Q&A with Researcher Cassandra Shivers-Williams

Severe weather researchers focus on more than just storms. They also study how people interpret and react to severe weather warnings and communications about severe weather.

Cassandra Shivers-Williams
Cassandra Shivers-Williams

Cassandra Shivers-Williams studies just that — how the public responds to severe weather information. One specific item she studies is how people’s individual differences in thinking affect their decisions during severe weather.

She is the first ever Peter Lamb Postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. Her work supports NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. She received a bachelor’s in psychology from Southern University and A&M College, a master’s in social psychology and a doctorate in social psychology from Howard University.

Q: How did you get into your field?

A: I have been interested in psychology since I first took abnormal psychology in high school. As I worked on my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I realized that I was more specifically interested in how people interact with each other and their environment and how these interactions influenced their decisions. Thus, I went to graduate school to earn a PhD in Social Psychology.

Q: Describe the path leading up to your current job.

A: While working on my PhD, I became a Research Fellow at the NOAA Cooperative Science Center for Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology, and I was fortunate to be invited to help with the Spring Emergency Manager Experiment hosted in NOAA’s Hazardous Weather Testbed in NSSL. Through my experiences in the Testbed, I started developing professional connections that would later lead to an opportunity to apply for the postdoc position I have now.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?

What interests me most in my job is the fact that I have the freedom and ability to investigate socially relevant problems that I find interesting and imperative.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise us about you.

I bowl competitively! I was practically born in a bowling alley (both of my parents bowl) and I have been bowling since I could walk. I earned scholarship money for college while competitively bowling as a kid, I attended Southern University and A&M College (my undergraduate alma mater) on a partial bowling scholarship, and I met my husband, Fero, while competing at Team USA Trials!

Q: What advice would you provide to up and coming meteorologists or others in your field?

A: I would recommend being open to collaborating and learning from others in different fields from your own, including across natural and social science boundaries. The problems facing our field today are going to require innovative and multidisciplinary solutions.

Q: What one day sticks out to you during your career? Do you remember one day in particular detail?

A: Successfully defending my dissertation! That accomplishment was a significant milestone and one I will never forget.

Q: What is one thing you couldn’t live without at work?

A: I could not live without my coworkers! I love that we all get along really well together, but I also value our differing expertise and approaches toward attacking problems. I think we compliment each other well and this helps facilitate the work we do.

Shivers-Williams talking to her coworker.
Shivers-Williams during a NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed experiment with her coworker Kim Klockow-McClain. (Photo by James Murnan/NOAA)

 

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?

A: My favorite place to be is somewhere warm, sunny, and sandy! I truly enjoy traveling to other countries, especially tropical places, and experiencing different beaches and oceans as well as new cultures and food.

Q: What would you most like to tell your younger self?

A: Don’t let other people’s perceptions of you or your capabilities define who you are or stop your progress. Continue to persevere and always push yourself to be the best you that you can be!

Q: What is the best book you’ve ever read?

A: Russell, K. Y., M. Wilson, and R. E. Hall, 1992: The color complex: The politics of skin color among African Americans. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 200 pp.

This book brings many different issues surrounding colorism among African Americans to light and offers very honest, insightful, and critical perspectives.

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Q&A with Researcher Thea Sandmael

Researchers are constantly studying new ways to help weather forecasters utilize the vast amount of data provided by the nation’s Doppler radar network. Thea Sandmael is using her meteorological and computer programming skills to get them the information they need to issue life-saving severe weather forecasts and warnings to the public.

Thea Sandmael
Thea Sandmael.

Sandmael develops computer programs to automatically examine radar observations and discriminate between tornadic and non-tornadic storms. In addition, she is testing enhanced ways computers process radar storm data and identify certain features for forecasters as they use the data to monitor thunderstorms. One of the experiments she’s leading tests a New Tornado Detection Algorithm, or NTDA. The NTDA utilizes machine learning to provide the probability of a tornado’s presence in a storm.

She is a research associate at the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, supporting NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. Originally from Norway, Sandmael received her masters and bachelor’s degrees in meteorology from OU.

Q: How did you get into your field?
A: I decided I wanted to be a meteorologist in middle school to combine my passion for science, math and performing — I wanted to be a broadcast meteorologist. I was a science major in high school (we have majors in high school in Norway), and decided I’d rather do the science part full time. I was becoming more interested in natural disasters, which led me to severe weather. I ended up googling universities in “Tornado Alley” as a freshman in high school and I found out about OU and its meteorology program. I decided I wanted to travel to the other side of the world to study tornadoes and I never left.

