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john cortinas

John Cortinas, PhD

I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in a mixed heritage family. My father is Mexican-American, and my mother is German-American. I have three brothers and one sister, all younger than me. There were few Hispanic students in my elementary and high schools, so my exposure to Latino culture came primarily from my father and my grandmother.
Growing up, I did not feel as though I had any large obstacles to overcome. I did well in school and my family environment was always supportive. The difficulty I did experience was financial. My parents couldn’t afford my Catholic high school and college education, so I had to work to pay for my tuition. This experience taught me how to manage my time between working and going to school. I valued and appreciated my education even more because I had paid for it.
Originally I wanted to be a veterinarian; but it was my eighth grade science teacher, Ms. Bruckner, whose enthusiasm for science motivated me to pursue meteorology as my field. In Nebraska, severe storms occur frequently each year. I particularly remember a tornado that occurred on May 6, 1975 near our house in Omaha, Nebraska. That tornado, the costliest tornado in United States history, caused over one billion dollars of damage to our city. This display of the awesome power of nature also increased my interest in weather.
I knew that I wanted a Ph.D. even before I started college. One of the reasons I went to graduate school was to increase my opportunity to get a job doing exciting meteorological research. More importantly, I wanted to learn as much as possible to become a successful scientist. I did well in my undergraduate years of college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), and later at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, although working while I attended school in order to support my education was hard. I pursued my graduate degree at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The transition from a four-year college to a large research university was difficult for me. There were times that it was so tough I actually considered leaving school. However, the values I learned from both of my parents, and the continued support I received from my family and friends, carried me through the difficult times, enabling me to be persistent and complete my Ph.D. when I was 28 years old.
Currently I am a research meteorologist for the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. My main responsibility is to study hazardous weather. More specifically, I study ice storms, storms during which falling rain freezes as it hits the ground causing a dangerous accumulation of ice. Some of you may have hit these patches of ice on the road and know how dangerous they can be.
I have compiled national statistics on where and when freezing rain occurs to help meteorologists predict these storms accurately. However, statistics won’t tell us why an ice storm occurred. From the results of a previous study, I found that freezing rain occurs less often along the western shores of the Great Lakes than at locations farther away from the lakes. Because of the complexity of weather, meteorologists create computer models to help understand the physical processes that occur during a particular phenomenon. However, due to the atmosphere’s complexity and limited computational resources, these computer models ignore certain aspects of the problem, and may over-emphasize other aspects. Nonetheless, the computer simulations provide us with key information. Using data from computer model simulations, coupled with a knowledge of how scientists believe the atmosphere behaves, I hope to explain why freezing rain does not always occur near the western shores of the Great Lakes. When I believe I understand why this occurs, I will publish my results in a scientific journal, such as Weather and Forecasting, making my results available to the scientific community and the general public. It is my hope that my research eventually helps to minimize the death toll and destruction of property from winter weather events.
In order to be a scientist a lot of time and money is invested in earning the necessary university degrees. It is important to truly love what you’re doing. Explore your options. If you are in high school or college, many opportunities exist that allow you to explore if a career in science is for you. For example, there are science camps for high school students and internships for college students. Take advantage of these opportunities if you can. Become better educated about your career choices, and don’t be afraid to rely on others to help you achieve your goals. Know that school and life can be difficult at different times. By being confident and persistent you can get through many things. Keep mindful of your goals and believe in yourself. These things will help you get through those tough times.