Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

From Oceans to the Atmosphere and Beyond: Community College Students Dive into Research at CIRES, CU Boulder

During the first week of a CIRES-based summer research program, community college students spent two days trudging through unexpected June snow while getting to know each other at 9,500 feet above sea-level at CU Boulder’s Mountain Research Station. Now, the 2022 Research Experience for Community College Students (RECCS) students are hard at work on their research projects in offices, labs and field sites in and around Boulder.

“The students who participate in the RECCS program have different backgrounds and experiences, but they are united in their excitement about research and their eagerness to learn,” said Alicia Christensen, the RECCS program manager. “RECCS provides a supportive environment where they can explore science communication, research skills, career readiness, and science identity.”

Led by the CIRES Education & Outreach program, RECCS pairs community college students from across Colorado with scientists from CIRES, CU Boulder and NOAA for an authentic research experience in environmental or Earth science. During the nine-week program, students learn research, writing and communication skills, enabling them to gain the confidence to transition to a four-year program in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) disciplines. The summer research program was one of the first in the geosciences to focus specifically on community college students.

“RECCS has been awesome because I've learned things about the science field that I never thought were possible,” said Karla Lemus, a 2022 RECCS intern working with CIRES fellow Ellie Browne and chemistry PhD student Bri Dobson. “It’s made me really appreciate how we can incorporate science into the real world.”

Lemus is spending her summer in a lab on the third floor of the Cristol Chemistry and Biochemistry building, analyzing the chemical composition and reactivity of urea, an organic compound involved in the metabolism of nitrogen compounds in humans and animals. The lab work is hands-on, allowing her to gain experience handling and measuring samples on a machine called a chemical ionization mass spectrometer. Lemus’ research could help scientists determine how urea gas impacts the nitrogen cycle and interacts with aerosols in the atmosphere. 

Karla Lemus setting up a peristaltic pump, which is used for sampling urea, in the Browne Lab on June 23, 2022. Credit: Brigitta Rongstad/CIRES

In an office nearby, another RECCS student, Xavier Cotton, is digging through terabytes of global environmental data, including ocean temperatures and precipitation. Cotton, a student from Front Range Community College, is working with CIRES/NOAA research scientists John Albers, Melissa Breeden and Brandon Wolding to study how El Niño Southern Oscillation, which influences ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, impacts weather around the world. This summer, you’ll find him expertly building new code that can read and analyze years of data from many different locations and building colorful maps to display his findings.

“This research experience has been so helpful for me in figuring out what kind of scientist I want to be and it has helped me become so much more confident in myself,” Cotton said. 

The RECCS program, which has served 99 students since its inception in 2014, isn’t just about research—it also helps students build a sense of community and belonging. 

“My favorite part of RECCS is the cohort,” said Liam Milton, a student from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, whose research project is focused on the hydrology of the Upper Colorado River Basin. “It's such a supportive group of people, all from different backgrounds and experiences. It's like a second family to me.” 

Liam Milton (Right) explains his 2022 summer research project in a short video. Credit: L. Milton.

With the summer 2022 program coming to a close, many students are looking toward their futures. Lemus will graduate from the Community College of Denver later this year, and in spring 2023, she hopes to start at CU Boulder. This fall, Cotton will move on to Colorado School of Mines to pursue a bachelor’s of science in computer science. Milton plans to transfer to Colorado State University to study ecosystem science and sustainability.

“I've learned a lot of valuable lessons from my mentors and program coordinators that I wouldn't have learned otherwise, and I am excited to use my new knowledge and connections in the future in order to excel in academia,” Lemus said.

The 2022 RECCS students will give their final presentations on July 29 from 9:00am-12:00pm. You can watch the presentations live on YouTube or in-person at CU Boulder’s University Memorial Center (UMC 386). For more information about this year’s students, please visit:

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.


Alicia Christensen
RECCS progam manager | CIRES Education & Outreach
Brigitta Rongstad
CIRES Communications

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