Q: Describe the path leading up to your current job.
A: I was taking a break from OU’s PhD program, trying to balance family life while waiting to get treatment from migraines. About a month in this position opened up, which was exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and it turned out I didn’t even need a PhD to do it! They decided to offer me the job, and I chose to quit my PhD program for my dream job.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: On a day-to-day basis, I find the programming part of my job to be the most interesting and fun. I love coding and have grown fond of C++ and finding ways to solve problems or increase efficiency. Overall, I think the R2O, or research-to-operations, possibilities of the job is the most rewarding — where you potentially get to see your research used by forecasters to make their jobs of saving lives easier.

Group photo with Thea Sandmael
The NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed 2019 Satellite and Radar Convective Applications Experiment group in April 2019. Sandmael is involved in preparation  and organization of the experiment. During the experiment, recently developed experimental products are evaluated by NOAA National Weather Service forecasters with a focus on improving the detection and prediction of severe weather hazards, such as tornadoes and large hail.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise us about you
A: I was a guest on a nationally televised live talk show back in Norway that was watched by one million people, which is about one-fifth of Norway’s total population, and I was on the front page of Norway’s largest newspaper (about storm chasing).

Q: What is your personal philosophy?
A: Try to help others when you can, be kind and empathetic, and stand up to injustice.

Q: What is one thing you couldn’t live without at work?
A: The Linux “super” key + arrow button to split my applications on the screen.

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?
A: Anywhere with my daughter and husband, preferably on a beach somewhere warm or at home.

Sandmael with a group outside a restaurant.
Sandmael was one of several OU CIMMS researchers who attended the AMS 39th International Conference on Radar Meteorology in 2019. The American Meteorological Society Committee on Radar Meteorology and Local Organizing Committee in Japan welcomed a broad range of disciplines at the conference, including radar technologies, numerical model, satellite remote sensing, hydrology, signal processing, and atmospheric science on any aspect related to radar meteorology.(Photo provided)

Q: How do you define success?
Being happy at no one else’s expense, and having a positive impact on other people’s lives.

Q: What is the best book you’ve ever read?
That’s got to be the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (so much better than the movies, which are also great). I’m currently really enjoying “The Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan, and waiting for the new book in “The Stormlight Archive” series by Brandon Sanderson.

Q: Describe your typical day.
A: Get up, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, work, pick up my kid and take her to her dance classes, knit, go home to eat dinner as a family, do something fun together (watch TV shows, play board games or video games), do something fun alone (cross-stitch, knit, phone), sleep. Currently, I’m working as a homeschool teacher, as well as having a full-time job as a research meteorologist, trying to have enough time and energy to cook and clean as normal, and to stay safe and healthy not leaving the house.

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Women of NSSL: Kodi Berry

Kodi Berry.
Kodi Berry.

To celebrate Women’s History Month in March NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is publishing a series of stories highlighting some women working at the lab. One Q&A segment will be published each Monday in March.

Kodi Berry is a research scientist and Sea Grant liaison for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies working at NSSL. Berry, who also serves as the executive officer of the NOAA Hazardous Weather Testbed, completed her doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in 2014.

Q: How did you get into your field?
A: Originally I planned on going into physical therapy but quickly realized in college that I am much better at physics than biology and chemistry. I literally sat down with the class bulletin and flipped through all of the majors and their course requirements. When I got to meteorology and saw the physics requirements I thought, “that sounds perfect.”

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: I really enjoy seeing how broadcast meteorologists react to, use, and explain experimental products in a simulated television studio. Each year we do our three-week experiment, I learn more about the broadcasting profession and technology. They’re also a really fun group of people to work with.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
A: I was a collegiate co-ed cheerleader at the University of Nebraska for four years as an undergraduate. Go Huskers!

Q: What advice would you provide to up and coming meteorologists or others in your field?
A: Take advantage of a wide variety of internship opportunities. While I never planned to go into broadcasting, I’m thankful for my summer internship at a news station in Topeka, Kansas now that my research focuses on how broadcasters communicate uncertainty to their viewing audience. It’s always valuable to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Q: What is the most memorable experience of your career?
A: The most memorable experience of my career was attending the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium. The AMS Summer Policy Colloquium brings a select group of graduate students, faculty, and professionals to Washington, D.C. for an intense, ten-day immersion in science policy. It was an amazing ten days that serves as my gold standard for professional workshops and meetings.

