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Courtney Schumacher

Courtney Schumacher is an Assistant Professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Texas A&M University. A meteorologist, Dr. Schumacher studies tropical rainfall and storms using radars based on land, at sea, and in space. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science from the University of Virginia in 1994, and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Washington in 2000 and 2003, respectively. When not conducting research or teaching, she works to foster diversity in the atmospheric science field.

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"We have to get young women interested in science, then let them know they can do science, and then get them to stay with it. I feel very lucky, which is wrong. I shouldn't feel lucky that I wasn't discouraged. That should be the case for everybody!"

by David S.F. Portree for Earth & Sky

Courtney Schumacher with her group's disdrometer, an instrument that measures the drop size distribution of rain (essentially a very expensive microphone). (Image courtesy of Texas A&M University)
Portree: What's the first memory you have of being interested in science?

Schumacher: There's a group of women geoscience faculty here at Texas A&M who get together for lunch every month and we just had this conversation at our last lunch meeting.

I think in second grade I asked my parents for a chemistry set. That is my first memory of actively searching out a scientific pursuit. I was always very interested in math. I enjoyed reading a lot, too, so I liked English. I was always torn between those interests.

Portree: You told me that you were an "Army brat," so your family traveled around to different bases. Did living in many different places shape your interest in the natural world?

Schumacher: I started elementary school in Indiana, in a farm community. Then we moved to Panama, and our house was backed by jungle. I remember taking hikes in the jungle and being alert for large snakes. And I remember the torrential rains.

The natural world seemed a part of my younger years. We moved to Virginia when I was in junior high. That's where my father retired. That was the suburbs, not so much the natural environment. By then, my interest in math had kicked in.

What I appreciate most about living in all those different places as a kid is all the different people I was exposed to. I felt comfortable in a lot of different environments. Especially when we lived in Panama, all my friends were from different countries. My two best friends were Indian and Greek.

I feel I'm very accepting of people and their differences. This is useful to me since I work all over the world. For example, in my graduate career, I worked on a joint NASA-Japanese Space Agency project the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite. I went to Japan many times, and I have a great rapport with my Japanese colleagues.

It also helped me to become adaptable. I'm an observational meteorologist, so I go on field programs all over. I live and work on a ship for many weeks, or set up instrumentation in a tropical country where people speak a different language, have a different culture. Those programs can be challenging, but I think my early experiences helped a lot.

Portree: When did you decide to become a scientist?

Schumacher: I work a lot with recruiting in our department, the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. High school students are always coming in and talking with me - they know they want to be an atmospheric scientist and get a Ph.D. and some of them are just high school sophomores! I'm amazed that they already know they want to get their Ph.D. in atmospheric science. It wasn't that way with me.

I started out my undergraduate career in 1990 at the University of Virginia. I started in mathematics. I thought, I'm really good at math, I like it then I realized it wasn't applied enough for me. I really wanted to be more active in my community and my society.

A photograph of weather and clouds during the Kwajalein Experiment in the Marshall Islands, August 1999. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington)
At the University of Virginia, you have to declare your major after your sophomore year. So I switched from math to environmental science. In the UVA Environmental Sciences program, you can choose to specialize in ecology, geology, hydrology, and meteorology. That's when I first leaned toward atmospheric science.

I moved toward Tropical Meteorology because I wanted to go to South America. When we lived in Panama we traveled a lot in South America. In the military, you can fly on the cargo planes really cheaply. My dad would throw the whole family on a cargo plane and we'd go to Peru or Bolivia. I wanted to go back to South America, and I wanted that to be part of my science education.

I went to the professors in the department and found out who was doing work in South America. I was most excited about Mike Garstang's work. He excited me about the field he was very important when I was an undergraduate. He was studying aerosol transport from the Sahara Desert into the Brazilian Amazon. Aerosols include dust, and also particles from biomass burning. They were looking at the chemical composition of these particles. So I spent a semester in Brazil interning with some of his colleagues in Sao Paulo. That's when I really became interested in tropical meteorology in particular. Mike Garstang started me off in tropical meteorology in the right way.

When I was an undergraduate I did a lot of internships to see what part of the science I liked. I don't remember how I discovered that internships were the way to go, but I do remember knowing that I had to be proactive. Some internships were posted on bulletin boards - the American Meteorological Society puts out a newsletter with opportunities, for example. Opportunities weren't always posted, however. I'd go to professors and say, "I want to do an independent study with you," and they'd say, "Great!" That's something I tell every student I advise. Be proactive. It's how to succeed and make connections and figure out what you really want to do.

