My Professional Mentors

Chuck Doswell

Posted: 02 October 2006 Updated: 30 November 2007: updated some things

Note that this narrative includes only people whom I can say had a positive impact on my career and from whom I learned important lessons about being a scientist. There are many, many others whose friendship and insight I value but who've not had that much direct impact on me.

A colleague recently requested information about my professional "lineage". Who have been the people I have admired, learned from, and emulated - and who have clearly and directly influenced the course of my career in a positive way? This page is my effort to pay homage to those whose influence on me has been memorable and important. This is actually long overdue and I've been remiss in not making sure to give credit where it's due.

The earliest years K-12 (1950-1963)

My parents deserve considerable credit for encouraging me to pursue whatever interested me. If I needed something to follow a particular path, they always managed to provide whatever it was, if it was within their means. I can't recall them ever complaining about having spent their hard-earned money on something that interested me, only to see it broken or discarded after my interest in it waned. My mother was especially supportive of my educational growth and always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. Her praise for my educational pursuits was an important buttress for those early years. I wasn't always a good student but I remember no nagging about my educational failings or underachievements.

I had only one really great teacher in my K-12 years: Mr. Charles Lawburgh in our Honors English class. We were all a bit smug about being "honors" students, and Mr. Lawburgh always enjoyed forcing us to think beyond our silver-spoon lives in a well-to-do Chicago suburb. He challenged many of the things that were held sacred in our staunchly Republican, conservative community. We often got exasperated at his irreverence for things that were shibboleths in our sheltered lives. For example, he claimed to have a great deal of admiration for Fidel Castro - this was about 1960 or so, and Castro was already anathema. We struggled to understand how our teacher could challenge us in our condemnation of Castro. I don't know today if he actually believed that or was simply playing devil's advocate. Unfortunately, I found out later he was fired by the high school, probably as a result of a complaint by some self-righteous right-wing asshole who couldn't tolerate any point of view other than his own. But Mr. Lawburgh was a favorite among many of us. He challenged us to justify our viewpoints as thoroughly as possible.

My undergraduate days (1963-1967)

I had a nominal advisor assigned to me at the University of Wisconsin, but after a short time, I realized he was not very good at it and so I guided myself during the second semester freshman year through my sophomore year. In my junior year, I took my first course in dynamics, which actually was mostly meteorological thermodynamics. My professor for that course was Prof. Werner Schwerdtfeger. He had come to UW as a "rehabilitated" German weather officer in the German Luftwaffe. He was gruff and intimidating and spoke with a thick German accent that I eventually got so used to that I simply didn't hear it after a while. His course in thermodynamics was rigorous, with lots of homework, tough exams, and a painstaking attention to detail. We studied things until we students got sick of them, and then we went on to study them even more thoroughly. He turned basic concepts upside down, inside out, and backwards. We considered them from what seemed to be every imaginable perspective before moving on to the next topic. We drilled on how to solve problems using each concept until we students thought we surely must have run out of possible things to do - and then he would give is another set of problems using that concept in some wholly unanticipated way. By the time we moved on to the next topic, unbeknownst to me, that concept had been irrevocably entered into my head. His devotion to a deep understanding had a huge payoff down the road for me, because those concepts he taught me have stayed with me my whole career. He became my de facto advisor and as I got to know him, I lost my fear of him - he was actually warm, patient with my questions, and always challenging as well as supportive. I learned to love his style of teaching and welcomed his toughness in the classroom. He didn't do much research leading to publications - rather, his focus was almost totally on being a great teacher. And he was. One of my life's biggest regrets is that he died before I ever got the chance to thank him properly for being such a great teacher, friend, and supporter - for his "tough love". Oh yes, I got a "B" in that first class of his I took, but felt I had worked my tail off to achieve that.

Another important teacher was Mr. Hunter (I believe this is Kenneth Hunter, a 1968 PhD graduate from UW-Madison) - a TA in my Differential Equations class. I had a definite math phobia as an early undergrad, resulting in 2 C's and a D in three semesters of Calculus. Mr. Hunter was a good teacher, unlike the professor, whose name I don't recall. In Mr. Hunter's sessions, I learned how to visualize what a differential equation was and how to map out the solution in phase space. This helped me begin to overcome my math phobia and I managed a B in the course. He was a good guy and clearly cared about educating - more so than virtually all of the math teachers I'd had up to then.

