Coordinating scientific expeditions around the world
As a field project coordinator, it's not enough for José Meitín to understand complex scientific concepts and know how to use cutting-edge instruments. He also needs a flair for foreign diplomacy, proficiency in several languages, and a capacity for great patience when dealing with customs officials.
José has been coordinating expeditions to gather observations of the atmosphere and surrounding environment for more than 30 years. "I learn something new during every field campaign," he says. "I'm never in a routine."
A meteorologist by training, José works in NCAR's Earth Observing Laboratory, a group of scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and others who build and deploy instruments for weather and climate research. José's role is to plan and lead efforts in destinations that range from Mexico to West Africa to Ireland. His job requires expertise in logistics and transportation, research aircraft and ships, site selection, instrumentation, data management, and more.
"I'm usually juggling several projects at once, some in the planning stages, some deployed, and some finishing up," he says. "I have to be really flexible and always develop new skills."
José recently returned from Florida, where he participated in the Hurricane Rainband and Intensity Change Experiment (RAINEX). The goal was to investigate interactions between a hurricane's rainbands and its eyewall to learn how these interactions can cause rapid changes in the storm's intensity. The research team ran multi-aircraft missions into hurricanes Katrina, Ophelia, and Rita. "What was exciting about the missions was our new capability at the operations center to view, in real time, airborne radar and flight data while the aircraft were inside the storms," José says.
His work often takes him to Latin America, since he plays a major role in an ongoing research program known as VAMOS, or Variability of the American Monsoon System. Through VAMOS, he's coordinated field projects throughout Latin America and the U.S. Southwest that investigate the seasonal patterns of rainfall. José heads to Mexico City next spring to help scientists study the chemistry of urban air pollution during MIRAGE, the Megacities Impact on Regional and Global Environment project.
For José, the biggest challenge is providing scientists with the highest quality research data. "We take all the data from a field campaign, merge it together, and provide it to them in the best possible format," he explains. "The operations may end on a certain date and we're out of the field, but then there's another year and a half of work."
José knew since ninth grade that he wanted to be a meteorologist. A native of Cuba, his family immigrated to Florida when he was 11 years old. He remembers the hurricanes that blew though the region during his childhood. "I thought they were fascinating," he says. "Of course, in those days we didn't have radar imagery or the Weather Channel and the other 24-hour cable stations. None of that existed. It was just listening to a transistor radio and getting reports on the winds, and following storms with the newspaper's tracking charts."
José started college at Florida State University as a meteorology major and continued on for his master's degree. As a graduate student, he had the opportunity to participate in a field project in Oregon that involved NCAR aircraft and surface instruments. The project was a trial run for a more extensive campaign in West Africa, and so the next semester José found himself in Mauritania working as an aircraft observer and data technician on NCAR research flights. This led to his participation in a major African expedition that took place in the mid-1970s, called GATE, that looked at the tropical atmosphere and its role in global circulation. He came to NCAR shortly after to analyze data from the expedition.
After his stint with GATE ended, José worked as a research meteorologist for several years at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder. His next move was across town to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he spent 25 years honing his skills in field project management. As part of his position at NOAA, he became a visiting scientist in UCAR's Joint Office for Science Support in 1993, an arrangement that allowed him to coordinate field projects that NCAR and NOAA cooperated on. He retired from NOAA last year to join the JOSS field project group, which is now part of the Earth Observing Laboratory.
Fluent in Spanish and proficient in French and Italian, José uses his language skills as part of his career. "In the science community, it's likely you'll find people who speak English, but with all the other dealings during field campaigns, it's better to be a native speaker," he observes.
One of his most memorable trips over the years was to Cocos Island National Park, an island about 340 miles (550 kilometers) southwest of Costa Rica. "It's a unique, isolated island where there are no overnight facilities except for park rangers and scientific teams," he says. After a 30-hour gunboat trip to the island courtesy of the Costa Rican coast guard, he and a colleague set up a weather observing station and trained park rangers to operate it.
José's favorite thing about his work is the constant chance to exercise his mind. "I think it's a big puzzle. There are always new challenges, and the technology advancements are fascinating." He says that the capabilities available today on a field campaign like RAINEX were unheard of 5 years ago, much less 10 or 15. "When we worked in West Africa, it was an all-day affair to place a phone call to the United States. Now you can have a cell phone anywhere in the world, and can even talk to researchers aboard an airplane."
Staying motivated isn't a problem, according to José. "No field campaign is ever executed to perfection. There's always something you wish you could have done better."
by Nicole Gordon