I worked for the National Weather Service in Alaska for a summer to see what government weather forecasting is like. I worked for a private company in an atmospheric science capacity to see what the private sector is like. I was an intern at a foundation, so I could see what science policy work is like. I made sure I was exposed to all the different aspects of the science. I came to realize that research was where I wanted to be.

When time came to go to graduate school, I went to Mike Garstang with a list of graduate schools and told him that I really wanted to study tropical meteorology. He marked all of them off except two, and said, "These are the two people you'd want to work with." And he called them both, and I ended up at the University of Washington with Bob Houze. He's a very well-known scientist in the field. He was very impressed that Mike Garstang called him up. So, it had a lot to do with being proactive, being enthusiastic, and making connections.

A composite reflectivity image of Hurricane Frances on September 5, 2004 using Florida's NEXRAD radar network. Higher reflectivity indicates higher rainrates. (Image courtesy of Gerry Creager, Texas A&M University)
Portree: You told me that you're the first woman scientist to be hired in your department in 30 years. That points up the whole issue of women in science. When you were a young girl, were you encouraged to study science and math?

Schumacher: People always say that girls are not supported in their pursuit of science and math. I think I remember only one instance of that as I went through primary school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was always one of the best in the class, and my teachers just said, "Great!" I never felt anything holding me back.

That's not the case for a lot of people. It can often be a challenge. We have to get young women interested in science, then let them know they can do science, and then get them to stay with it. Those hurdles might be why we have fewer women than men in math and the sciences.

I was fortunate. I feel very lucky, which is wrong. I shouldn't feel lucky that I wasn't discouraged. That should be the case for everybody!

Portree: Did you have any role models or mentors who encouraged you?

Schumacher: Not when I was very young. When I was older. . .there are very few female scientists in my field. There was one female role model, a female professor, in my graduate program at the University of Washington. Her name was Marcia Baker. I didn't actively do research with her, but it was important to me to see that there was a woman who had succeeded, who was a good scientist, who had balanced career and family, and was well respected.

I had one role model/mentor - something between - Bruce Nelson, a geologist. He was my first advisor when I was an undergraduate in environmental science. This was before I decided I actually wanted to go into meteorology. He made me realize that you could do science and have fun. I had so many interests, and I wanted to travel - he said, "You know, you can do all this." He showed me that you could have a very rich life and make science a part of your life. Science is fun!

Finally, I should mention my most important mentor, my graduate advisor, Bob Houze. He was incredibly influential in the way my scientific understanding of weather developed.

Portree: Let's talk about your research. You've spent a fair amount of time in the Pacific. Is that part of the tropics your research specialty?

Schumacher: I look at tropical rain that sums it up. I also look at the convective systems that produce the rain and how they organize. How does that organization vary across the tropics? A hurricane is the most organized convective storm it's the epitome of organization. Radar is a really good way to study all this, so I also call myself a radar meteorologist. Sometimes I'll call myself a mesoscale meteorologist, because mesoscale is the scale of storms.

The Pacific Basin is a very large part of the tropics, so a lot of my work has focused there. As I mentioned, my graduate career was spent working on a NASA satellite called TRMM. It was launched at the end of 1997. That was the first quantitative weather radar placed in space. The Japanese built the radar that's why I had a lot of interaction with my Japanese colleagues. You could use it to get radar observations over the tropical oceans, which are obviously very hard to get, unless you have a radar on a ship or an island, and those are few and far between. So a lot of my past work focused on observations of the oceans because we had this new technology to observe. When I worked on TRMM, we did a field program in the Pacific to validate the satellite data on Kwajalein island in the Marshall Islands, where they have a weather radar and lots of resources for a field campaign.

I'm transitioning away from that. Now that I'm faculty at Texas A & M, I'm writing proposals to do things in West Africa and Costa Rica and even here in southeast Texas. We're in a subtropical climate, occasionally affected by tropical influences. We have a radar on the roof here. Just like with TRMM, it's partly about going where the interest is, where the field programs are happening, where the agencies are funding proposals.

A sounding balloon launch from the R/V R. H. Brown with the C-band radar in the background. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington)
Portree: What's a typical day like for you when you are doing research?

Schumacher: This is a really tough question for the office. For the field it's a much easier question.

When you're a graduate student, you can focus on just one topic. You work on your dissertation, and that's it. I came directly from graduate school to my faculty position, and now it's completely different. Here my typical day includes teaching and advising students and committee work. As a graduate student I would review and write some papers, but now I'm reviewing and writing a lot more papers. I'm reviewing proposals and writing proposals. I went from totally focused to well, I feel unfocused.

