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Spotlight on Commerce: Dr. Daniel Meléndez, Meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, Department of Commerce

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Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Dr. Daniel Meléndez, Meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, Department of Commerce

At the National Weather Service, my main responsibility at the Office of Science and Technology is to support and manage science and technology infusion in the areas of radar meteorology, severe weather, and tropical cyclones. I also handle grants for the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program. During my detail in the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology, I staff the National Hurricane Operations Plan, road weather management, air transport and dispersion, Multipurpose Phased Array Radar, air domain awareness issues, and the Interdepartmental Hurricane Conference.

I am committed to public service because weather information is ultimately an economic driver and because science provides enormous benefits to the public. Strengthening science and technology that enables better weather information provides many benefits to both the public and private sectors, saves lives and property, and even provides the foundation for new businesses. My role in managing science and technology infusion helps improve performance through new science and technology strengthens core economic and public infrastructure. In my current detail I support various interagency meteorological efforts that allow me to see and contribute to larger governmental aims to advance the economic and security interests of society.

I spent my childhood in Puerto Rico, but moved to Ithaca, New York to attend Cornell University. I was very ignorant of proper winter clothing techniques but eventually learned. I earned my B.A. in physics and meteorology and worked on my M. Eng in Engineering Physics there before moving on to the University of Michigan where I earned my PhD in Atmospheric and Space Science. My first foray into public service was as a NAS/NRC research associate at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and then at the Naval Research Laboratory. I grew more enthusiastic about NWS with the modernization period that ended in the late 1990s and switched to NOAA.

As early as junior high school, I was influenced by Dr. José A. Colón, then director of WFO San Juan, which also doubled as the National Hurricane Center-East. Discovering another Puerto Rican in charge of this office was a positive surprise in and of itself. Further inspiring me was learning that he had switched medical school to complete a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, when that was the likely premier institution for advanced meteorological study. Another colleague of his, Professor T. Krishnmamurty of Florida State fame, came from the same program. Dr. Colón did subsequent research in tropical meteorology in India and, later, in PR. I had the chance to observe Dr. Colón work on computing tropical cyclone trajectories on top of various charts and satellite images, using an advanced hand calculator (very expensive in those days), thus bringing forth the idea that these systems were calculable and subject to physics and mathematical techniques. Therefore, I wanted such knowledge as well, motivating me to study meteorology, mathematics, and physics. Later on, Dr. Colón gave me some advice about where to study meteorology, becoming the only real guidance I had on my educational plans. He had a distinctive way of thinking about scientific problems, turning a key in his hand, pausing for seconds, perhaps longer, and then furnishing a thoughtful idea. He also took time to give me advice on how to analyze weather data I was gathering at my house, and introduced me to the concept of statistical comparison when I was participating in a year-long urban heat study in junior high school. Later on, with his help, I had the chance to fly into Hurricane Frances.

Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to reflect on Hispanic culture and history and celebrate the presence and contribution of Hispanics in the U.S. I celebrate by helping organize cultural and professional activities in the agency as well as in spreading the word. Ultimately, to me it is an everyday celebration with others who enjoy cultural perspectives. I would advise young Hispanics to master written communication skills, quantitative thinking, and, especially, to be mindful of differences in the way Hispanics and non-Hispanics talk about themselves. Hispanics can value self-deprecatory humor, for instance, that others could misunderstand. A simple joke can quickly become a hindrance to open communication. Also, it is vital that we learn to collaborate freely and generously to succeed in the 21st century. 

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