Techniques Development Meteorologist
Science Support Branch
Storm Prediction Center
By Keli Pirtle (NOAA Public Affairs) and Ariel Cohen (SPC)
Q: How did you get into weather?
A: I have always been interested in weather.
When I lived in Georgia as a child, I remember sitting outside and watching afternoon thunderstorms.
What really confirmed my choice to follow a career path in meteorology was the April 21, 1996, tornado in Ft. Smith, Ark.
Two children were killed by this tornado.
In fact, the cousin of one of my good friends at the time was one of those killed.
My response to this event was that I wanted to become knowledgeable in forecasting such destructive weather
and strive to ensure these fatalities do not happen again.
Since then, I have been angling myself to become a part of the field of meteorology,
and, in particular, studying and forecasting severe thunderstorms.
Q: Describe your career path to the SPC.
A: I earned Bachelor of Science degrees in math and physics from the University of Arkansas in 2005.
That fall, I came to the University of Oklahoma to begin graduate work.
I earned my Master of Science degree in meteorology in 2007, and just finished my doctorate.
During my time here at OU, I have been fortunate to get to know Harold Brooks from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL),
and he included me in many opportunities within the Norman weather community.
In particular, he wanted me to participate in the VORTEX2 project, which connected me with
Lou Wicker who is also at NSSL.
Through this networking, I had the unique opportunity to work in the VORTEX2
Operations Center, which led to my eventual position as NSSL liaison for the Hazardous Weather Testbed (HWT).
This worked out through partnerships I developed with my mentors Jack Kain and Dave Stensrud, both from NSSL,
who also established my graduate student position.
I served in the role of NSSL liaison from 2010 to 2013 while also working on my Ph.D.
The experiences I had with the HWT allowed me to work closely with staff at the SPC,
and these opportunities were instrumental in developing the skill sets I would need to
eventually work at the SPC Science Support Branch.
Fortunately for me, as I was finishing up my Ph.D., the Science Support Branch position of
Techniques Development Meteorologist became available,
which I was offered and accepted, making me the most recent hire at the SPC.
Q: What were some of your responsibilities with VORTEX2?
A: I originally planned to lead weather briefings during VORTEX2.
However, as this project started, and the needs of the project evolved, I oversaw the scheduling of student
volunteers and coordination efforts with NWS liaisons.
I essentially took over VORTEX2 operations as they related to the missions of the NSSL and SPC,
and my role in this endeavor continued into 2010.
We were the go-to people in making sure the researchers in the field, who were observing storms,
were aware of any sudden changes in weather activity that could potentially harm them.
For example, we made sure those taking radar measurements were aware of any storm with hail that
could impact them – hailstones and $300,000 parabolic radar dishes do not necessarily go well together.
We provided a safety net by sharing guidance regarding real-time weather events and served as sounding
boards with ideas regarding possible deployment opportunities for those observing storms in the field.
The day that highlighted the importance of our role was May 10, 2010, when an outbreak of tornadoes occurred in central Oklahoma.
During this event, the VORTEX2 field crew was in eastern Oklahoma,
where hilly terrain and low visibility impede efforts in identifying storm structure,
and at least some of the VORTEX2 mobile units had advanced ahead of an EF4 tornado.
These units were in areas of absolutely zero visibility, and our backup group implored them to
get out of the path of the storms by moving southward to avoid being harmed by the tornado.
That experience was rewarding.
However, at the same time, I had great concern that my house in Norman could have been impacted by a
tornado, as damage reports were coming into the VORTEX2 Operations Center.
Fortunately, the tornado missed where I lived, as it was a mile to the south of us,
and we escaped the brunt of the event aside from being without power at home.
Q: What interests you about tornadoes?
A: For me, the rarity and destructive power of tornadoes are what interest me about them.
I have respect for Mother Nature’s power and ability to create these incredibly intense,
rare entities, which can do substantial damage in little time.
Yet, we do not fully understand them.
