Meet Stan Benjamin
Weather Detective Work Improves Hurricane Forecasting
Stan Benjamin is a research meteorologist working at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colo. He is the chiefof the Assimilation and Modeling Branch in the Global Systems Division within ESRL, where he and his colleagues work on developing and improving weather models, both regional and global. Stan went to graduate school at Penn State (M.S., Ph.D.) after an undergraduate education at Albion College in Michigan.
1. Why does your research matter?
My scientist colleagues and I get to help improving forecast guidance from NOAA by building and improving computer models and the observational data assimilation that initializes them. We get to talk/email with model forecast users and see specific ways that our model improvements make a difference for aviation safety, by improving severe weather forecasts, by helping to make renewable energy more effective by allowing better forecasts of wind and solar power generation, and now, by improving 2 to 7-day hurricane forecasts – that is gratifying and gives us a lot of motivation to keep getting better.
2. What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Thinking about weather (and even marveling at it) and trying to understand and describe it from modeling and physical-equation and observational perspectives, and learning how assumptions we make in our models limit their accuracy. When we detect a consistent problem in our own model forecasts, we get into a CSI-like team investigation into what went wrong: Larger than expected inaccuracies in observations or insufficient spatial coverage by them? Misconceptions or even subtle errors in data assimilation or some components of the models themselves? We really like that kind of detective work and from those investigations, we often get new ideas on how to better design the data assimilation or forecast models.
3. Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
We sit in front of computer screens, often with each other, writing code and looking at observations and satellite and radar images and simulated images from our models, but it helps to look out the window sometimes.
4. What in your lab could you not live without?
Other than team colleagues (at the top of the list), I’d say observations, and yeah, a powerful computer environment with excellent staff is pretty high on the list also.
5. If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
A satellite-based lidar that could see through clouds and precipitation – OK, maybe a network of them. Then we’d have global 3-d winds, and allow us to see circulations on all scales in phenomena we now don’t fully understand.
6. When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
Some seeds were planted from a science project in 7th grade, taking observations for 3 winter months in my backyard in Kensington, MD and comparing them with forecasts from the Washington Post – that was fun. I forgot about that interest for many years, concentrated on math through high school and undergraduate (along with liberal arts), but through a godsend, suddenly recalled meteorology. Then, in grad school, everything clicked – physics, math, phenomena, geography.
7. What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
One book I read recently that really intrigued me is Complications by Atul Gawande – it is written in the medical field, but its crisp descriptions about unexpected humbling results when trying to solve real-life real-time science problems rang true.
8. And how about a personal favorite book?
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, and the Psalms.
9. What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
Hmm…. I lead scientists – I sure didn’t see that coming.
10. Do you have an outside hobby?
I ride my bicycle a lot, almost daily with commuting and errands and exploring, get in some hiking and cross-country skiing, and I dabble with plucking stringed instruments.
11. What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I might have become a math teacher. Or maybe some kind of geographer. And if I started over again now for a second career, I might want to become a nurse, believe it or not.
12. Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
Two that have gotten my attention are James Clerk Maxwell, with the elegance of his profound work in physics in a relatively short life, and Lewis F. Richardson (see Peter Lynch’s book, The Emergence of Numerical Weather Prediction: Richardson’s Dream).