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They Know Which Way Wind Blows

UMass Lowell 2011 graduate Heather Jaffe works in front of the "green screen" while interning for NECN's meteorology department.

Lowell Sun
By Olivia Hull

LOWELL -- When Kristina Oakland talks about her meteorology internship at New England Cable News, things get complicated very quickly. 

"We analyze numerical data and make inferences about what is going on in the weather," she says. 

"We analyze the maps, do pressure and precipitation analysis, color-code the maps and sketch contour lines to look at the motion of the air ..." 

OK. So then you go on the air and talk about the weather? 

Actually, as Oakland and fellow intern Heather Jaffe have found out, a lot goes into a forecast before the meteorologist hits the airwaves. 

Littleton's Oakland, an incoming senior in UMass Lowell's Environmental Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, started her internship at NECN on June 1, the day deadly tornadoes struck western Massachusetts. Haverhill's Jaffe, a 2011 graduate of UML, has been interning since January. 

They work closely with NECN weather host Danielle Niles, herself a 2008 graduate of the UMass Lowell Meteorology program. 

According to Niles, a Weymouth native, most people don't realize that TV meteorologists not only develop all the forecasts themselves, but also make the graphics, such as the moving maps, before they deliver the forecast. 

Niles, who has forecasted for NECN since 2008, holds a bachelor's degree in atmospheric sciences from UMass Lowell. She says a lot more goes on behind the scenes than what the viewer sees. 

"Growing up as a little girl, I watched thunderstorms," Niles said. 

"When Hurricane Bob hit (in 1991), I said, 'I wanna go to the ocean.' I was always questioning why things happen. I feel like you're born with it." 
The same goes for Oakland, who sees meteorology as a calling, something she always knew she liked. 

Meteorology wasn't offered at Littleton High School, so Oakland enrolled in an online course her senior year. The final assignment was to interview a professional in the field. She chose J.C. Monahan, a meteorologist for Channel 5 in Boston. 

"I've always really liked the weather," Oakland says. "Even as a kid, thunderstorms never scared me. When the other kids were saying, 'That cloud looks like a bunny,' I was asking, 'Why is the cloud like that?' 

"But after talking to J.C., I knew it was what I wanted to do," she adds. 

In a profession where women have long been outnumbered, Oakland, Jaffe and Niles represent change. 

Frank Colby, a professor of atmospheric sciences at UMass Lowell, blames "cultural reasons" for why women don't pursue careers in science and math as often as men. 

"We try to make sure that women didn't feel like the only one or feel like geeks," he says. "Meteorology is still dominated by men, but that seems to be slowly changing." 

Niles was one of three women in her graduating class of eight meteorologists in 2008. 

"Growing up, it was a lot of male meteorologists, but things have evened out pretty well," she says. "There are definitely more women on the screen now. It's very promising to see." 

In the Boston market alone, there are seven female meteorologists who regularly appear -- NECN's Niles and Nelly Carreño, WBZ Channel 4's Melissa Mack, WCVB Channel 5's J.C. Monahan, WHDH Channel 7's Dylan Dreyer, and Fox 25's Cindy Fitzgibbon and Sarah Wroblewski, a 2004 UMass Lowell graduate. 

While some weather broadcasters have backgrounds in journalism, not science, Oakland wants to be a meteorologist, not a so-called "weather girl" who reads off a script. 

"We want to know the stuff, we want to understand, we want to explain it," Oakland said of herself and Jaffe, adding that one of her professors at UML, Robert Gamache, "always said, 'You guys will be leaving here with degrees as scientists,' so I say, 'If you want to broaden your horizons, put that science perspective on TV.'" 

Meteorology students at UMass Lowell learn the fundamentals of the science, but they put their skills as forecasters into action at their internships. The curriculum is similar to the one undertaken by engineering students, so many shy away from the field after their first year. 

"To me, it's as hard as going to medical school," Oakland says. 

The June 1 tornadoes gave Oakland and Jaffe a front-row seat to an out-of-the-ordinary meteorological event in New England. 

It was quite a first day on the job for Oakland, who was tasked with printing the warnings from the National Weather Service and giving them to meteorologist Matt Noyes to read on the air. 

Though Jaffe was at home that day, she was in constant contact with her cousin in Springfield as the tornadoes loomed. 

"I was on my computer constantly the whole time before it broke out, had all the radars fired up on my computers, thinking, 'I wish I could be at NECN,'" Jaffe says. "I get so into it." 

While Jaffe has already graduated, Oakland is looking forward to next year's class graduation trip that she and her six meteorology classmates will take -- a tornado-chasing trek through the Midwest. 

Chances are, they'll see a fair share, as the first half of 2011 saw an unprecedented eight weather disasters in the United States, making it an exciting time to enter the field of meteorology. 

For some scientists, the increase in disasters is just a natural occurrence. For others, it's linked to global warming. 

"When I first started, I don't think anybody was talking about climate change," UML's Colby says. "People are still questioning to what extent our own releases of greenhouse gases are warming the planet. These concerns will be with us for a long time. We'll be wondering, for instance, are we going to have more severe storms, bigger hurricanes?" 

These are questions Colby believes meteorologists will have to face and analyze for their viewers for years to come. But it's a controversial topic in the field. 

"There have been a lot of disasters lately, but I'm not a huge follower of global warming," Jaffe says. "I think that whatever happens, happens naturally."