There was a third big influence during my undergraduate days, but I'm somewhat uncertain of his name. I believe it was Prof. Richard C. Emmons. Anyway, I took a geology "survey" course from him my senior year. I was astonished to find how beautifully presented all of the lectures were - every concept built naturally and logically on what had been presented earlier. Complex topics were erected before me with crystal-clear logic and were beautiful to see. In his course, I also tried and used the technique of not studying before my exams. I didn't need to study, I learned, if I simply understood everything that had been presented. And I always breezed through the exams. This became my habit for the rest of my academic career - never to study for exams - and it served me well. And I've tried to emulate the simple, logical presentation style of this great professor. I'm sure he never knew my name, and we were not friends, but he was a powerful example for me to try to follow.

Graduate school (1967-1969 & 1972-1976)

Like many other scientists, a number of influential people came into my life during graduate school. When I arrived at the University of Oklahoma, I was again assigned an advisor, and this seemingly random choice made for me turned out to be a turning point in my life. My advisor was Prof. Yoshikazu Sasaki (whom his students mostly called "Doc"). Yoshi had been a student of the great Shigekata Syono at Tokyo University. This man was simply the most amazing advisor that anyone could hope to have. It was a privilege for me to work under his tutelage. Again, he had a thick accent (Japanese, naturally) that with time I learned not to hear. He was a great classroom teacher, and in his graduate dynamics course, I had my first glimmerings of understanding regarding the atmosphere. His courses were challenging, of course, which I liked, but Yoshi also did things as an advisor that occasionally shook up my world. As an incoming grad student, he informed me that I was going to have a mathematics minor. Apparently, in looking at my transcript, he saw my poor math grades as an undergraduate and decided I needed to get over my math phobia. The way you cure phobias is to face them, and he made me do that. It turned out to be the first of a long list of things he did for me that helped me tremendously. He always seemed to know just what I needed and when I needed it.

Yoshi helped me graduate with my M.S. in three semesters - I was worried about being drafted, so he made sure I would get my first graduate degree. With the help of some great math professors, I managed to achieve my imposed goal of a minor in mathematics (A's in all three courses - my first A's in math since grade school). Thus, I was emboldened to go on to my Ph.D. - but after one semester, that process was interrupted by my draft board (my adventures during that time are found elsewhere).

At the same time I was taking courses from Yoshi, I was also taking graduate synoptics with Prof. Walter J. Saucier. Walt was simply a great teacher and educator whose doctorate was from the University of Chicago. He had written the synoptic Meteorology textbook we used while I was at Wisconsin - Principles of Meteorological Analysis - and he had founded the department at OU. He was one of several reasons I wanted to go to OU. And he didn't let me down in that regard. He was entertaining, with a knack for humorous ways of explaining and describing complex meteorological topics. He walked into class and asked, every day, "What do you want to do, today?" If we had no suggestion, he'd launch into something. But if we asked him to talk about something specific, he could do so at length, without any notes. He never taught with notes. I so much admired that capability that I wanted to be able to do so myself. He also had a knack for weather map analysis. He could see more in 2 minutes of looking at a surface chart than any of us would ever notice if we pored over that map for two hours! And he had a lot of pet peeves, which he would expound upon at length if we touched on any of them. Several of my Pet Peeves have their origins with Walt. Sadly, Walt left OU after my first year there, after a dispute with the Dean of the Engineering College (Meteorology was within the College of Engineering back then), but there's no doubt he was a major influence on me in that single year with him. I admired him tremendously and he was a great professor. Like Werner Schewerdtfeger, he didn't do the things to advance his career and reputation, because he was so busy helping meteorology students.

For the record, my great math teachers included Prof. Charles E. Springer, who taught a course on Tensor and Vector Analysis from his own textbook. My first day in his class, he began talking about osculating planes as if that topic would be familiar to everyone and a good way to introduce his subject. For my part, I had never heard of them! There and then, I parked my butt in his office during his office hours on a regular basis. He was friendly, patient, and obviously willing to help a student willing to learn, despite a poor math background. I found I began enjoying his course and needed less and less time spent in his office for explanations. But I continued to frequent his office, anyway. I liked talking with him, and he seemed to enjoy our talks, as well. Imagine that!

My second math class was taught by Prof. Stanley Eliason, for the course Fourier Series and Boundary Value Problems. Stan's class was so crystal clear, I didn't have to park myself in his office. He made the subject come alive for me and showed me that mathematical thinking need not be so vague and obscure as it had been for me. I liked his teaching so much, I put him on my Ph.D. committee.

