Dust devil chasing lessons

As we’ve all heard on the news, summer 2011 has been hot, hot, hot. Some places in Oklahoma have had high temperatures above 100 oF for over a month, overlapping with areas of exceptional drought.

Needless to say, chase season has been pretty dead down south. The jet stream has shifted north toward Canada, and we’re ridged out. I’ve had to content myself with watching storm videos shot by my northern bretheren. So far, my favorite has been this one from Roger Hill (especially around 2:30 in – wow!).

My husband surveys a potential dust devil breeding ground

My husband surveys a potential dust devil breeding ground

I still hunger for vorticity, however. Fortunately, my husband, in addition to his many other endearing qualities, is a dust devil geek. He studied dust devils as an undergrad at Purdue. The last two weekends, we’ve gone dust devil chasing, and I’m learning that there’s actually a fair amount of skill that goes into it.

Here’s the recipe for dust devils:

  1. Sunshine. The Oklahoma sun has certainly not been in short supply of late! A few clouds are okay, but you want to be in sunshine a majority of the time. Peak daytime heating (which occurs at local noon) is best.
  2. Light winds, < 10 mph. If the winds are too strong, the dust devils will be sheared over and weak. We check the Oklahoma Mesonet wind maps before heading out.
  3. A dry, open field, preferably freshly plowed, and with fine soil particles that are more easily lofted.
  4. Patience. We sit in place for up to an hour at a time in the blistering sun, with very little breeze to offer us relief. With the punishing heat we’ve been experiencing, we also pack ample beverages and sunscreen.

Dust devil crossing OK-37 near Tuttle, OK

Dust devil crossing OK-37 near Tuttle, OK

We still observe the same rules we do when we storm chase – i.e., we park our car completely off the right-of-way, and never trespass on private property. We are accustomed to being approached by people who wonder if we’re having car trouble, including cops. Usually, they are bemused when we explain what we’re up to, and often offer us suggestions for good dust devil viewing spots.

On our last chase, we saw dust devils every 5-10 minutes, usually on the leading edge of microscale gust fronts. As the dust devils passed by us, the breeze would usually kick up, and often, we were passed by dust devils on both sides. Most were short, weak, and transient, but a few (like the one pictured) lasted several minutes, and sent a tower of red dirt over 50 m in the air. Not bad!

Dust devil chasing is relatively easy and safe compared to storm chasing. Dust devils may not be a tornadoes, but they rotate, they’re convective, and unlike a tornado, you can drive or run through one safely (literal “chasing”!). I could easily see dust devil chasing being an educational parent-child activity, particularly if the child has any inkling that they want to chase storms when they get older. They would have to interrogate the surface observations, make a forecast, and navigate to a good viewing spot. They would learn that the best things come to those who wait. And, there would be a much greater likelihood of (repeated) success!

ASCENT to new heights

This past week, I was privileged to participate in the third annual Atmospheric Science Collaborations and Enriching Networks (ASCENT) workshop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.* This workshop brings together female atmospheric scientists at different stages of their respective academic careers, about half of them recent Ph.D. recipients (junior scientists). Throughout the three-day workshop, the senior scientists shared their career stories and life lessons, while the junior scientists discussed their work via poster session and sought out collaborators. There was even a film crew – a media budget was written into the ASCENT grant – who documented the workshop, interviewed us, and shot tons of images and video that will soon be on the web for the world to see.

ASCENT Junior Scientist Poster Session

ASCENT junior scientist poster session

A room full of candid and intelligent women is a sight to behold. Everyone was so open, frank, and honest with one another. The vast majority of the attendees were atmospheric chemists. Their work on aerosols and pollution has implications that can potentially benefit millions of people, many generations into the future. I learned a great deal from them, and I hope they learned somewhat from me, the resident tornado geek, as well. I couldn’t help feeling like an odd woman out in the room sometimes. But I found a kindred spirit in Elissa E., a researcher from Los Alamos, who fires wired rockets into thunderstorms to trigger lightning flashes. People say that putting a radar in front of a tornado takes guts, but what she does is even more hardcore, in my opinion! Very modestly, she assures me that she launches the rockets from the safety of an underground bunker, and only after having been given the “go” by several assistants.