Q: What one day sticks out to you during your career? Do you remember one day in particular detail?
A: The day of my dissertation defense sticks out to me most. Once I got past my initial nerves, I seemed to go on autopilot. When it was over, several committee members told me it was a joy to be on my committee and they wished all defenses were like mine.

Q: What is one thing you couldn’t live without at work?
A: Aside from coffee, I couldn’t live without pictures of my family and my daughter’s artwork. They always brighten up a stressful day.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your life thus far?
A: The greatest challenge I’ve overcome was finishing my Ph.D. with a newborn baby. It was difficult to balance school, work, and family. However, she was my greatest motivation because I want her to know she can do anything she puts her mind to.

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?
A: The beach. There’s just something about the smell of the ocean and sound of waves crashing that instantly relaxes me.

Q: If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
A: I would love to try being a veterinarian for a day. I love dogs and many think I missed my calling to be a veterinarian. But, I like physics a lot more than biology and chemistry.

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Women of NSSL: Linda McGuckin

Linda McGuckin.
Linda McGuckin.

To celebrate Women’s History Month in March NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is publishing a series of stories highlighting some women working at the lab. One Q&A segment will be published each Monday in March.

Linda McGuckin is supply technician at NSSL. In December 2015 she was named NOAA Employee of the Month. She was one of two individuals selected for the honor by then NOAA Deputy Under Secretary for Operations VADM Michael S. Devany. McGuckin supports scientific research at the lab, including past projects like the Plains Elevated Convection At Night project, through the documentation of property and personnel, accommodating equipment procurement requests and delivering new equipment and ensuring researchers have the tools they need.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: The opportunity to work with some of the world’s most distinguished and leading scientist and see and hear about the research they are doing.

Q: Tell us about a project or accomplishment you consider to be the most significant in your career?
A: The projects that have been most challenging and rewarding have been experiences in support of field experiments such as Warn-on-Forecast, VORTEX2 and PECAN. These projects bring in scientists from across the United States and even the globe to participate in very unique research.

Q: What do you see yourself doing in five to 10 years?
A: In 10 years retirement will be really close – so maybe focusing on personal growth and possibly at that point be able to mentor someone younger.

Mobile Mesonets, and other vehicles utilized in PECAN, are seen at the National Weather Center before leaving for the project.
The Plains Elevated Convection At Night project, PECAN, was a large intensive field project aimed to collect data before and during nighttime thunderstorms. Mobile Mesonets, and other vehicles utilized in PECAN, are seen at the National Weather Center before leaving for the project.

Q: What one day sticks out to you during your career? Do you remember one day in particular detail?
A: Watching the PECAN procession lined up and heading out of the National Weather Center to Hays, Kansas, after many months of planning and coordination by many people getting things ready. I played a very small role but it was fulfilling seeing it all put together at the end.

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?
A: Near the water – beach, river, lake, or pool.

Q: What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had?
A: Working in the emergency room of a small hospital –it wasn’t really unusual, but was very exciting and fascinating.

Q: What does true leadership mean to you?
A: I’ve heard a lot about “Servant Leadership” and this is a great concept. One needs humility and the ability to serve another in order to lead.

Q: If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
A: Tour guide in some crazy adventure, like river rafting or hiking the amazon… etc.

Q: What would you most like to tell your younger self?
A: Practice discipline and self-control, be quick to hear and slow to speak, don’t let fear stop you. Don’t talk about it — BE about it.

Q: How do you define success?
A: Setting goals, making a plan, following through.

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Women of NSSL: Nusrat Yussouf

Nusrat Yussouf.
Nusrat Yussouf.

To celebrate Women’s History Month in March NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is publishing a series of stories highlighting some women working at the lab. One Q&A segment will be published each Monday in March.

Nusrat Yussouf works with Warn-on-Forecast, a research program set to increase tornado, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warning lead times. Yussouf is a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies supporting NSSL. She enjoys working on weather related research and Warn-on-Forecast because it has the potential to save lives.

