Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
A close call with a tropical cyclone as a child caused Daniel Harnos to become fascinated with the weather. This led him to earn degrees in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Illinois in 2010 (MS) and 2014 (PhD). Now, he works as Meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Climate Prediction Center where he helps others prepare for weather and climate changes by delivering real-time meteorological information and forecasts.
Your research focuses on tropical cyclones, which was also the subject of your dissertation. How did you become interested in this topic? Has it always been your goal to work at a research center like NOAA?
I became interested in tropical cyclones because I was born shortly before Hurricane Gloria passed near my home in New Jersey, and my parents frequently recounted facing this event with a newborn. They managed to make it out OK other than a few trees down in their yard, but the event clearly stuck with them and helped drive my interest in tropical cyclones.
I was not always interested specifically in working at a government organization such as NOAA but did always have a desire for a career where I would be doing something tangible in terms of serving the public, which NOAA certainly does. The primary goal of our climate outlooks are meant to help protect life and property.
At NOAA, you work in the Climate Prediction Center (CPC). What are some of your primary responsibilities in this position? What does a normal day or week look like for you?
My current job responsibilities are a mix of forecasting, performing research, and developing or supporting existing operational products. I use my tropical cyclone background in forecasting for CPC's Global Tropical Hazards and U.S. Hazards Outlooks, while I have also picked up forecasting temperature and precipitation for 3 - 4 weeks in the future for the U.S. My initial research at CPC was focused on seasonal prediction of tropical cyclone activity but has shifted toward improving prediction of temperature and precipitation in the U.S. from 2 - 4 weeks in the future.
Meteorology is a very young science relative to others such as chemistry or physics, resulting in numerous “big picture” outstanding research problems for the field, such as predicting for these longer time-frames. Most weeks are a mix of these duties, but I also run our social media pages, so I have to stay aware of our forecasts on a daily basis and pay attention to any significant climate variability that may be of interest.
What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising aspects of your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is knowing that somewhere someone could be using the climate outlooks that I am developing to make decisions to protect themselves or their property. The fact that someone may be taking action based upon my forecast makes me want to put my all into it. Similarly, it helps motivate me to develop better forecast guidance to improve the predictions from all of our meteorologists on staff.
While at the University of Illinois, you had a number of roles in both teaching and research and landed a fellowship from NASA. How did your experiences at the university prepare you for your current position? Are there any skills that you have found particularly transferrable between graduate school/academia and your current position?
My time at the University of Illinois helped me develop a number of skills that I was able to transfer into my career, such as: communication, statistical analysis, and computer programming. While I do not work in the same niche field of meteorology as I did during my graduate school days, these skills have translated across interests and been critical to my career. Since I also am working in a different aspect of meteorology now, I have been able to introduce some new ideas and methods into it from my graduate school days to help tackle problems in ways that climate scientists may not have been aware of.
Is there a particular course, professor, or experience at the University of Illinois that has impacted your way of thinking?
The two courses that helped me the most at Illinois were “Applied Meteorology” with Bob Rauber and “Risk Analysis” with Ryan Sriver. Each course got me thinking outside of the direct theory regarding the atmosphere, and into how to actively apply meteorological information to real-world problems. Most courses I took taught pure research and theory, which are important, but these fail to produce societal benefits until they can be communicated and applied to the greater public.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Focus not directly on the content you are studying, but on the skills you are building while doing that study. You are not likely to work on the same exact subject matter again, but those skills will be with you and transferable into many other realms that could aid you throughout your career.
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.