suggested Houston as the ideal place for a field campaign on coastal convective processes.

In the summer of 2023, three TSU students left for BNL to join DOE’s inaugural Environmental Justice Internship Program, part of the Justice40 initiative.

And in the fall of 2023, along came the RENEW grant.

RENEW allows TSU to expand what had been a limited Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). The RENEW project means that TSU can expand the SURP experience, says Vrinceanu, which traditionally concludes with students presenting their research at an August symposium.

In June 2024, six TSU undergraduates (up from three the summer before) will report to BNL for 10 weeks of training and immersion in atmospheric science.

One graduate student and eight undergraduate students at TSU are part of RENEW. By chance, all of them are women and most are studying chemistry.

The TSU-BNL exchange is not exclusively about atmospheric science. During one 2023 visit to BNL, Vrinceanu joined RENEW co-PI Bruce Prince and TSU interns for an overview of the sPHENIX detector, a radical upgrade of the Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interaction eXperiment (PHENIX). The 1,000-ton, two-story device detects particles from BNL’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, capturing the products of up to 15,000 collisions per second.

Jensen is a de facto RENEW faculty member, joined by two co-PIs: Chongai Kuang and Maria Zawadowicz, both BNL aerosol researchers. All three are guest lecturers in Vrinceanu’s classes via video conferencing, and occasionally in person when they have a chance to deliver talks on campus.

During such visits, the students get very excited at the idea of meeting “somebody from the field, from the trenches,” says Vrinceanu.

In accepting the idea of RENEW, he remembers, “We said: Why not? Even though we are not experts, we can explore—and we may even end up helping them.”

Three Teams, Three Projects

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During a 2023 visit to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Vrinceanu, center right in a blue shirt, and RENEW co-PI Bruce Prince, in the maroon shirt, join TSU interns for an overview of sPHENIX, a radically updated version of the Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interaction eXperiment (PHENIX). In the pink shirt at left is presenter Ed O'Brien, assistant chair of the BNL Physics Department and former director of the sPHENIX project. Photo courtesy of Vrinceanu.

TSU already offers a master’s degree in chemistry. Vrinceanu foresees a day soon when the university adds a master’s degree in physics with an optional track in atmospheric science. (A PhD degree, he adds, is on the drawing board too.)

During the school year, RENEW participants at TSU, divided into three teams of three, pursue separate atmospheric science projects.

One team is building a prototype of a small electronic environmental monitor about the size of a deck of cards. Production models can be deployed, for instance, mounted on urban lampposts.

The devices, each costing about $100, are designed for low-tech networks that collect continuous measurements of temperature, humidity, and the concentration of particles up to 2.5-microns in diameter (PM 2.5). That’s small enough to be inhaled and affect human health. The students plan a campus pilot project.

The second team is doing a computational study on the chemistry of alpha pinene, a volatile chemical emitted from pine trees and other coniferous sources. They want to know how the a-pinene molecule becomes a secondary organic aerosol in the atmosphere and then transforms into a particle.

The third team will process data, mostly from ARM, to practice data processing and learn geostatistical tools. They aim to correlate PM 2.5 concentrations with cloud condensation nuclei that help form clouds.

While Vrinceanu is an atomic physicist, the RENEW project has put him frequently in touch with the atmospheric science community. Its culture, compared to many others in science, he says, is “very welcoming and open.”

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, through the Biological and Environmental Research program as part of the Atmospheric System Research program.

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