Q: Describe the path leading up to your current job.
A: I started my career as a Research Associate with CIMMS supporting NOAA NSSL in early 2000, shortly before receiving a masters from The University of Oklahoma’s School of Computer Science. While working full time, I matriculated for a PhD in the same department. I have been working in NSSL’s Warn-on-Forecast research and development project since its inception in 2009.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: My research focuses on developing a Warn-on-Forecast system that will enable the National Weather Service to issue advisories and warnings for threats associated with high-impact weather, like tornadoes, flash floods, damaging winds, hails, etc., much earlier than is possible today. What interests me most about this work is the potential to save millions of lives, injury, and economic costs. 

Q: What is your personal philosophy?
A: My personal philosophy of life is well expressed by Edward Everett Hale,“Look up and not down. Look forward and not back. Look out and not in, and lend a hand.” 

Q: What is one thing you couldn’t live without at work?
A: Tea — my source of caffeine at work. Tea keeps me going. And it has to be made Bangladeshi style with milk and sugar!

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?
A: Disney World and Universal Orlando in Florida. Life is truly magical from the moment you set foot inside those parks. It is indeed the “Happiest Place on Earth”.

Q: What does true leadership mean to you?
A: To me true leadership means creating more leaders, not just followers.

Q: If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
A: If I could do another job for just one day, it would be a physician. Imagine being a doctor who is treating critically ill patients with slim chance of living. With proper medical treatment, they can give those patients another chance toward life. It is one of the most rewarding professions out there.

Q: What would you most like to tell your younger self?
A: ​I would like to tell my younger self not to be afraid of obstacles in pursuing your dream. If you are fearless, there are no limits to what you can achieve in life.

Q: What is the best book you’ve ever read?
A: It is really hard to choose the best book I’ve ever read as there are many. One book that touched my heart is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. It is the story of the lives of two Afghan women, both married to the same abusive man during the years of the Soviet occupation, then the Taliban dictatorship.

Q: Who is your role model and why?
A: My role model is my Mom who is a retired government employee from Bangladesh. She worked for more than 30 years on formulation of policies that promote the institutionalization and development of women and children issues. I learned from her how to juggle between work and family with two kids.

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Women of NSSL: Burkely T. Gallo

Burkely T. Gallo.
Burkely T. Gallo.

To celebrate Women’s History Month in March NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is publishing a series of stories highlighting some women working at the lab. One Q&A segment will be published each Monday in March.

Burkely T. Gallo is a Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies postdoctoral research associate working at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. Gallo received her doctorate from the University of Oklahoma. Her work includes evaluating forecasts from convection-allowing models and using convection-allowing ensembles to create tornado forecasts. She has facilitated experiments in NOAA’s Hazardous Weather Testbed, where she tests these and other cutting-edge guidance from convection-allowing models.

Q: How did you get into your field?
A: I’ve been fascinated by the weather since I was little, particularly by thunderstorms and tornadoes. In fact, I used to be extremely scared of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms! That fear eventually turned into a desire to understand the atmosphere, which led me to research meteorology.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: In my job, I do research that is very operationally-focused, so I work closely with forecasters. By working with people who will use the guidance I develop, I know that I’m helping create better forecasts that could save lives. Plus, the weather is different every day, meaning that no two days of my job are exactly alike!

Q: Tell us about a project or accomplishment you consider to be the most significant in your career?
A: I’m still quite early in my career, but I am extremely involved in the annual Spring Forecasting Experiment in NOAA’s Hazardous Weather Testbed. The experiment brings together forecasters and researchers from around the world to test new model guidance and forecast tools in a real-time setting. This experiment is significant in that it facilitates important conversations between the research and operations communities, so that both groups can better understand each other and together produce improved severe weather forecasts.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
A: I learned how to drive a stick shift on my parents’ farm when I was 10 years-old.

Q: What advice would you provide to up and coming meteorologists or others in your field?
A: Take advantage of even small opportunities that come your way, as you never know when they might lead to something much larger. All of my largest accomplishments seem to stem from small opportunities that I took advantage of at the time, even if they took some up-front effort beyond what I was already doing.

Q: What is the most memorable experience of your career?
A: Winning a National Science Foundation fellowship to fund my graduate education definitely sticks out in my memory. I had spent a lot of time and effort on the application, and I knew that the fellowship was very competitive and would enable me to study wherever I wanted, since it was applicable to most meteorology programs. The night that the results were announced, I woke up at around 3 am to check them and found out that I had won one.

Q: What is your personal philosophy?
A: Work hard, play hard, and always try to be empathetic and keep a positive attitude.