If I'm lucky I might get a couple of hours working on my own research. About half my research time is spent reading and writing proposals, the other half is spent at the computer looking at the data.

That's one of the things that intimidated me about going into academia. I saw how many different directions you're pulled. In academia there's three areas research, academics, and service that determine how well you do, whether you get tenure. All three aspects of academia interest me now it's about finding the right balance.

You wanted to talk to me in part because I'm starting out as a scientist. I'm still very much on the learning curve. I think all young faculty are a little intimidated you have to be a good teacher, bring in a lot of money with your proposals, write a lot of good papers, and contribute to your professional society, and you have to balance all this with your regular life.

I'm still having fun, though. My graduate students are challenging me, and I like that. I think the graduate students enjoy talking with me because I'm just out of graduate school. They enjoy someone they can relate to. My undergraduates are also very interesting.

Portree: What's a typical research day like out in the field?

Schumacher: The fieldwork is much more structured. The important thing when you're out in the field is to get consistent measurements. You want to make sure that the radar is collecting data the same way for months at a time. Field programs last a month to three months for larger projects. You set up shifts in an operations center, so there's somebody there 24 hours a day. You make sure the rain gauges are working right. We do things like launch balloons to get temperature and moisture profiles of the atmosphere. You want to launch those at the same time every day so you have a consistent data set. In a way it's boring because everything's on a set pattern, except that you get to observe the phenomenon that you study.

The weather obviously changes, but some days it's calm or scattered showers, and none of the instrumentation picks up much. Then there's days that are really exciting, and you've got a huge squall line coming through, and you're getting too much data, and it's raining hard, and instruments are breaking down.

You're tired. You're working hard. There are no days off. Saturdays and Sundays have no meaning.

I was on a ship for seven weeks in the east Pacific. The ship was in a place where there's no land nearby, where ships normally don't travel. That's why we were there with our radar. We would do abandon ship drills. We would go to the boats, then they'd announce that the nearest point of land was like 1500 nautical miles away. We didn't see another ship for weeks.

Courtney Schumacher taking sea surface measurements near the R/V Ronald H. Brown during the Tropical East Pacific Process Studies cruise in the tropical east Pacific Ocean, summer 1997. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington)
Portree: What was one of the most exciting or surprising moments in your research?

Schumacher: Occasionally I'll be at my computer, and I'll realize something or some pattern will emerge from the data, and I'll vocalize - "oh, wow!" Those moments are great. They're what keep me going. The discovery part of science.

Another exciting time is when you get into a conversation with another scientist and you really get into the details. You might not agree, but you're both learning. I remember about two years ago, there were five us in an email exchange. It was about ice formation in mesoscale convective systems. Somebody was at Utah, two of us were at the University of Washington, two were at Colorado State. We were emailing back and forth like crazy in a big argument. I was so excited. When somebody responded, I'd run to my adviser and we'd talk about it. It happens at conferences or with your colleagues in the hall, but I remember that exchange as being especially exciting and energizing.

Portree: When we talked before, you mentioned your enthusiasm for encouraging diversity in the field of atmospheric science. Why is that important, and what do you do to encourage women and minority students?

Schumacher: When people meet me, they say, "Wow, you don't look like an atmospheric scientist," or "You don't look like a professor." I think it's because I'm a young woman. That's just not the picture they have in their minds when they think of a scientist - the guy in the lab coat with the crazy Einstein hair. Breaking stereotypes is important.

One thing I do is act as a role model. I'm a young woman Ph.D. atmospheric scientist who took a faculty position. That's one reason I chose to go into academics. It's a little more high profile. I also try to foster mentoring relationships. There's a lot of statistics that say mentoring is the best way to keep young women in the sciences.

I'm the undergraduate recruiting coordinator. I chose this task because I wanted to have interaction with incoming students. Texas A&M just hired a vice president for diversity. So, there's funding to bring in Hispanic and black students and their families. I'll contact these students and their families and meet with them. That's maybe my most active role.

I'm also helping out on a proposal for bringing minorities into the atmospheric sciences - we'll go to high schools and community colleges and speak. I'm not doing the science education "pipeline" all the way back to grade school, but I'm doing high school through undergraduate.

Portree: Why is diversity important?

Schumacher: Well, why not have a more representative science community made up of people who think in different ways? You're limiting yourself if you're just going after the white male population. It's a more rich environment when you have different types of people. Diversity can only help the scientific process.

Written by David S.F. Portree for Earth & Sky
Photos courtesy of Earth & Sky
Last changed on: 2/27/2010 10:27:07 AM

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