Alec Kownacki, Meteorologist, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Alec Kownacki, Meteorologist, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Please include details about your educational background and what sparked your interest in atmospheric or related sciences.  

I hold a B.S. Degree in Meteorology from Central Michigan University. Growing up in Michigan, I would visit my grandparents who live on Lake Huron and used to love watching storms come across the lake. I also once witnessed a funnel cloud in my hometown when I was around 12 years old.

What was your first job in the field and how did you end up in the job you are in now?   

My first job in the field is my current job. I networked with my now coworkers about this position during my senior year at Central Michigan University to learn about the day-to-day tasks and what skills would benefit me to learn during my senior year.

What opportunities did you pursue that you knew would be beneficial to securing a job in the profession?  
I reached out to professionals in the field along with asking my professors about what else I can do to better myself and resume for job openings. I also participated in internships and extra curriculars during my time at Central Michigan to broaden my knowledge and build up my skillset.

What other courses/skills beyond the required math and science courses do you think would be the most helpful to individuals wanting a career in your profession?   

I would say Environmental Science courses to better understand the impacts overall air quality has on the environment. Also, GIS courses are a big plus to have in your skillset.

What is your typical day on the job like? 

I forecast Ozone and PM-2.5 concentrations throughout the state of Michigan so each morning and throughout the day I am checking the forecast and current concentrations via numerous monitors we have across the state. Also, I run the air dispersion model named AERMOD for air permits in Michigan. If a facility in Michigan needs to pull an air permit for their facility due to potential air emissions being released, I build the facility in the AERMOD model with building parameters provided by the facility. Then I input the projected emission rates for the pollutants being released and run the model to see the output. Depending on the pollutant, there are allowable emissions, so I need to check those emissions to make sure the facility and respective air emissions pass. If so, then the air permit is approved, if not, then the facility needs to make changes in order to pass.

What do you like most about your job? What is the most challenging thing about your job? 

I love forecasting Ozone and PM-2.5 because, yes, the weather influences the concentrations, but they also can interact with each other and makes forecasting a fun challenge. For example, it could be a clear skies and warm day, which more often than not is a prime day for Ozone development. But, if there are high concentrations of PM-2.5 in the area, those concentrations can effectively act like a pseudo-cloud and block sunlight just enough so that Ozone doesn't develop. Also, Ozone is very dependent on how much Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are in the air and those VOCs can be transported across hundreds of miles so forecasting concentrations downwind from where you are can actually help you forecast where you currently are.

Forecasting can be challenging in itself, but it is also very fun. Probably the most challenging part of the job is some of the air dispersion modeling that is submitted. Some modeling applications can easily be described as a jigsaw puzzle. Finding the right pieces to make the model work and making sure the emissions are below the allowed pollutant emissions.

Does your job allow for a good work/life balance? If not, why?     

Yes it does! The saying is that weather never sleeps, although that is definitely true, Ozone and facilities that submit modeling requests do. Ozone is very dependent upon sunlight, so overnight, Ozone starts to decrease. PM-2.5, however, can last throughout the night, but those concentrations can easily be forecasted via dust or smoke models.

Over the course of your career what is the most exciting thing that has happened to you?  
In my young career, the most exciting thing to happen has probably been calling my first Air Quality Action Day (Air Quality Alert). We were expecting high levels of Ozone on the west side of Michigan, so I had to type up my forecast and air quality alert document along with calling the NWS office in that area to notify them that we were issuing an Air Quality Alert.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career?   

In my young career, not yet!

What are some ‘must haves’’ on a resume if a person wants to gain employment in your field?    

Knowledge of meteorology
Communication skills both written and verbal
A knack for learning new things and picking up on regional weather patterns
A base knowledge and interest in modeling
Wanting to learn more about air quality