From Eritrea to UMBC, this physicist is cultivating a diverse generation of climate scientists.
It’s a nearly cloudless afternoon at UMBC in early October. A group of physics students and their two faculty advisors, Belay Demoz and Ruben Delgado, make their way to the roof of the physics building to continue their conversation about atmospheric research. Earlier, gathered in a small, dimmed lecture hall, the students engaged their advisors and each other in robust discussions about their research while practicing their presentation skills.
In that session, Amanze Ejiogu ’22, physics, had the chance to explain his findings on the Bay Breeze. Rather than an adult beverage, it refers to breezes coming in off the Chesapeake Bay that redirect back to land air masses (and the pollutants they contain) that would otherwise blow offshore.
The Bay Breeze effect is a complicated phenomenon. Many factors contribute to it, from precipitation to wind speed to the overall quality of the air. Understanding it is a multidisciplinary effort, requiring chemistry, fluid dynamics, statistics, and meteorology skills. That’s exactly the kind of challenge that Demoz, physics professor and director of UMBC’s Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology (JCET), likes to help his students tackle.
After Ejiogu’s presentation, Demoz asks questions. His elbow leaning casually against a railing, he breaks into a grin—he is in his element. Of a certain result, he asks, “Is that expected?” And a minute later, “That’s for you to figure out,” his Eritrean accent inflecting his speech.
Climate change and other environmental issues like air and water quality disproportionately affect people of color. Today, Demoz sees his role at UMBC as empowering students, especially students from underrepresented backgrounds, to take ownership of their research and contribute to their communities. Eventually, he hopes his graduates will also become mentors and advocates for their own students and colleagues—behaviors he models for them every day.
This wasn’t always Demoz’s idea of what his life’s work would be. After a challenging childhood in what is now the East African country of Eritrea, Demoz came to the United States for graduate school in the 1980s. His original goal was to learn how to seed clouds—to bring rain to his drought-stricken homeland. He’s still doing climate research, but his focus has shifted. His experiences as a youth in Eritrea and his years as an African in the United States have shaped who he has become and what he seeks to achieve.
Graduates from all backgrounds have left Demoz’s lab and taken roles at places like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other research institutions. These alumni create a ripple effect that will continue to enhance diversity in atmospheric research and answer questions that have the potential to change the lives of people around the globe, in part because of Belay Demoz.
Maurice Roots, a graduate student in atmospheric physics, has already felt the effects of Demoz’s efforts. Roots, who graduated from Hampton University, only applied to UMBC for graduate school because Demoz approached him at a conference. “Belay has a great set of stories to tell,” Roots says. “His journey shows that perseverance is possible.”
A changing homeland
“It’s where the desert and the green are always fighting.”
That’s how Demoz describes the location of Eritrea. It’s a small African country on the Red Sea, sandwiched between Sudan and Ethiopia, right where the Sahara Desert and the jungles of central Africa meet. Many people there are subsistence farmers, including generations of the physicist’s family.
It used to be that when drought or floods hit, Eritrean farmers moved to where the grass was literally greener. But that changed after their land was colonized by the Italians and later the British. Strict political borders limited movement. “Once you put a wall, that valve of mitigating drought disappears,” Demoz says.
His childhood and youth in Eritrea, in the 1960s and ’70s, was one of the most volatile times for the region, when an internal resistance movement was fighting Ethiopia to gain independence. “My time was a time of coups, a time of drought, a time of war,” Demoz says. “Those are the times when a lot of heartache happened.”
Many people died because they weren’t allowed to migrate. Their crops failed in the drought, and some starved. Some died when they attempted to migrate and met violence along the way. Demoz’s older brother and many of his friends perished fighting in the resistance.
An unlikely advocate
Belay Demoz knew the challenges his people were facing. So in 1980, when he finished high school and was assigned to study physics as an undergraduate at the University of Asmara in what was to become Eritrea, he knew he wanted to find a way to use his education to make things better for his family.
At first, he struggled. He failed his first three exams. And then the first of several major turning points in his life happened, the first time help came from where he least expected it.
Demoz and his roommate frequently played soccer together. Both were highly talented but knew there was no career for them in the sport. So, after Demoz failed his third physics exam, his roommate decided it was time for an intervention.
“You can play soccer so well, but you’re going to let physics twist you?” he asked Demoz. “No, you study with me.” So he did. And by the next semester, Demoz was at the top of his class. “Part of me was afraid,” Demoz admits. Why? His roommate had recently been released from prison on a murder conviction. But “if I didn’t find him, I don’t think I would have made it.”