When I returned from my forced "sabbatical" in the Army, I began to take many courses from the Aerospace Engineering department. There were several good professors there who taught courses in applied mathematics and various topics in rigorous classical fluid dynamics. My absolute favorite was Prof. Martin Jischke (formerly President of Purdue University). Martin's course were very rigorous and engineering students tended to stay away from them if they could. Often, the courses would be dominated by Meteorology students! He was indeed demanding, giving lots of homework and very challenging examinations. But as you were going through the material with him, you knew you were learning substantive things. In one course I had with him, he gave an oral final - you had to stand at a chalkboard and deliver answers to questions he fired at you. Very scary, but it was great experience and I've copied that from him in my "Advanced Forecasting" class. I relished his classes and he seemed to be interested in some meteorological problems as challenging topics in fluid dynamics. He was simply tremendous and had a huge influence on the way I think and teach. His doctorate was from MIT, by the way.

Another important person in my background during my graduate studies was Prof. Rex L. Inman. Rex had a number of less-than-admirable qualities that kept me at some distance from him, but his NWP class was a huge influence on my career. We were among the first students to have the capability to build and run our own "toy" versions of a barotropic NWP model on the mini-computer owned by the department. It was a great class and exposed me to Objective Analysis, one of my lifelong interests, for the first time. He was another demanding teacher, which I had come to relish.

Toward the end of my time in graduate school, Yoshi informed me that he was going on sabbatical and could no longer support me while he was gone. Hence, I had two choices (1) find another advisor, or (2) figure out a way to support myself. As it turned out, this apparent disaster was a blessing in disguise. I had been struggling to find a topic for my dissertation, without much success. Coursework was about over, and I needed to get a topic, and soon. I was able to get a part-time job at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, with Dr. Ronnie Alberty as my supervisor - he told me my job there was to ... finish my dissertation! Moving away from what I found a not very productive situation for me at OU to NSSL was just what I needed. In that situation, I was able to figure out my topic (Objective Analysis) and finished by dissertation reasonably soon thereafter. And I would retain the honor of Yoshi's name on my dissertation as my advisor. As I look back on things, Ron was probably the best supervisor I ever had, rivalled only by Bob Maddox (below).

Yoshi was not much direct help along my path - instead, he let me find my own way, make my mistakes and learn from them, and finally reach a time when I was able to strike out on my own. He did just what I needed most every step along the path. Yoshi is, in my opinion, by far the greatest professor that the OU Meteorology program has ever had. A genuine genius who was very good with his diverse students, teaching not just the course material but also the art of becoming a meteorologist. I owe him a lot, and will honor him so long as I live. I give thanks for the lucky accident that brought us together.

Non-academic mentors

During the summers while I was at Wisconsin after my sophomore and junior academic years, I worked as a student trainee at the Weather Bureau office in Madison. There, I met a number of people, one of whom had some influence on me. He was Warren Wallis ("Wally") - a fruit forecaster: for the Wisconsin cranberry bogs in the summer and Florida citrus in the winter. He was the only one in the office doing his own surface maps, plotting and analyzing a chart every day he worked. He also used a net radiometer to help improve his temperature forecasts. He was the only one in the office doing anything even remotely connected to what I was learning in class. He's been a lifelong inspiration, despite our all-too-brief contact.

During my last two years at UW, I was privileged to meet Dr. David Barber, then a grad student at UW. He shared my love for severe storms and even taught a special, unofficial "class" on Saturdays for people interested in severe weather. Dave had worked at SELS in Kansas City and was willing to share what he had learned with us. I looked up to him, naturally, and when he encouraged me to bid on a student trainee position at SELS after my senior year, I did so and actually got that position! I stayed in touch with Dave for many years and we occasionally chatted about things meteorological when we could. Without his encouragement, I might never have developed my relationship with SELS (now known as the SPC).

During what turned out to be 2 1/2 summers as a student trainee at SELS, I met two very influential people. One was Joseph G. Galway, about whom more can be found elsewhere. Joe was an inspiration and a hero who lived up to my image of him after I met him, and long afterward. His devotion to research and forecasting showed he had lived what I wanted to accomplish. He was a thorough scholar, an excellent author, and a friend. Our community doesn't give him the recognition he truly deserves.

The other was John R. (Jack) Moeller, an aviation forecaster with NSSFC. Jack befriended me as no one else at SELS did - we actually did things together away from the office. He became a close friend and among the many things we discussed was the disconnect between what I was learning in school and what I was seeing practiced by most weather forecasters. Out of these discussions grew my determination to do my best to bridge that gap, a critical choice for me that has proven to be what I believe to have been a wise choice. It was easy for me to excel at it, since so few people were (and are) doing it! Jack was a great and wise person. At this time, I also met Dr. Charles F. (Charlie) Chappell, who was a SELS lead forecaster at the time, and spent time tutoring me in surface analysis techniques.

