PhD, University of Florida

Stephanie E Zick: I want to “pay it forward” to future generations

Interviewed by Nowreen Priyanka

Interviewer’s note: Thanks to Stephanie for sharing her story about her experiences as a doctoral student at the University of Florida. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech University.

Stephanie E. Zick

Assistant Professor

Department of Geography, Virginia Tech 

Past Affiliation: Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant, Department of Geography, University of Florida (August 2012-May 2016)

New Affiliation: Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Virginia Tech (August 2016-)

Why I chose to study at the University of Florida for my doctoral studies

In winter/spring of 2012, I decided to start looking into Ph.D. opportunities, but I was targeting meteorology or atmospheric science programs. Instead, I learned about a Ph.D. opportunity at the intersection of geography and meteorology. After reading the NSF CAREER proposal awarded to my advisor, Corene Matyas, I decided to apply. I thought that I could develop a research proposal within the theme of her research goals, and after speaking with her by phone and visiting Gainesville I also had a really good gut feeling about her as an advisor and mentor.

My research and its importance

I am a tropical meteorologist who utilizes geospatial and spatiotemporal methods to better understand tropical cyclone (TC) dynamics and structure. In particular, I am interested in

1) how these storms interact with the large-scale environment and

2) the evolution of TC precipitation prior to and during landfall.

To investigate the multi-scalar processes that modulate TC convective structure, I use numerical weather prediction models as well as radar- and satellite-derived observational datasets.

This research is important because a better understanding of TC structure will help us to deliver better forecasts when these storms make landfall. Based on 1963-2012 U.S statistics, the two largest contributors to loss of life from TCs are storm surge (approximately one-half) and inland flooding (approximately one-quarter). My research has implications for forecasting these two phenomena by investigating:

1) Intensification and weakening, especially intensity changes prior to and during landfall.

In the United States, as well as other countries impacted by TCs, there is a complex set of environmental factors that contribute to intensifying changes. Rapid intensification is difficult to forecast, even with very high-resolution models. At its basis, this shortcoming is due to a poor understanding of the fundamental dynamics of intensification as well as how the large-scale environmental impacts both intensification and weakening. An improved understanding is especially crucial for the period around landfall when the TC dynamics are complicated by the loss of important air-sea fluxes; interaction with the land surface and topography; and, when systems are moving poleward, interaction with mid-latitude air masses. Better TC intensity forecasts are required to improve the lead time for coastal communities that are most at risk from TC winds and storm surges.

2) Inland precipitation.

Inland flooding is arguably the most underrated (by the public) cause of loss to life and property. Because precipitation is only weakly correlated with TC intensity, inland flooding can cause major damage in storms that rate lower on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. For instance TC size and storm speed are important factors in predicting local rainfall totals. In my research, I aim to characterize the storm and environmental conditions that lead to the catastrophic inland flooding that has been seen in landfalling storms, such as Hurricane Floyd (1999), Tropical Storm Fay (2008), and Hurricane Irene (2011). In particular, the role of large-scale moisture remains poorly understood.

Funding and/or scholarships as a Graduate Student

My graduate RA funding was provided by my advisor’s NSF CAREER award. Additionally, in the final year of my Ph.D., I obtained funding through the Evelyn L. Pruitt Dissertation Fellowship, which is awarded by the Society of Women Geographers. Moving forward, I intend to explore funding opportunities from NSF, NASA, and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The Departments of Energy and Defense are also potential funding sources.

What I liked most about being at UF

UF was an excellent choice because of my advisor. I also appreciated the opportunity for graduate students to serve as instructors, experience that was invaluable in securing my faculty position. Lastly, I had several mentors and teachers that helped me to become a better researcher and academic.

My background as an undergraduate student

I have a B.S. in meteorology from Rutgers University.

Finding a supervisor and settling

I came to UF as a graduate research assistant with my advisor, Dr. Corene Matyas, and I think I settled into that role quite easily.

During graduate school (and perhaps any career), I think it’s important to step back and see the broader picture and to make sure that our priorities are (mostly) aligning with the priorities of our department, institution, and academic discipline.

Life as a graduate student

Personally, I did not find it to be difficult. Rather, I think that the graduate student and academic lifestyle works quite well for me. There are many expectations, but there is also a lot of flexibility in how and when we do our work (apart from teaching responsibilities). That is something that I appreciate because my research tends to progress in bursts of inspiration with intervals of slower progress.  

That said, the graduate student life can be difficult at times because of the high expectations, whether those expectations are internal or externally driven. Thus far, my career struggles have been more internally driven, as I tend to battle with a perfectionist mindset that leads to feeling fearful about meeting my goals.

However, there is certainly some external pressure that can arise as we progress through graduation milestones such as the comprehensive exam, proposal defense, and dissertation defense. In challenging us to develop as a researcher, our mentors can force us to dig deep within ourselves to determine our priorities. I think that I have excelled in the academic environment because I am internally motivated to excel in my field and because I feel deeply blessed to be able to participate in the scientific process.