As his undergraduate career was coming to a close in 1984, another severe drought hit Eritrea. Demoz wanted to do something, but he didn’t know how his nuclear physics degree could help the situation. Then, he learned about cloud seeding in a Physics Today article.
In the 1980s, cloud seeding seemed like the next big revolution in weather modification. In order for clouds to produce rain, the water molecules they contain need to condense into liquid form. That happens around tiny solid particles inside the cloud. Cloud seeding adds these particles, creating more opportunities for raindrops to form.
“That’s when I switched from nuclear to atmospheric physics,” Demoz says. “I wanted to help make it rain.”
He applied and was accepted to the atmospheric physics program at the University of Nevada, Reno, but to leave Eritrea, he had to promise that he would come back. Without the required funds to guarantee that promise, his parents had to put their family home on the line so that he could study in the U.S.
“I was given $50 and a plane ticket,” Demoz remembers. “My dad didn’t blink. He just said, ‘Go. We will find a way.’”
Peaks and valleys
In Nevada, everything was new and different. “At 22, it was my first time to see snow,” Demoz says. And not just through his dorm room window—his courses and research involved spending ample time in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After replacing his dress shoes with snow boots and skis, Demoz began to learn his way around the mountains.
In addition to the new climate, there were other steep learning curves for Demoz in graduate school. One of the core courses required computer programming skills. One day, Professor Jim Telford—Demoz refers to him as a “cloud giant”—called Demoz into his office.
Telford devised the stochastic rain theory when he was a master’s student in the 1960s, which describes why and predicts when clouds will produce rain. Today there is still no better theory. Demoz describes him as an arrogant, brilliant Australian scientist, who also went to great lengths to ensure his students’ success. Demoz remembers their first conversation going something like this:
“You must be pretty good in programming,” Telford says.
“No, I’m not.” Demoz replies.
“Well, have you used a computer?” Telford asks.
“Have you touched a computer?”
As Demoz recalls, Telford roared with laughter and rushed to another room to share with a colleague the ridiculousness of a Ph.D. student in physics who had never touched a computer.
“At this point, I’m thinking, I’m doomed!” Demoz remembers. “But there’s something inside me saying, I am an Eritrean, and others are fighting for independence. There’s something instilled in me. And so I stood there.” And instead of throwing him out, Telford agreed to give Demoz a crash course in computing.
For two weeks, Demoz sat with a clunky 1985 desktop and a pile of Fortran books in Telford’s office, learning how to program. Today, Demoz tells his students, “If you cannot compute, you cannot compete. Everyone who has achieved something in our field is good in programming.” But his experience with Telford was about more than programming. It was about a mentor making a special effort to help a student succeed. Belay carries that memory with him today and strives to pay it forward to his own students.
In addition to learning all about clouds and weather modification, and completing a dissertation titled, “Sierra Nevada Winter Storms Using Microwave Radiometry, Ice Crystal, and Isotopic Techniques,” Demoz learned something else important in Reno—what it felt like to be black in the United States, especially in higher education and especially in physics.
He noticed it right away in his courses (he was the only black person) and in the city. “It takes a toll,” he says. “Reno had a very tough police force.” He was stopped on many occasions as he drove home late from doing research in the mountains, seemingly for nothing. “I tend to be an outlier,” he reflects. “You don’t see a lot of black people doing cloud seeding and working with snow.”
Only later would he find out that the graduate program had accepted him as a “test case”—he was the first African accepted to the program and the first to graduate with a Ph.D. He remembers John Hallett (another “cloud giant” and another of Demoz’s important mentors) telling him, years later, “We wanted to see if those schools [in East Africa] were any good. That’s why we admitted you.” That, of course, didn’t sit well with Demoz and stayed with him as his future in physics unfolded.
Shifting the landscape
Once he finished his Ph.D., Demoz pursued postdoctoral studies at the University of Illinois in cloud chemistry. In 1997, UMBC finally entered his experience. He completed a second postdoc with UMBC at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Demoz continued his work at NASA after his postdoc ended. Then, another life-changing moment: He got a call from Howard University to help create a new atmospheric research center there in 2006. “The whole reason I studied this field was to go back and seed clouds,” Demoz reflects. “That wasn’t happening, but I realized, there is plenty to be done here.” So Demoz jumped at the chance to contribute to the historically black university while continuing his research program at NASA.