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?
A: Hiking, camping, or sitting around a campfire with my family and friends. If I had to pick a specific spot, I would say Cook Forest State Park in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Q: What does true leadership mean to you?
A: True leadership to me means a willingness to listen coupled with the ability to make difficult decisions and have a vision for the future that will benefit society. That way, leaders can guide people in the direction of progress while taking into account the unique circumstances affecting each individual.

Q: If you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
A: I would probably be a Disney vacation planner. I love Disney World, organizing things, and helping people have fun, so helping people design their vacations so that they have the best experience possible sounds like a blast!

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Women of NSSL: Kim Klockow

Kim Klockow

For the month of October NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is publishing a series of stories highlighting some of the women working at the lab. One Q&A segment will be published each Monday in October.

Kim Klockow is research scientist at The Unversity of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. Working with NOAA NSSL, her research involves behavioral science focused on weather and climate risk, especially issues in the communication of forecast uncertainty and hazardous weather warnings.

Q: How did you get into weather or your field?
A: Like many in the field, I had some frightening experiences with tornadoes during childhood, including one notable case where a large tornado hadn’t received any warning. Those experiences motivated me to learn more about severe weather, but also to understand the human element and how risks could be conveyed more effectively. What started as a motivated interest grew into a lifelong mission to improve our country’s weather resiliency.

Q: Describe the path leading up to your current job.
A: My career really began when I was a doctoral student. As an interdisciplinary scholar with interests in both human behavior and meteorology, I quickly found I was going to have to create my own path. After earning my Ph.D, I received a fellowship to work as a science adviser in the U.S. Senate, and from there worked at NOAA headquarters for several years on policy for social scientific research in the agency. Those experiences have been invaluable to me as I’ve now returned to Norman to help the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab create a group dedicated to social and behavioral science research.

Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
A: I received Bachelor of Science degrees in meteorology and economics with concentrations in communication and psychology. From there I went on to get an Master of Science in professional meteorology with an economics concentration, and a Ph.D. in human geography. I took Ph.D. level courses in seven different departments as part of my graduate studies — I wasn’t kidding when I said I had to make my own path!


Q: Tell us something that might surprise us about you.

A: As much as I’m proud of the career I’ve built, the effort I’m proudest to have been a part of is the Loveworks, Inc. program based in Norman. Early on in my graduate work, I helped launch a mentorship program for at-risk middle school youth that has now grown to include every middle school in the city and has reached more than 1,000 students. Working to cultivate the local community kept me sane through the challenges and doubt that surrounded my graduate path.

Q: What is one thing you couldn’t live without at work?
A: Coffee. Sadly. I’ve been an addict since those U.S. Senate days – the “marbled halls of congress” are real, and in the winter, they’re frigid. When my fingers got too cold to type I turned to coffee, and once you turn to coffee there’s apparently no turning back.

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Women of NSSL: Jian Zhang

Jian Zhang, NOAA NSSL research meteorologist.

For the month of October NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory is publishing a series of stories highlighting some of the women working at the lab. One Q&A segment will be published each Monday in October.

Jian Zhang is a research meteorologist of NOAA NSSL’s Warning Research and Development Division. Zhang completed her Ph.D at The University of Oklahoma in 1999. She worked with the OU Cooperative Institute for Mesosocale Meteorological Studies until 2009 when she became a federal employee.

Q: How did you get into weather?
A: My father was a mechanical engineer and his appreciation for the intricate regularities of math and physics and a passion for solving real-world problems had a big influence on me. As a result, I chose atmospheric physics/meteorology as my major in college and have stayed in the field ever since.

Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
A: My job is to produce accurate precipitation information for every square kilometer of the U.S. in a timely manner. Such information is critical across several sectors of the U.S. economy and for the protection and well being of the communities. Seeing my job has direct impacts and benefits in the real world interests me.

Q: Tell us about a project or accomplishment you consider to be the most significant in your career?
A: The most significant project of my career is the Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor system for which I am one of the main developers. ​The MRMS​ project provides people with severe weather and flash flood information at an unprecedented resolution down to the street scale.


Q: What is your personal philosophy?

A: Kind. Diligent. Intelligent.

Q: What would you most like to tell your younger self?
A: ​I would like to tell my younger self to be more critically thinking since I grew up in a culture and environment that valued collective interests more than individual interests – especially for women – and valued old wisdom more than adventures.

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