Investigating Electrical Connections and Consequences

Michael Peterson, Atmospheric Scientist, Geographer, Software Developer

What influenced you to pursue a career in science?Michael Peterson, PostDoc 2015 UCAR

I spent a lot of time growing up in the wilderness of northern Minnesota where I was able to witness some of the most majestic spectacles of nature including vibrant aurorae, violent thunderstorms, and an unimpeded view of the night sky. Spending time in nature made me wonder how basic and natural forces could come together to produce such wonderful sights. I decided to pursue a career in science in order to better understand the world around us that affects each of our lives each and every day and, in an instant, can become dangerous for those that are unprepared.

Who are you at work and what does a typical workday look like? (Please introduce what you do as well.)

I am a post-doctoral research fellow with the High Altitude Observatory and Research Applications Laboratory. My research involves looking at the electricity that is produced in the lower atmosphere by different types of clouds. These clouds act as “batteries” that drive the global electrical circuit and keep the ionosphere sustained. Electrified clouds are typically looked at as either shower clouds that do not produce lightning, or thunderstorms that do. However, these two simple groups do not account for the wide variety of storms across the globe from small plumes to enormous storm systems. On a typical workday I take a look at all sorts of satellite observations of storms around the world and examine how these very different types of storms contribute to the global picture of electricity in the atmosphere. This involves a lot of writing computer programs and coming up with experiments to test how different aspects of the storm that we can measure (for example, how much water and ice there is and where it is located, or how much lightning there is and how these flashes differ from other storms) influence how much electricity the storms can produce.

Who are you outside of work?Aurora - Sh.Stock

Outside of work I enjoy exploring Colorado and observing the same forces of nature that I study in a more casual atmosphere - with a camera rather than from a satellite. I also enjoy tinkering with new ideas and technologies such as software that allows people to explore the planet, its environment, and other bodies in the Solar System, 3-D printing, and the use of semi-autonomous remote controlled vehicles for observing the environment.

What has been your favorite work-related experience?

I would say that my favorite work-related experience has been presenting my work to other scientists and members of the community. The nice thing about my research is that it is very visual. Audiences can immediately connect with an image of a lightning flash, or be fascinated by an antique barometer. Communicating your science to a diverse crowd is very important, but it can also be a lot of fun.

The Power of One: If you could thank only one person for academic or career support, who would it be?

If I could only thank one person for academic or career support, it would have to be my advisor in grad school. Having an adviser that shares your interests, that you work well with, and that is invested in getting you involved in the science and scientific community can really make all the difference in grad school and set you on a course to developing your career.

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

The best advice that I could give someone pursuing a career in science is this: if you have a passion for something, don’t give up! Becoming a scientist is not easy and no matter who you are, there will be some courses, experiences, and people that you will struggle with. Even if you despise differential equations courses, abhor night shift operations, or have had a discouraging talk with a professor, if you have a love for the field, you will find a way to succeed in it.

Michael Peterson, Atmospheric Scientist, Geographer, Software Developer