During graduate school (and perhaps any career), I think it’s important to step back and see the broader picture and to make sure that our priorities are (mostly) aligning with the priorities of our department, institution, and academic discipline. I have friends who have different priorities and have decided to leave academia, and I empathize with their struggle in making that decision and finding their life path. Decisions of this nature are usually quite difficult, but through that struggle, we can sometimes learn more about ourselves and find a life that fits better with our personal goals.

How I became interested in this field

Like many meteorologists, I have been fascinated with the weather from an early age. I grew up in Pittsburgh and learned about the difficulty of forecasting the weather by trying to understand and predict winter snowstorms. Our family used to vacation in the Outer Banks, and when I was eight, Hurricane Bob (1991) brought severe winds and waves to the NC coast before making landfall and causing severe damage in New England. Bob is the first tropical cyclone that I remember tracking.

After that summer, I watched The Weather Channel, especially the tropical update with Dr. John Hope, with an earnest and eager mind. While I had other interests (I also thought about studying veterinary medicine), my interest in the weather and tropical cyclones dominated, and by high school, I knew that I wanted to study meteorology. Actually, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was that I wanted to study hurricanes

My advice for students who wants to enter this field

I would recommend finding hands-on opportunities to learn about the field. In high school, I did a meteorology apprenticeship program that was led by a meteorologist with Pittsburgh’s National Weather Service (NWS). We learned about basic weather phenomena, how to make hand-drawn surface weather maps and how to interpret basic model forecast data. Hands-on experience helped me to envision myself as a meteorologist, and I loved it! In college, I participated in undergraduate research, and that helped me to focus my meteorology interests on a more specific career path in research.

Specialized exams for admission to the program

There was a GRE requirement, but I didn’t get the impression that our scores were very important compared with other components of the applications application package. It’s possible that there is a minimum score.

Advice for new students new to this department

Get involved! Find one or two service positions in the department, broader university, or the town/city. Building a core group of friends and mentors will help you when you to have positive outlets for getting away from work, especially during stressful times.

My short-term and long-term career plans

I will be joining the Department of Geography at Virginia Tech as an Assistant Professor in their meteorology program. I aim to build a successful career as an academic researcher and professor of meteorology.

What I do in my free time

I enjoy traveling around the U.S. (and when I can afford it, the world), hiking, biking, running, and camping. I like to explore museums. I spend a few evenings a week hanging out with friends. I also like to cook and especially love seafood, SE Asian and Middle Eastern foods.

This isn’t a book, but I consider the research review article Clouds in Tropical Cyclones (2010) by Robert Houze as essential reading for my research work. Some other work-related texts that have been important in inspiring my research are The Geometry of Art and Life by Matila Ghyka, Atmospheric Convection by Kerry Emanuel, The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins, and Atmospheric Convection: Research and Operational Forecasting Aspects.

When I’m not reading research, I enjoy science fiction and Regency romance novels.

I didn’t own an actual TV in Florida, which probably helped to limit the amount of time I spent watching TV shows. However, I do have some favorite shows, including Wx Geeks (on The Weather Channel), Jeopardy!, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, and similar sci-fi shows, The Daily Show and its spin-offs, and Sunday news programs like Meet the Press and 60 Minutes. I don’t watch a lot of movies, but if I do, I like documentaries and movies that are relevant to current social-political-cultural news. For instance, I recently saw I am Malala (after reading the book) and Naomi Oreske’s Merchants of Doubt. More so than TV/movies, I listen to NPR and podcasts like Radiolab and the TED radio hour.

I feel that it is important to do outreach, and in particular, I have focused on service within women in STEM organizations. During my time at UF, I was a very active Woman in Science and Engineering.

Achievements I am proud of

I feel that it is important to do outreach, and in particular, I have focused on service within women in STEM organizations. During my time at UF, I was a very active Woman in Science and Engineering. I served as webmaster (2012-2014), President (2014-2015), and Officer-at-Large (2015-2016).

In addition, I volunteered as a school programs docent at the Florida Museum of Natural History. This service work is valuable to me because I want to “pay it forward” to future generations so that all people feel there is the opportunity to pursue a career in science.   Additionally, I just love speaking and learning about science. I like to share that passion and demystify science for the general public.

Challenges or struggles

I have actually encountered some struggles as a woman in STEM: mostly minor things like structural biases but also some more specific discrimination via hurtful words/actions (though sometimes unconscious) that would probably be formally defined as “microaggressions.” These experiences have forced me to think deeply about gender biases in society. I’ve carefully considered my identity as a scientist–and whether this is the career for me. These experiences led to some personal turmoil, but I think I’ve come out of them with a better understanding of myself. It is also why I welcome opportunities to act as a mentor and volunteer for service in women/minorities in STEM organizations!