A major focus of society through the years has been exploration,
and we have already explored much of the geography of our world.
The new explorers are scientists who are exploring the bounds of how natural processes evolve in this world.
With respect to meteorology, one last frontier involves understanding how tornadoes work, as they are so rare.
It is hard to sample them in an environment where one can document them and collect the information we need
to understand their dynamics.
So, for me, tornadoes represent this continuation of humanity’s quest for exploration.
There is also the consideration of the impacts to society by tornadoes.
As I mentioned earlier, I was affected by having a cousin of a friend die in a tornado in 1996, and I saw how this tornado affected people.
Also, near the town in which I was born was the site of the one of the first-ever
tornadoes known to have been recorded on film.
Maybe I was destined to be involved in severe storms meteorology.
Q: What advice would you like to give to up-and-coming meteorologists?
A: In addition to having a solid foundation in meteorology, I suggest you take a lot of math,
computer science, and statistics coursework because of the absolutely phenomenal amount of
meteorological data in this world to be analyzed.
There is no way for a human to be able to process all of these data.
The computer science background will give you the tools to build software and process those data.
The statistics background will give you the experience in how to best analyze data and establish
meaningful relationships amongst meteorological variables.
If I actually had to go back and do it all over again,
I would probably have pursued a college degree in either statistics or computer science.
A lot of scientists with statistics and computer science backgrounds end up working in financial disciplines,
because they have the ability to think critically, they know how to process data,
and they have experience in communicating data well with audiences ranging from financial planners to those in the stock market.
I know quite a few people who started out in the sciences and have shifted their career track into the financial sector.
So, if you want to take statistics and computer science coursework merely for financial gain,
or if you are struggling to find a job in meteorology, you cannot lose by taking more computing and statistics classes,
as they can provide you with valuable skill sets sought after across the country.
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 5 to 10 years?
A: I hope to still be here at the SPC.
Back in third grade, we had to write an essay about what we saw ourselves doing when we grow up.
I actually wrote that I wanted to be the director of the SPC.
So I said that back in third grade, and hopefully I’ll be on a path to achieve that long-term goal in five to 10 years.
Q: Tell us something most people don't know about you.
A: I come from a long line of educators.
My wife has a Ph.D., in mathematics and is a college professor.
My brother is getting a Ph.D. in economics because he wants to be a professor.
My mom, my mother-in-law, my sister, and my sister-in-law are all teachers,
and my mother-in-law’s father was a superintendent.
Q: What is the most memorable moment of your career?
A: I would say being involved in some of the big tornado outbreaks that have occurred recently.
Examples include tornado events on May 10 in 2010, April 27 in 2011, and May 22 and 24 in 2011.
All of these events stick out in my mind, because they re-affirm my passion for meteorology, what I’m doing, and why I’m here.
Q: You are known for your social media skills. What got you into social media and why do you continue to do it?
A: It is a really interesting story.
In 2009, I realized I really needed to work on my writing and communication skills, which are fundamental skills in the sciences.
To get more practice, I decided I would write one blog post every day in 2010 related to the weather.
After hearing about “Twitter,” I chose to post my blog there, which eventually attracted the attention of hundreds of followers within weeks.
One day in early February, I posted an announcement on Twitter that, if it were to snow in Florida the next day,
there would be snow on the ground in all 50 states at the same time.
This post yielded a strong response, with many major news networks requesting additional information about this story.
From this experience, I learned social media is a very powerful source of disseminating information with the potential for high visibility,
and I had the opportunity to network with many other meteorologists.
We can provide two-way feedback regarding our work through social media.
It is a convenient outlet for people to ask simple questions such as what is the smallest slight risk area the SPC
ever issued and how often the SPC issues a day 3 moderate risk.
I appreciate that social media is a way to promote dialogue, and it keeps the SPC’s and NSSL’s names in the conversation.
It helps to build relationships, and I’m a firm believer in that.
However, with the relationships that evolve from social media, trust is implicit.
For social media to work positively, you cannot betray that trust.
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