Darren De Zeeuw studies weather, but he’s not concerned with rain clouds and cold fronts. As an associate research scientist for the College of Engineering’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, he works in space weather modeling.
“We’re trying to predict the environment in space. We’re looking for the environments that the satellites above Earth will be in, and trying to predict the effect of a solar storm on that satellite,” De Zeeuw says of his work.
Space weather modeling combines physics, computer science and mathematics, and De Zeeuw’s background in civil and aerospace engineering prepared him for the work he does now. He loves technology — his office is cluttered with computer parts — and he jokes that he’s “the local tech support person for our research group.”
Although most people probably don’t think space weather affects their daily lives, De Zeeuw explains that it causes a few well-known phenomena.
“When the sun has a coronal mass ejection, those particles can affect the radiation dose coming into polar regions of Earth, often requiring flights to be diverted. A visible effect of those storms are the Northern Lights,” he says.
He has also been working on a virtual observatory that allows users to log on to a Web page and look at the results from the models that De Zeeuw and his team are studying. “Now anyone can look at the data and try and learn and participate in science,” he says.
Engineering runs in the De Zeeuw family — his two sons and daughter all either are studying or plan to study engineering — and as a result of his youngest son’s interest in robotics, De Zeeuw got involved with the Dexter High School robotics team, the Dreadbots.
As a mentor for the team, De Zeeuw helps the students plan, build and operate the robot they design to perform an assigned task, which changes every year. Last year, the challenge was called “Ultimate Ascent,” and robots had to be able to pick up Frisbees from various locations, shoot them into a target for points, and then climb a tower at the end.
“They’re 140-pound, 3-foot tall robots, built from a generic kit of parts and what you can get from your sponsors. You get six weeks to plan and build, then you stick your robot in a bag and lock it up until it’s time to compete,” De Zeeuw says. “The design has to be creative. One motor was from a Fischer-Price car, and a gearbox was from one of those little plastic trucks kids drive.”
The Dreadbots did well in their local competitions last year and got invited to the FIRST Robotics Competition world championship in St. Louis.
“I was on the floor, hollering advice. The kids were driving the robot; I was watching the clock. It’s like a live-action sports competition at that point, just go-go-go,” De Zeeuw says.
The team performed well at the world championship and looks forward to competing this year, and De Zeeuw plans on mentoring again.
“If robotics was around when I was in high school, I would’ve been interested in it. It’s a great way to get kids involved in engineering. There’s always going to be a need for somebody to be able to analyze a problem and find a solution — that’s what engineering is, that’s what robotics is.”
Q and A
What can’t you live without?
Technology. I like cutting-edge stuff. I’m a big Mac fan.
What is your favorite spot on campus?
The Wave Field. It was being built when I was finishing my Ph.D., and I could see it out of the window I was working at the time.
What inspires you?
Curiosity. I like to figure out how things work.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve been working my way through a bunch of David Baldacci.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My high school math teacher. He got me liking math and looking into careers that could make use of it.