Stormy weather lies ahead for Oswald Award winner Flournoy

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Joel N. Myers Weather Center, with its flashing wall of computer screens monitoring the weather and bright windows casting light on the many students gathered around workstations, isn’t a place that most Penn Staters regularly visit. For senior Schreyer Scholar Matthew Flournoy, however, this center, tucked away on the sixth floor of the Walker Building, is home.

Flournoy, a meteorology major, recently received the John W. Oswald Award, recognizing leadership in scholarship. The award is annually given to graduating seniors for leadership in the areas of scholarship, athletics, journalism, speech and mass media, creative and performing arts, and social sciences, religious activities and student government. The award, which was established in 1983, honors John W. Oswald, who served as University president from 1970 to 1983.

“I’m very humbled and honored to accept it,” Flournoy said of the award, which he received in March.

It would be an understatement to say that Flournoy has been busy while at Penn State. In addition to working as a teaching assistant for an upper-level meteorology class, he has participated in research, written a thesis and participated in on-campus organizations like the campus weather service and the Penn State branches of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. Flournoy also co-founded the Penn State Storm Chase Team.

The team was created a couple of years ago, Flournoy said, after he went storm-chasing with several friends through Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. Flournoy said the initial experience interested them enough to form a storm chase team, so that they could not only make their chasing outings more official, but also so they could educate others on severe weather and safe chasing practices.

Last May, Flournoy participated in a 10-day storm-chasing trip in the American Plains, which was organized by the Penn State Storm Chase Team. Flournoy, who describes himself as a “Plains guy,” said that while they didn’t see any tornadoes, they saw some storms which were very close to dropping tornadoes.

“We didn’t see any tornadoes, so there wasn’t any huge safety threat like that ever, fortunately and unfortunately, of course,” Flournoy said. “It’s still an amazing experience to be able to apply your experience in class to what’s going on in front of you.”

Flournoy has had many opportunities within the classroom, including one that helped inspire his thesis. The Pepperell, Massachusetts, native began research on his thesis during his freshman year, before he began gravitating to severe weather as a primary research topic.

“(My thesis) deals with climate change, which is obviously a very hot topic right now, no pun intended,” Flournoy said. “My research specifically focuses on, in the context of global warning, why the poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet.”

Flournoy’s thesis work came out of a class in which he “honors optioned,” which allows a Schreyer Scholar, in consultation with the professor of the course, to add an extra element to a curriculum to receive honors credit. The professor, impressed with Flournoy’s work, connected him with several researchers on campus and Flournoy spent his the summer after his sophomore year at University Park conducting research for his thesis. His thesis is now being submitted to a professional atmospheric journal.

After graduation, Flournoy heads back to the plains, where he will attend the University of Oklahoma for graduate school and focus on severe weather research. In addition to his trip last summer, Flournoy has ventured to Oklahoma before, spending the summer of 2014 as an intern as part of the Hollings Scholarship program through a program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“My ultimate goal is to be a professor in a university, to teach classes and to do research on the forefront of severe weather, furthering our understanding of severe weather and, ultimately, how to better predict it,” Flournoy said. “And I’d also like to have a side focus on longer time scale prediction, like maybe predicting tornado outbreaks up to a couple weeks in advance.”

Looking back on his years at Penn State, Flournoy has many things of which to be proud, including the success of the Penn State Storm Chase Team. PSUChase grew out of what Flournoy describes as the small family environment of the meteorology department.

“It’s more than just me; that was really a group effort,” Flournoy said of the team. “I’m really proud to be able to say I started that club with my friends and hopefully it goes further in the future.”

Last Updated May 11, 2015