My interests

Much of my work is focused on the weather over the tropical Pacific and its interactions with the underlying ocean and with global climate. Sometimes I use observational data; other times I rely on gridded analyses. Recently I’ve been branching out into the Indian and Atlantic basins, and have begun using Linear Inverse Modelling (LIM) as a tool to study ocean/atmosphere relationships. I’ve also investigated the comparability of data collected by collocated platforms, as well as the response of wind-profiling radars to atmospheric processes. Away from work I am a reader, a gardener, the mother of a teenager, the step-grandmother of two toddlers, and the servant of three cats and a dog.

How I became a scientist

As a child I loved rocks and plants and animals and math and drafting…and books, so I planned to be a librarian. Then I took Earth Science in 8th grade and got hooked on weather. I went to college planning to be a forecaster (but minored in both math and computer science in deference to my parents’ fears that there might not be many jobs for meteorologists). One of the things I learned as an undergraduate meteorology major was that I’m not very good at forecasting. However I have never been short on questions, and I wanted to know more about how the atmosphere worked, so I turned my attention to research. I intended to just get a master’s degree, but working at NCAR during the summer before grad school helped convince me I wanted a Ph.D. so that I’d have more say in what I studied when I got out of school.

How my work benefits society

I generally do “small science”, little parts of bigger puzzles. It’s not flashy, but I believe it contributes to the field by its detailed and careful exploration of gaps in our knowledge. My most-cited work investigated what effect horizontal variations in surface temperature and moisture (such as would be associated with a patchwork of grassy, fallow, irrigated, and dryland fields) would have on the development of boundary-layer convection. The answer? Not much, if the wind is blowing at even a few meters per second. Another highly cited piece of research explored the synoptic and dynamic (i.e. the weather and fluid-flow) factors leading to “westerly wind bursts” over the equatorial Pacific, which often occur as an El Niño/Southern Oscillation warm event is starting up. Prior to this work most scientists were focused on their effects rather than their causes (usually tropical cyclones in one hemisphere and/or recurving cross-equatorial flow, and only occasionally to oft-discussed twin cyclones). These results have been used by scientists seeking to improve models of the convective boundary layer or ENSO, but have not by themselves altered any lives or policies.

Perhaps my greatest professional impact so far is through the many high school, undergraduate, and early graduate students I have mentored during research projects over the last decade and a half. I try to share with them the joys and frustrations of research, in part by having them do “real” research whose result is unknown and in part by working collaboratively with them and being open about my own experiences. In the process, I attempt to give them the space and support to enable them to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses, professional desires and dislikes. In 2011 I was awarded the premier CIRES Director’s Award for Diversity in acknowledgement of my “extensive volunteer effort”.