Storm Peak Laboratory in July 2011

Storm Peak Laboratory, on top of Mt. Werner, near Steamboat Springs, CO.

We also got to visit Storm Peak Laboratory, headed by Dr. Gannet Hallar (lead PI on ASCENT). After passing a sign that read “four wheel drive required,” and a tooth-chipping, 20-minute drive up a gravel road, we arrived on top of Mt. Werner to find the lab nestled among the ski lifts. The lab is about the size of a 3-bedroom house and accessible only by Snowcat for several months of the year. The link above goes to a great picture of the lab encrusted in snow and ice. They receive 500″ of snow annually, and researchers sometimes choose to spend weeks at a time at the lab in the dead of winter babysitting their instruments.

Dr. Gannet Hallar with aerosol monitor

Dr. Gannet Hallar describes an aerosol disdrometer to ASCENT participants

While the mountain vistas from the lab rooftop are breathtaking, and the lab has a full kitchen and numerous bunk beds, the researchers who work there are not vacationers. They are actively conducting experiments, installing and de-installing instruments, taking measurements and samples, and maintaining equipment year-round. They have documented the changing chemistry and aerosol content of the local atmospheric environment, giving the rest of us much-needed information about CCN concentrations and characteristics. I’m accustomed to dealing with cloud processes in terms of bulk microphysical parameterizations in NWP models; Storm Peak Lab actually gathers data that informs those parameterizations.

Doubtless there has never been a better time to be a female atmospheric scientist. Most of the overt barriers to women in science have been removed, thanks to laws (such as the Civil Rights Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act) that have been informed by science. I am happy to report that I have never experienced overt discrimination or harassment in my career – at least, not that I have been aware of.

However, when I walked across the stage at the OU School of Meteorology graduation ceremony this spring to receive my doctoral hood, I was the only female Ph.D. recipient out of 10. Why was I there, while my other female classmates chose to stop at the B.S. and M.S. levels? I’ve chatted with some of them informally; the familiar refrain is that they worry that they will not be able to sustain the energy level and workload required of an academic researcher. We see our professors come in late at night to slave away on grant proposals and papers. I must admit that the “lifestyle” doesn’t look all that appealing. Literature with titles like Where are All the Women Geoscience Professors?, Why So Slow?, and Why So Few? abound. I was saddened to learn that meteorology suffers from the lowest rate of female professorship among all the geosciences – In 2010, just a scant 12% of meteorology professors were women.

During the workshop, we shared strategies for coping with workplace issues that disproportionately affect women. There were plenty of horror stories from women who had suffered active discrimination, who were denied credit for work they did, who were rejected for positions on account of motherhood, and who had suffered resentment, harassment, or even assault by colleagues. But that was then; don’t we live in more enlightened times now? Not according to the statistics. It appears that many of the barriers left for us now are actually unconscious ones, either in our own minds or the minds of others. While many of us will swear to rejecting stereotypes of female scientists, our actions betray our unconscious biases. There’s the “bitch” dilemma – How does a woman assert herself without coming off as a bitch? (Consensus answer: “Be persistently pleasant.”) There are studies showing that women are held to higher standards of competence than men, women are less likely to negotiate for fear of appearing pushy, are pressed to do more service than men (“token woman syndrome”), and are more likely to have their credentials overlooked or questioned. We learned strategies for saying “no,” for compartmentalizing our time, for leveraging our institutions’ policies during demanding family times, for supporting other women (which is actually a major problem), and for gently reminding others of our need for space and respect.

Not all the strategies were abstract or hypothetical. For example, those of us who had not yet written grant proposals were invited by a participant from NSF to submit our names as potential proposal reviewers (thereby learning by reviewing what works and what doesn’t). I did not know that opportunity existed, because I assumed I had to submit a proposal before I would be asked to review, as in academic journals. (Major lesson: What you assume can hurt you! Always ask!) We were asked to participate in real-world research projects, select mentors, and continue correspondence after the end of the workshop. And of course, being a good science project, ASCENT included lengthy evaluation metrics and assurances that we will be checked up on periodically in the future to assess the impacts of the workshop.

