Douglas Hilderbrand, Physical Scientist, National Weather Service

Douglas Hilderbrand, Physical Scientist, National Weather Service

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

My career story started in 4th grade as with many professionals who fell in love with the weather. In particular, a nor'easter dumped two feet of snow in February, 1983. Trekking home from school in whiteout conditions sealed my fate. However, my path was not a direct one. My focus applying to colleges was centered on a well-rounded liberal arts education. My original intent was to be a physics major at Bucknell, then apply to meteorology graduate schools. Long story short, I graduated with a major in geology, and because I didn't meet the prerequisites for meteorology graduate school, attended the University of South Florida in a master's program in paleoclimatology. My Master's thesis was a study of coral geochemistry and its relationship with sea surface temperatures.

While at USF, my dream of being a meteorologist never ended, and in addition to my geology course work, I took Calculus III, Linear Algebra, and Differential Equations, all prerequisites that I didn't have for meteorology programs.

In 1999, I entered the atmospheric science program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and three weeks into my second Master's program, Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina. Destiny, I was convinced.

At NC State, I studied the climatology of North Carolina tropical cyclones to develop a risk assessment tool for winds, storm surge, and inland flooding.

My proudest educational achievement was completing my Masters thesis and earning my degree while already starting my new job at the National Weather Service.

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

My first job was with the National Weather Service in 2002, an agency I am still with 18 years later. I worked as the surface analyst at the then Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (now the Weather Prediction Center). For 2.5 years I learned a ton of operational meteorology, ending as a short-range forecaster. I loved my job and my co-workers, but did not love shift work. So, in 2004, I made the jump to NWS Headquarters and the Office of Science & Technology. I worked on such things as forecast uncertainty, increasing our use of ensemble models, and research to operations transitions (R2O). Tackling these challenges was my life's work until I experienced something that ended up changing my career path and how I view myself as a scientist. In June 2010, I participated in the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, and was exposed to a new world of science policy, communication, and the link to political realities. Six months after that experience I was selected to join the NOAA Office of Policy (2011-2013) as an adviser for weather and satellites. It was a detail that ended up two years instead of one, and got me involved in Weather-Ready Nation from the beginning, a generational strategic initiative. Since returning to NWS headquarters, I have continued working on Weather-Ready Nation, leading the ambassador program for the past six years and currently leading the WRN Ambassadors and NWS preparedness & resilience programs.

What opportunities did you pursue that you knew would be beneficial to securing a job in the profession?

My career path was not straight forward, but instead of that being a negative, the experiences I learned along the way gave me a rich portfolio of skills, well beyond the traditional meteorology curriculum. I was exposed to social science disciplines including law, economics, and anthropology during my undergraduate work. I took communications courses on the side during graduate school. After I was selected by my first supervisor at the National Weather Service, he highlighted my broad, diverse education that tipped the selection my way.

I also was not afraid of a challenge. Applying to a meteorology graduate program without having taken any undergraduate course in meteorology seemed crazy at the time. I was thankful to be able to audit a few undergraduate courses along side my graduate course work. There are an infinite number of ways to get to where you want to go.

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 communication courses, including a "writing for science" course if it is offered. A strong writer, someone who can explain something complex in easy-to-understand ways, can be a valuable asset to any organization. My biggest regret academically, and something that would have helped a lot during my career, is to take at least one college statistics course, if not others.

What is your typical day on the job like?

My job is heavy on emails, mostly because I engage various internal and external colleagues, often spread across the country. My job is inherently juggling 10 balls in the air but working to decide what two balls to focus on so making priority decisions is something I do a lot. Much of my work is collaborative in nature, so working as part of a team is important. This does require a handful of meetings, but I try to find balance during my days between emails, calls, meetings, and ensuring I have enough time for creative and strategic thought. The best part of my job is the creative side -- stretching the boundaries of science communication to various demographic populations. We can't reach everyone when it comes to preparedness and the value of weather, water, and climate information, but that shouldn't mean we stop trying.

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

I love the creative nature of my job, whether that be a social media campaign, or engaging potential new partners. No two days are a like, and everyday is a struggle against time, which makes time fly by. This inherently creates the most challenging aspect of my job--optimizing my time and learning how to say "no" when a new opportunity presents itself. The reality is that you must pay attention to your workload all the time and set boundaries between your professional and personal responsibilities.

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

The job itself is excellent in providing good work/life balance. However, it is one thing that your job allows for balance, but it is another thing for people to actually stay disciplined to ensure there is balance. It is easy to focus too much on work and put your personal relationships and personal health to the side. The key is to be productive with your time and focused on what is in front of you, whether on that work deadline or as is my case, making sure play time with the kids doesn't involve emails on the side.

Over the course of your career what is the most exciting thing that has happened to you?

I have a lot of great memories over the past 18 years, moments in time that I have to really pinch myself. I have participated in meetings located in the White House Situation Room, briefed the Secretary of Commerce, and written speeches for NOAA Administrators. However, I really see the most exciting thing in my career has been how Weather-Ready Nation has grown across the NWS, NOAA, the Weather Enterprise, and to so many communities across the country. Only working together can resilience against extreme weather, water, and climate events happen, and WRN has been a galvanizing force that I think will exist for many years to come.

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

I wouldn't call it a regret but if I could paint an idealized career path knowing what I know now, I would have gotten into the field of science communication earlier both in my formal education and my professional career. The world doesn't need more traditional meteorologists, but rather, needs meteorologists who also have expertise in other disciplines to more effectively connect weather impacts to society. The wonderful thing about the weather is that it impacts everyone and everything, so career options are truly limitless.

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

I think the only "must haves" are (1) strong critical thinking skills and (2) strong writing/speaking skills. If you focus on those two skill sets, you will be employable for your entire career no matter what the actual job entails. I think the trap that students fall into is focusing solely on their technical scientific skills, which can be important and essential for some job positions, but don't pay enough attention to these intangible skills.