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North Hall grad tours globe for graduate research

POSTED: June 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.
/For The Times

A plane flies alongside the one Terry Lathem is working on during a mission over the Arctic.

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Terry Lathem grew up hiking, camping and otherwise spending time close to nature.

These days, the 24-year-old Hall County native’s activities are anything but earthbound. "I guess you could say my head is stuck in the clouds," he said.

Lathem, a 2002 North Hall High School graduate, has spent the past year or so on research excursions involving government agencies to Costa Rica and the Arctic Circle, and this summer he’ll study the effects of Canadian wildfires on the Arctic.

"As of two years ago, I had never even been on a plane," said Lathem, son of Richard and Janet Lathem. "I never would have thought I would be flying 50 to 60 hours on flights in these missions."

He is applying the research to his pursuit of a doctorate from Georgia Tech, where he has earned a bachelor’s degree in earth and atmospheric sciences.

Lathem has received four years of funding for his research and education through a Georgia Tech Institute Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and NASA.

He’s now forming some ideas on how he wants to spend his life — perhaps as a professor or working with some federal agency — but that wasn’t so much the case coming out of high school.

"I was good in math and sciences, so I went to Gainesville College for a couple of years to get the basic humanities and those kinds of things out of the way and to try to figure out my path," Lathem said.

Sparked by an interest in physics, he transferred to Georgia Tech and began to focus on earth and atmospheric sciences.

He decided he enjoyed applying math and science to "real-world problems."

"Climate change and air pollution are huge issues that face us today," Lathem said.

"I always have been a nature lover," he said. "... One of my turning points for me (in deciding his studies) was driving into Atlanta for the first time.

"When I looked at the skyline and saw the smog and haze and the road went from two lanes (when beginning the trip) to 14, those kinds of things really began to change my impression of how we as humans are impacting the environment, and I wanted to ... figure out how we’re changing the environment and how we can mitigate some of those problems."

In his senior year of college, Lathem applied for and received a NASA internship.

Last year, he traveled to Costa Rica for a month on a climate experiment.

"We did flights all through the Caribbean and over South America," Lathem said. "We were looking for dust flying in the air or through the clouds ... to sample the properties associated with those."

He’s now involved in an Arctic study that took place in April and May and has resumed for June and July.

That work, involving NASA and other agencies, focuses on the travel of pollutants to the Arctic and "whether that leads to the warming that’s been observed there," Lathem said.

He participated in overnight flights between Alaska and Greenland, including passing over the North Pole.

"We were looking at the effects of black carbon, which absorbs sunlight and can deposit on the snow and warms the air temperature," Lathem said. "We were trying to make correlations between that and (global) warming."

He will head later this month to Alberta, Canada, where he and others are studying forest fire smoke’s effect on the Arctic.

That means flights through burning areas. "We won’t be going into the fires but (will fly) at the upper levels."

This fall, Lathem’s feet will be firmly planted on the ground.

"I will settle back down, start back with my classes and analyze all the data I’ve collected," he said.

He hasn’t defined what his thesis will say but expects it will be "along the lines of air pollution and climate change and the effects of those."

As for life beyond college, will the adventure continue? "That’s still kind of in question. I’ve always enjoyed helping people ... so professor at a leading university is always at the top of my list," Lathem said.

He pondered the question a little more and discussed another possible route. "... Working for a federal agency, continuing to do this maybe initially and then settling down as a professor later on."



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