Women in research meteorology have long been in the minority, said Pamela Heinselman, a supervisory and research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
Heinselman is chief of Forecast Research and Development Division and manager of the Warn-on-Forecast Program. She also serves as an affiliate associate professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology.
“In July 2017, I became the official Warn-on-Forecast manager, and on Aug. 19 of this year, I become the chief of the Forecast Research and Development Division,” Heinselman said. “I’m actually the first female division chief at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.”
Warn-on-Forecast is about using a high resolution ensemble prediction system to fill the information gap between the issuance of a watch and a warning, increasing accuracy and public safety.
“It allows us to gain information about the probability of weather threats and the intensity of weather threats ahead of time,” she said. “We have worked, in particular, with the National Weather Service here in Oklahoma. They have used our Warn-on-Forecast system prototype the last two spring seasons.”
Heinselman said while her job is truly breaking a glass ceiling, those barriers seem to have been created more by cultural and social norms that kept women out of science, rather than by NSSL or meteorology in general.
“My mentors have all been male for the most part because when I was going to school I didn’t have female professors, and here I didn’t have female bosses, but I have had experiences in which male leaders saw something within me and were able to take the time to mentor me and to help me grow which is appreciated,” Heinselman said.
Those mentors provided the direction and encouragement that paired with her love of science to drive her success.
“Those mentors were key,” she said. “I would not be where I am without them. They also taught me how to be a mentor. I consider it a part of my job to mentor both males and females, but it’s great to be able to be a role model for women. One of my goals as a leader is to help others grow.”
Heinselman said while mentors on the job and throughout her college career were important, the ability to believe in herself and work toward her goals came from early support at home. Heinselman’s parents were very education focused and always had an expectation that she would go to college.
“My parents were always very supportive of whatever I wanted to do,” she said. “My mom, in particular, has always had an interest in weather. I grew up in Maryland and lived in Maryland until I was 18. I was definitely a Maryland girl at heart.”
She still misses the natural beauty of her native state and loves to enjoy crab cakes anytime she has a chance to visit Maryland.
“One of the reason I got excited about weather in Maryland is because we had a lot of hills and trees,” she said. “When a storm came up you really couldn’t see the skies to tell if it was one of the storms that would be a shower or one that would make the trees bend over in the back yard.”
That mystery attracted her to learn more.
“At that time, weather radar wasn’t really on TV so all you had was your own eyes to sense what was going on,” Heinselman said. “The first time I knew for sure I was thinking about meteorology was in eighth grade when we had an earth sciences class.”
Her earth science teacher and the things she learned in that class served as a springboard for her growing interest, but the University of Maryland didn’t have an undergraduate program in meteorology, and she had to go out of state for college.
“I went to St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri and that was for undergraduate degree in meteorology, and then I also earned a master of science in meteorology there,” she said.
From there she went to the University of Illinois for a Ph. D. in Atmospheric Sciences but after a summer and a semester, decided she was more interested in gaining work experience to determine her focus for a Ph.D.
“I started in January of 1995 with the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS),” Heinselman said. “In that position I was working on the testing of radar-based severe storm algorithms that identified storm characteristics to help forecasters in their decision process.”
At that time, Weather Surveillance Radar-1988 Doppler was being implemented across the country.
“We had this new network that provided not only precipitation echoes but velocity,” she said. “We had all this data coming in.”
Heinselman studied what they could do with that data to help forecasters.
“In 1998, I decided to go back to school and pursue that Ph. D.,” she said.
Heinselman enrolled in the program at OU’s School of Meteorology.
“I worked and went to school at the same time,” she said. “I graduated with my Ph.D. in May of 2004.”
By that time, Heinselman had transitioned to working with dual polarization weather radar data.
“This technology improved rainfall estimation,” she said. “Also, we could identify the different types of particles that were being seen by weather radar, including the particles within clouds.”
That included different sized rain drops, hail and different types of snow, like wet snow and dry snow.
“We could also see dust particles that were moving into a storm,” she said. “Being able to see signature that represents debris like dust, leaves and grass allows the detection of tornado debris signatures using weather radar data.”
Heinselman was part of a team that was collecting that weather radar data.
“Around that same time, while research was ongoing to see what we could learn from dual pole radar, phased array weather radar came on the scene,” she said. “That was super exciting because that system actually came from a Navy ship, so it was initially military technology to improve the frequency to see how quickly Navy ships could scan targets.”
That technology had the capability to scan storms much faster, with updates on storms every minute versus every five minutes.
“The question then, was ‘does that updated time matter?’” she said.
They were now able to see storms evolve more like a movie rather than in snapshots. The hope was that it would improve forecasters’ ability to issue warnings earlier.
“My work in that area started around 2006,” Heinselman said. “It was really exciting for me because I went and talked to my boss, and I said ‘you have a lot of radar engineers and software developers getting this system up and running but not meteorologists to lead the weather research.’ I offered to do that and he said, ‘go for it.’”
That focus area defined Heinselman’s work for the next decade.
“I did weather research using that phased array which is known as the Spy 1-A Antenna,” she said.
Heinselman worked with engineers and software developers to produce adaptive scanning capabilities. While a traditional radar rotates, they created software to identify the storms and focus the phased array radar on those storms.
“It lets you scan where the weather of most concern is located,” she said.
That application of phased array data improved the warning lead time, in particular in forecasting tornadoes. The application was especially effective in improving forecasting for weaker tornados which come and go more quickly, but which can still threaten lives and property.
“If you look at the number of tornadoes that occur during the year, the majority of tornadoes are weaker. EF-5s are very rare,” she said. “Around that time, the phased array radar I was working with was really a demonstrator, but it was limited because it didn’t have dual polarization. That system was actually torn down and is currently being replaced with a new system, the Advanced Technology Demonstrator, which is a state of the art, dual polarization, phased array radar. It’s one of a kind and Kurt Hondl is the program manager of that. They’re actually putting that up right now on North Base where the other system was located.”
The new system will bring together the best of both worlds: rapid sampling and the ability to identify the characteristics of a storm in more detail.
In 2016, Heinselman was looking to see what was happening in the laboratory.
“What I saw was a potential fit with the Warn-on-Forecast Program,” she said.
That fit has become the next step in Heinselman’s career and led to her role in creating a little bit of history as the first female to hold the position she steps into Aug. 19.
“It’s been a dream of mine to have this job,” she said. “For that job to be starting in the next couple of weeks is really exciting.”