During my grad student days, I interacted with many students, of course. Dr. John M. Lewis offered me much good advice during the time when I was first at OU, before my military "sabbatical". But when I returned, I developed contacts with several students who would be influential on me. One was Alan R. Moller, my chase partner for many years after we both graduated. On a storm chase, we had many hours of conversation time, and Al has taught me a lot about operational meteorology that I have not actually experienced. He also stimulated my involvement with spotters, spotter training, and societal impacts of severe convection. Not only has he been a great friend, but a source of much knowledge that I have tried to meld with my research. He has epitomized what I believe an operational forecaster should be.

Another shining example of what a forecaster should be is my now-retired friend Jim Johnson. Al Moller and I met Jim on a storm chase at the Dodge City, KS office, many years ago, and Jim is clearly a kindred spirit whose operational forecasting insights also have been valuable and influential. Jim learned his meteorology in the Air Force and even worked with the famous Bob Miller for some time. He is a true Renaissance man, and has been both a colleague and a friend.

After I graduated, I first went to work for SELS, where I met and collaborated with Leslie R. Lemon. Les had such a passion for learning about storms, it was basically impossible for me not to work with him. We wrote one paper together, published in 1979 that has been cited more than anything else I've ever written. Les shared many things we me regarding the use of radar in connection with both studying and forecasting severe convection. Most of what I know about that today has its roots in my collaboration with Les. He has no graduate degrees, but he's an outstanding meteorologist, despite that. Hard work, a passion for storms, and dedication are his defining characteristics.

When I left SELS, I worked at ERL Headquarters in Boulder, with Dr. Robert A. Maddox as my boss. Bob had been a forecaster for the Air Force and also worked with Bob Miller, but went on to get his Ph.D. at Colorado State - Prof. Thomas Vonder Haar was his advisor. Bob was a great person to work with - he was the first person I had known to that time who understood what I was about. We could communicate without saying a lot of words because we seemed to be on the same wavelength all the time. When Bob talked me into helping him with the Flash Flood Course he and Charlie Chappell (who had moved on from SELS and become the director of the Applied Physics and Chemistry Laboratory in Boulder, CO) had created at the NWS Training Center, I was able to see the skill Bob had at teaching weather forecasters. He developed a rapport with them that was necessary to get his message across. If I know anything at all about training, I owe most of it to Bob. His accomplishments are enormous, and I'm proud to consider him my friend. He's been a tremendous influence on me in many ways.

While in Boulder, I also developed a fantastic collaboration on Objective Analysis topics with Dr. Stanley L. Barnes and Dr. Fernando Caracena. Stan had been with NSSL while I had been a grad student and was one of Yoshi Sasaki's early Ph.D. students. Stan had developed one of the most widely-used Objective Analysis techniques. Fernando had gotten his doctorate from Case Western University (Cleveland, OH) in Physics, but he is obviously a great scientist. We formed a partnership that was exhilarating while it lasted. Daily discussions helped all of us gain a constantly-deepening insight into Objective Analysis, with each of us contributing what we could to the collective discussion. I not only learned a lot about the topic from these two, but I also learned how wonderfully productive and satisfying a scientific collaboration could be.

When Bob became NSSL director, I followed him to NSSL, and soon developed what would be one of the more productive collaborations of my career, with Dr. Harold E. Brooks. Harold received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois under Bob Wilhelmson, and it was evident from the start that Harold was a perfect fit to come to NSSL. He understood the need for bridging the gap between research and operations and soon proved to be brilliant at innovation and insight. Harold has taught me a lot about numerical cloud modeling and meteorological statistics - my many papers co-authored with him are silent but strong testimony to how much I value working with him.

Finally, a last name (unless I think of others): Dr. Allan H. Murphy. This man was a giant in meteorological statistics and when I finally met him, he proved to be even more impressive in person than he was with his writings. I had met him at a conference, seeking an understanding regarding the use of subjective probability. My groping for understanding had proven mostly fruitless, but in a remarkably brief time, the crystalline lucidity of Allan's spoken explanations had the shingles falling from my eyes. This he did subsequently at our every meeting. When my vague ramblings were going down some path I only dimly sensed, it would turn out he had been there long before me, and not only was able to explain it clearly, but had several papers on the topic I could read and get even deeper knowledge. If I have any understanding of probability and statistics as applied to meteorology, Allan is the source of most of it. He cared deeply about his topic and wanted people to understand it, despite that many consider it to be boring at best. He was a giant in our field and I'm very proud to have been his friend for a too-brief time.