Student Spotlight: Katie Laro

March, 2014

“If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”

If you live in New Hampshire, or have ever lived in New Hampshire, you’ve likely heard this or said it yourself countless times. The Granite State is known for its predictably unpredictable weather—and is even proud of it.

For Katie Laro ’12, ’13G, it was the unpredictability of weather that got her interested in meteorology back in elementary school. “My fourth-grade teacher handed out a book on the development cycle of tornadoes,” she recalls. “I was immediately interested and that interest grew into a need to understand how things work in our skies.”

When it was time for her to choose a college to attend, Laro chose PSU for its stellar meteorology program. In her sophomore year she was given the opportunity to apply what she was learning in class to the real world when her mentor, Professor Emeritus of Meteorology James Koermer, invited her to conduct research on convective wind climatology at Cape Canaveral in Florida. “I couldn’t pass it up,” says Laro.

Each year since 2005, Koermer has tapped some of his most promising students to work with him and personnel from the 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a convective wind study. The study is backed by the NASA-funded New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium, of which PSU’s meteorology program is an affiliate member. Convective winds are strong winds associated with thunderstorms, and they pose a major threat to space center and air force activities, second only to lightning. Interestingly, these winds have received far less research attention for this region than lightning has, and many of the wind tools and techniques used by forecasters were based on limited data or were designed for a different region of the country.

Koermer and his students have worked to change that. Over the years, they’ve compiled data for what is now an 18-year climatology study, which provides valuable information to assist Air Force forecasters in issuing timely warnings for convective wind events.

Laro’s responsibilities included gathering regional data and identifying convective wind episodes, which are periods of thunderstorms or heavy rain showers that can produce dangerous surface winds. She enjoyed conducting research so much, and Koermer was so pleased with her performance, that she returned to Florida during her senior year to continue her work.

Florida isn’t the only place Laro’s research has taken her. In her senior year, she presented her work to members of Congress, federal government officials, and others at the prestigious Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) annual Posters on the Hill reception on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Laro’s presentation was one of 74 selected out of 850 entries for the reception. She also had the opportunity to present her work to the American Meteorological Society’s national conference in Seattle.

As a graduate student in PSU’s Master of Science in Applied Meteorology program, Laro once again teamed up with the now-retired Koermer on research. This time their focus is lightning, which poses an even greater threat to air and space travel than convective winds do. “Professor Koermer knew my work, and my work ethic,” says Laro of her latest research project. “He asked me if I was interested in this as my thesis project. Once again, I couldn’t say no.”

The focus of this project is to test a lightning sensor prototype for a company that wants to produce low-cost lightning detectors for businesses whose revenue is tied directly to weather conditions, such as golf courses and stadiums. The device will sense where lightning is, allowing users to estimate when it will come their way. “Right now, most of the sensors that are out there are government-run. You can obtain data from them, but it’s not as convenient as having your own sensor,” Laro says.

“The sensor is stationary—you put it out in a field, leave it there, and it collects data,” she continues. “The company tested it in the lab, but there’s only so much you can do in a lab that mimics the real world, so they asked Professor Koermer to field-test it.”

Alas, travel to sunny Florida wasn’t required for this research project. “I’m working very remotely,” Laro says. Koermer, who lives 30 minutes from where the sensor is stationed, regularly collects data from the sensor, downloads it to his computer, and uploads it onto a website where Laro can access it and analyze it on her laptop. “My goal is to provide the company with the most stratified analysis that I can: To tell them what works, what doesn’t, and why so they can make the best possible product for consumers.”

Now that Laro has earned her master’s degree and is nearing the end of her research project, she is contemplating what’s next for her. “I’d like to get a job in the field, and take whatever comes next with the same excitement I’ve had as a student,” she says. “I’m looking forward to gaining more experience in the kinds of research I’ve already done, and exploring what else is out there.”

While her education and research have shed greater light on what happens in our skies and why, Laro still finds herself as awestruck when she looks skyward as she was as a fourth grader. “I’ve always been fascinated by the sky and clouds and how they evolve,” she says, “and now that I have some understanding of how and why they do, I find it even more fascinating.” ~ Barbra Alan

Jon Gilbert Fox photo.

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