As much as I enjoyed ASCENT, and as much as I can see the merits of gathering women in an all-female setting to share their strategies, I cannot help feeling that the very concept of “women’s issues” is still a major impediment. These are men’s issues, too. Men work and live with women. What good does it do women to gather and discuss ways to deal with the male-centric framework of scientific research, when it’s the framework itself that needs changing, and will require the involvement of men to change it? It’s not enough for a male scientist to simply say, “I’m not sexist, so I’m not part of the problem.” I once pointed out to my doctoral adviser that he now has a vested interest in ensuring a level playing field for me after graduation, because he has invested a great deal of time and money in my professional development. (To his credit, he has always let me have first authorship on papers I have written myself, and allowed me to present my own work whenever possible. I am shocked to hear that, even today, this is not always the case!)

My male colleagues should recognize that support for their female colleagues is not an accommodation that dilutes science, but a strategy for synergy and increased productivity throughout the whole of science. When the potential of half the scientist population is not being fully realized, that dilutes science. Happier, healthier, more productive colleagues (both male and female) will benefit everyone in the long run, and ultimately make our nation’s science stronger.

*I first heard about ASCENT through the Earth Science Women’s Network mailing list. ASCENT was organized by the Desert Research Institute, and funded by NSF. CAPS supported my travel to and from ASCENT.

Some of the statistics and publications to which I refer, as well as many more, can be found in this list.

The key to productive writing?

I’ve added a skill to my scientific skill tree recently. A skill that, in hindsight, seems intuitively obvious, but really wasn’t until I put it into practice.

A common quip in academia is, “Publish or perish.” Successful scientists publish. Prominent scientists publish a lot. Refereed journal articles narrate the maturation of our field, and prolific writers can exert a powerful influence on its direction, as well as keep the bean counters happy.

As a postdoc, I’m expected to publish a minimum of two refereed journal articles per year. At 7500 words apiece, that works out to an average of 58 words per work day. Of course, that’s not how we generally write. We tend to write in thousand-word spurts, just before a major deadline. The weeks leading up to a major conference, when we produce extended abstracts, abound with bloodshot eyes in front of LCD screens late at night.

Cover of How to Write a Lot by Dr. Paul Silvia

(c) American Psychological Association

On the recommendation of someone on the ESWN listserv, I recently acquired a slender, 150-page book with the intriguing title How to Write A Lot by Dr. Paul Silvia. He rails against what he refers to as “binge writing” (which I describe above). He approaches the problem of writing from the standpoint of a psychologist, and deconstructs some of the “specious barriers” that academics often cite as their justification for not writing more.

Dr. Silvia’s main message is this: Make a writing schedule, and stick to it. Think of the writing schedule like an exercise regimen, or a class to learn a new skill. Set aside a block of time each day, close your door, and focus only on writing. Be defensive; don’t schedule other appointments during that block of time. The writing schedule will become an ingrained habit, and soon you will never have to “find” the time to write.

My gut response to this message was, “Well, duh, that makes perfect sense!” Repetition and practice are crucial, because, much like a muscle, unused writing skills diminish over time. I honestly think the only reason that this approach never occurred to me was that no one ever told it to me explicitly. Or perhaps all my mentors are themselves binge writers. (That would be easy to change!)

I resolved to test Dr. Silvia’s approach. For the past three weeks, I’ve set aside a two-hour block each morning to write, keeping my office door closed and my e-mail logged out. I stick a “Writing time: Do not disturb” sign to my white board (mostly so that my bosses know I am actually in the office), and it has attracted some comments. But the proof is in the pudding: During those three weeks, I’ve generated about two-thirds of a manuscript, and I’m feeling pretty good about it!

The size of a book is no indication of the utility of its contents. This slender volume has had an immediate impact on my approach to writing, hopefully for the better. I may not write exactly 58 words each day, but I’d like to think I’m getting closer to a more even, temperate pace.