Rob Cifelli, Research Meteorologist, NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory

Rob Cifelli, Research Meteorologist, NOAA Physical Sciences Laboratory


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

I grew up in a family of geologists and paleontologists and I started my career along a similar path. I received a B.A. in Geology from the University of Colorado in 1983 and an M.S. in Hydrogeology from West Virginia University (1986). After a few years in private industry doing ground water remediation work, I became interested in thunderstorms and pretty much all things weather and climate. I went back to school, re-learning a lot of math and physics along the way, and earned a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from Colorado State University (1996). With my geology background, I thought I would end up in something like paleoclimate but it didn't work out that way. An opportunity came up during my first year at CSU and I switched into radar meteorology. Quite a change of course but I never regretted it as it opened up a bunch of new opportunities for me, including a chance to spend a month on ship operating a weather radar in the west Pacific warm pool.

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 atmospheric science was a post doc at University of Colorado. After that, I went to NASA Goddard (via their Cooperative Institute - JCET). This position offered me the chance to do lots of field work on land and sea all over the world and to collaborate with colleagues in different agencies and the academic community. After that, I went back to Colorado State as a research scientist and planned and participated in a bunch more field campaigns through National Science Foundation and NASA grants. These field programs allowed me to extend my network of collaborations, including with people from NOAA. In 2009, a position opened up at NOAA to manage their annual field program in CA to study precipitation in mountainous terrain. I've been with NOAA ever since.

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

I took every opportunity I could to meet other researchers and learn what they were doing during the field program I participated in. I did the same at conferences and workshops. Expand your network - you never know what opportunities might come up.

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?

Technical writing and speech communication. If you're going to interact with people and want them to understand what you do and why it's important, you have to be a good communicator.

What is your typical day on the job like?

I have an awesome group of research scientists in my group. My role is mostly to find new research opportunities, make sure everyone has adequate funding, and to the degree possible, function as a team. I also work with senior leadership in the Lab to provide strategic direction to our research activities and connect that to other parts of NOAA. All that means that I spend a lot of time talking to people to make sure we're coordinating the research as much as possible and developing new initiatives whenever appropriate. The really fun part is to interact with the scientists that are actually doing the work and provide feedback on their research to help move it forward, either through direct mentoring or as part of a project team.

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

We do really cool stuff at NOAA - trying to understand why rain or snow leads to flooding in one place vs. another or what triggers droughts and what ends them. All this is used to improve forecasts and people rely on these forecasts to make all kinds of important decisions like "Should I go play golf today?" to "Should we release water out of this reservoir ahead of this next storm to prevent a flood?" The work is challenging both from an observational and modeling (forecast) perspective for a variety of reasons: some relating to improving model physics and others relating to the observations we collect (e.g., just how much rain or snow actually fell in that last storm and how uncertain are our measurements?).

In addition to the research, the people are what make the job really fun. I work with scientists and engineers who are dedicated to their work and NOAA's mission.

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

Yes but you have to work at it to find the balance. Research always raises new questions and so it's never "done". If you're not careful, you can get caught up trying to respond to every email and solve every problem before going home. That is a losing battle so prioritize and just do the best you can. At some point, you have to turn off your computer and call it good for the day.

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

Field work has taken me all over to places on land and sea that most people would never get a chance to see. It's also been a great opportunity for networking - meeting all kinds of interesting people, and learning how different instruments work - where the data I work with actually comes from.

The other most exciting thing (yes, there are two) was coming to NOAA to work on applied science to advance our forecasts of too much and too little water. Working as a public servant is a big responsibility but is extremely gratifying and, let's face it, NOAA's mission of science, service, and stewardship is pretty cool.

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

Not really. It was a circuitous path for me to get where I am now but, in the process, I gained a lot of valuable experience so I think it was all good.

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

From a technical standpoint, the person needs to demonstrate strong skills in hydrometeorology, ideally from both from a modeling and observational perspective. Besides the technical requirements, it helps tremendously if the candidate can demonstrate good communication skills - both oral and written. So, spend some time writing a good cover letter to go along with your resume. It doesn't need to be an essay but show the employer that you know how to write and are addressing the job posting that was advertised. It helps to do some homework ahead of time and learn as much as you can about the company/agency that you are applying to so you can point out why you are a good fit for the job in particular and the company in general.