“It was around that time that I started to be conscious of my status as a minority in the field,” Demoz remembers. “It bothered me, being one of the only ones.”
At a conference around then, Demoz and a handful of other atmospheric researchers of color met in the lobby. “And we asked, OK, what is our part?” Their first step was to join efforts in developing the Howard research center together.
In 2005, Demoz was awarded a NASA Administrators Fellowship—a two-year sabbatical during which recipients are expected to build up a program at a minority-serving institution. The fellowship allowed Demoz to focus full time on building up the research center in Beltsville, which is administered by NOAA. When the two years were up, Demoz didn’t go back to his research program at NASA, choosing instead to commit himself permanently to the work of increasing the success of minorities in atmospheric science.
“Most people thought I was crazy because NASA is a stable job for life,” Demoz says. “But thinking about all the support that I had growing up, I decided my place was there.”
Building the pipeline
Over the next several years, Demoz and colleagues built up the NOAA Center for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) at Howard University’s campus in Beltsville, Maryland. The NCAS is a “super-site” among the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) Reference Upper Air Network (GRUAN), a set of sites worldwide that looks at air and cloud chemistry. People around the world rely on the data it collects and the analyses the Beltsville researchers (including many students) conduct for their own work. The Beltsville GRUAN site contributes powerfully to science and also to increasing the diversity of scientists. It is the only GRUAN site in the world operated by a university, which is a source of pride for Demoz.
Students who’ve studied at the GRUAN site from Howard, UMBC, and elsewhere—many of them from underrepresented backgrounds—have gone on to careers at preeminent government and private research organizations. “You can involve students no matter how specialized and difficult your science is,” Demoz says. “The Beltsville site has made quite a number of important scientific advances and also brought diversity to the federal agencies.”
At the same time, the small group of African and African-American climate researchers who had met at the conference in the early 1990s started to formalize their lobby conversations into an official event at other meetings. “It paid off. We used to meet in a bar in the hotel lobby at the American Meteorological Society conferences. Right now, Colour of Weather is perhaps the biggest minority-focused group in atmospheric sciences, and it is what we started,” Demoz says with pride. “It’s held in a ballroom. I look at that and I think, I didn’t go back to Eritrea and seed clouds, but I’m making a difference here.”
Bringing a meaningful vision to life
With his experience at NASA and as a professor of physics at Howard, and his commitment to mentoring students from all backgrounds, Demoz was a perfect fit to serve as the next director of UMBC’s JCET, a partnership with NASA formed in 1995, when the position opened up in 2014.
As JCET director, Demoz has clear ideas about what he wants to accomplish. “If I can get a really strong, diverse graduate program here, that would be great. And I think that’s possible here.” In addition to recruiting and mentoring students from diverse backgrounds, Demoz says continuing to diversify the faculty is also a worthy goal. The UMBC physics department is already off to a strong start, with faculty members from Brazil, Eritrea, China, Hungary, Greece, and Puerto Rico.
Students are noticing the changes Demoz has modeled. “He really cares about his students and wants them to succeed,” adds Kylie Hoffman, a third-year graduate student. “He wants to help you do what you want to do.”
He supports graduate and undergraduate students alike. After giving his presentation at the lab meeting, sophomore Amanze Ejiogu expected that “a seasoned atmospheric science veteran would pull it apart like cotton candy,” he says. But Demoz didn’t. “He was very respectful and asked genuine, thoughtful questions that will help me take my research forward.”
“Belay has been a great mentor for teaching lessons that are never covered in a classroom,” says Brian Carroll, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate. “I’m proud to be part of such a diverse research group,” Carroll adds. “Thanks to my experiences with the group, I will pursue and highlight diversity in my own workplaces and the community at large as I progress in my own career.”
When asked about Demoz’s mentoring, Maurice Roots is more straightforward: “He’s good at it,” Roots replied. “So I’m taking notes.”
Demoz himself benefited from support and mentoring—sometimes from unlikely places. “Help will come from the place you least expect it, so be open,” Demoz says, maybe remembering the time a convicted murderer got him through his nuclear physics degree or an arrogant scientist made sure he was ready for programming class. Or maybe even the time he got the green light from Howard University to start the Beltsville Climate program or the call from UMBC to apply for the JCET directorship.
It’s all part of Demoz’s story. Now he’s taken it as his mission to help students create their own stories, with a strong start at UMBC.
“By seeing us,” he says, “I hope that students say, ‘I belong here.’”
Header image: Demoz meets with students on top of the physics building. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.