Grad students gain research edge with aid from meteorology professor emeritus

David Kubarek
April 10, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For anyone, a trip to Argentina would have been exciting. But for Rachel Gutierrez, who’s long been fascinated by severe weather such as hail and thunderstorms, it represents the holy grail of her research interests.

Gutierrez, a doctoral student in meteorology and atmospheric sciences at Penn State, recently traveled to the site for the National Science Foundation-funded RELAMPAGO project, an atmospheric research field campaign to study severe convective storms. This region has some of the most intense convective systems in the world, producing large hail, high storm tops and severe lightning.

Rachel Gutierrez measures hailstones as part of her research on the formation of the precipitation.

Rachel Gutierrez measures hailstones as part of her research on the formation of the precipitation. 

IMAGE: Penn State

Gutierrez’s trip was funded in part through the Dennis and Joan Thomson Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Meteorology, which offers special resources to some of the most accomplished graduate students in the department. Through the endowed fellowship, the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science continues to benefit from this continuing contribution to learning by the Thomsons.

Gutierrez’s research on the formation of large hail, conducted through the research group of Matthew Kumjian, assistant professor of meteorology, explores cloud microphysics and thermodynamics. Understanding this, Gutierrez said, could improve forecasting of these potentially dangerous events.

Using radar and other tools, Gutierrez monitors storms that produce hail chunks larger than six inches in diameter.

“The Thomson Fellowship gave me the opportunity to study exactly what I love to study without any compromises,” Gutierrez said. “Without the fellowship, I may not have been able to study my research passion, hail formation and growth.”

Doctoral student Qinxue Gu thinks on a different timescale with her research. She’s interested in climate dynamics and how decades-long changes and atmosphere-ocean interactions affect the planet.

“The prediction of climate over a decadal time scale can provide invaluable information for decisions made by government agencies and industries,” Gu said. “Accurate climate prediction can save lives, money and resources.”

Gu said the fellowship helps with living expenses, and knowing she’s earned this fellowship gives her more confidence that she has potential to advance research she’s passionate about. It’s also allowed her to attend research conferences, which opens doors for more research opportunities.

Doctoral student Daniel Wesloh, another recipient of Thomson Fellowship funds, said fellowships like this help students focus on research rather than juggling teaching while adjusting to graduate-level classes. His work looks at applying the methods of atmospheric data assimilation to problems related to the carbon cycle.

“Working on a specific project often restricts what students can work on, while fellowships allow more freedom in choice of direction,” Wesloh said. “I was able to build an extensive automated testing framework for my research code and then ready it for an open-source release.”

The Thomsons, who both received financial support as undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin, know the impact funding has on students. Joan Thomson is professor emerita in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

Dennis Thomson, who was head of the department from 1992 to 1999, remembers losing great students to other universities due to the lack of graduate funding at Penn State.

“Thus, when it became possible for us to personally — and financially — address this problem, we worked to establish the endowed fellowship for graduate students," he said. “Now, as always, we can take great pride in the accomplishments, not only for our many former graduate advisees, but the fellowship recipients as well.”

Contributions to the Dennis and Joan Thomson Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Meteorology advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a twenty-first-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

  • Rachel Gutierrez measures hailstones as part of her research on the formation of the precipitation.

    Rachel Gutierrez measures hailstones as part of her research on the formation of the precipitation. 

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 11, 2019