NCAR engineer blends family with science

Scott Spuler is a dad at home and a dad in the lab.

The 45-year-old research engineer designs and builds scientific instruments at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He said he treats each of the instruments like one of his kids.

“The instruments take a long time to develop,” Spuler said. “They all are a series of problems you have to solve, and they’re all a pain in some ways that you have to wrestle with. They can be frustrating, so you end up having that connection to them. Anything you have to wrestle with you have that kind of connection with.”

His latest creation is no exception.

For the past two years, Spuler has collaborated with other scientists to engineer a device that helps researchers look inside clouds as water droplets evaporate. The Holographic Detector for Clouds (HOLODEC) sends a beam of light — roughly the size of a cigar — through cloud particles in a process called digital holography.

When attached to an airplane and steered through clouds, HOLODEC produces a 3D hologram of cloud particles.

HOLODEC showed that dry air completely evaporates some water droplets and leaves others untouched.

The implication of this finding, Spuler said, is better weather and climate change predictions.

Spuler said part of his job is identifying and filling knowledge gaps in atmospheric science.

“We first identify the most pressing science needs or where we’re the least well-understood,” he said. “A research engineer works with the atmospheric scientists to try to develop new instrumentation so we can make new observations and move the science forward. Generally, we focus on weather gaps — things we haven’t measured before.”

Jacob Fugle, who also worked on HOLODEC, said the engineering process involved a lot of guessing. They weren’t sure if their calculations would actually produce a functioning device.

“Our calculations said it should be close,” Fugle said. “We looked at each other with a look of relief. If it hadn’t worked, then we had just spent a lot of money on equipment we couldn’t use.”

The results from HOLODEC put to rest a debate over how clouds evaporate. One school of thought argued that when a cloud mixes with dry air, the droplets would evaporate completely one by one. Others thought they would shrink in unison while simultaneously relinquishing small amounts of water.

Spuler’s colleagues are confident this project and others of its kind couldn’t be completed without his expertise.

“He is one of a rare breed of engineers who has full facility with the technical aspects of his discipline and also has a genuine interest and ability to interact with scientists who are trying to solve tricky problems,” said Raymond Shaw, a professor of physics at Michigan Technological University who worked alongside Spuler in the development of HOLODEC.

Shaw noted that his design for HOLODEC allowed the contraption to work in a challenging environment — attached to an aircraft — with high humidity and temperature swings of more than 100 degrees.

Though Spuler would protest, saying constructing such a complicated device is just another day in the office, his colleagues are positive this isn’t the case.

“Working with Scott has been a privilege,” Shaw said. “The science just wouldn’t happen without Scott’s expertise in making this instrument a reality.”

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