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Spotlight on Commerce: Michelle Hawkins, PhD, Chief of the Severe, Fire, Public, and Winter Weather Services Branch, National Weather Service (NWS)

Guest blog by Michelle Hawkins, Chief of the Severe, Fire, Public, and Winter Weather Services Branch in the Analyze, Forecast and Support Office of the National Weather Service (NWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

I am Chief of the Severe, Fire, Public, and Winter Weather Services Branch in the Analyze, Forecast and Support Office of the National Weather Service (NWS) in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In this role I provide programmatic leadership for the Nation’s severe, public, and winter weather services. I also provide leadership for weather-support response services for wildland fires. 

I grew up in Chicago and the importance of education was instilled in me at a very early age. My parents made sure that I was reading before kindergarten, and I remember loving our frequent walks to the local library. As I got older, my parents enrolled me in various state or locally-funded programs to foster my ever-growing interest in science. I don’t remember ever having a free summer in high school. I was always in a summer enrichment course or a science program. I also attended a program during the school year called Saturday College. Yes, I even had enrichment classes on Saturdays!

I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University. As an undergraduate student majoring in chemistry, I participated in a NASA-sponsored program where we learned about the Earth’s atmosphere and the atmospheres of other planets. Although I have always been fascinated by the severe storms that would knock out our power, and the winter weather that I had to slog through on my walks to school, the NASA program opened my eyes to a career path that I didn’t even know existed. I went on to learn more about the fields of atmospheric sciences and meteorology, and I knew I had found my life’s work. After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, I worked at the National Governors Association on state efforts to address climate change and wrote several science briefs on environmental issues such as atmospheric dispersion and chemical emergency management. I enjoyed this work so much that I decided to go back to Howard for a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences, studying within the NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences located on Howard’s campus.

As a graduate student, I participated in three shipboard research cruises, two of which were aboard the NOAA R/V Ronald H. Brown. My colleagues and I sailed into Saharan dust storms in the Atlantic to characterize the physical and chemical evolution of the Saharan aerosol layer and its effect on the atmospheric marine environment. I analyzed air mass history, satellite imagery, surface weather maps, and chemical and aerosol datasets to characterize the meteorological regimes that we encountered while out at sea. I then spent four months at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, comparing my shipboard observations to atmospheric model output. Upon graduation, I could think of no better place to apply my skills and passion for meteorology than the National Weather Service. It is an absolute joy to work with such distinguished and dedicated public servants!

For me, African American History Month is a reminder to give thanks for all those who paved the way before me so I could experience the opportunities afforded to me today. It also is a renewal of the responsibility to give back. As a career civil servant, I feel this responsibility tied to the mission of my agency in its pursuit to protect life and property - ALL life and property. Weather events such as extreme heat, hurricanes, and floods can disproportionately impact some communities of color. These communities are at increased risk of exposure to extreme weather events given their higher likelihood of living in risk-prone areas such as urban heat islands, isolated rural areas, coastal and other flood-prone areas, areas with older or poorly maintained infrastructure, or areas with an increased burden of air pollution. I feel it is incumbent upon me to support outreach, education and mentorship programs with underrepresented communities so that they are aware of their risks and know how to protect themselves in the event of extreme weather events. Further, my hope is that the next generation of scientists will be even more diverse and have an unsurpassed sense of belonging in the meteorological community.  

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce African Americans during Black History Month.