Meteorology graduate student wins NSF fellowship to study tornado formation

Gabrielle Stewart
July 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Shawn Murdzek, a graduate student studying meteorology and atmospheric science in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), received a 2019 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. He is one of seven EMS students and 24 Penn State students to receive the honor.

Murdzek is investigating the relationship between environmental moisture and tornadogenesis, or the tornado formation process.

To determine if a thunderstorm will form a tornado, forecasters typically use several measurements of the ambient environment, including atmospheric moisture levels. The more moisture present in the atmosphere, the more likely it is for a tornado to form.

Murdzek runs simulations of storms inputting different atmospheric moisture levels to determine the probability of tornadogenesis. For each moisture level, Murdzek incorporates random perturbations within the simulations to represent processes important to tornadogenesis that are not completely understood, such as rain drop formation. This allows Murdzek to examine how atmospheric moisture levels impact the uncertainty of tornadogenesis related to processes that are not fully understood or resolved by simulations.

“I’m using statistical probability to convey the uncertainty of tornadogenesis in a certain environment,” Murdzek said. “For example, using statistics, we can state with confidence that there might be a 30% or 40% chance of a tornado being produced rather than just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the possibility.”

The research could benefit weather forecasting by better understanding the uncertainty associated with tornadogenesis.

“Shawn is extremely deserving of the NSF Graduate Fellowship. It’s great that the country is investing in future scientists like him,” said Paul Markowski, professor of meteorology and Murdzek’s adviser. “He is bound to make substantial contributions to our understanding of severe thunderstorms.” 

Shawn Murdzek, field research

Shawn Murdzek, a graduate student studying meteorology and atmospheric science in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, conducting field research.

IMAGE: Courtesy Shawn Murdzek

Yvette Richardson, EMS associate dean of undergraduate education and professor of meteorology, and Matthew Kumjian, associate professor of meteorology, encouraged Murdzek to apply for the NSF fellowship.

“This fellowship is very valuable to me because it shows me I’m on the right track,” said Murdzek. “Receiving the award was a massive boost to my motivation.”

Murdzek received an Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which included a two-year academic scholarship and a summer internship opportunity. He also participated in the Penn State Campus Weather Service, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Student Council, and the Penn State Branch of the American Meteorological Society.

In addition to his academic studies, Murdzek serves as social chair for the Graduate Advisory Council and participates in club cross-country.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited institutions in the United States. Approximately 12,000 students apply annually and 2,000 receive awards.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 17, 2019