(VIDEO) Sarah Dillingham is a storm specialist appearing on The Weather Channel.
Sarah Dillingham has always loved weather.
"Even at a young age, I remember sitting in front of the television watching The Weather Channel, just mesmerized at whatever they were discussing," she laughed. "I remember specifically in 1992, Hurricane Iniki was hitting Hawaii and I couldn't believe it – that strong of a hurricane hitting this little island in the middle of nowhere. I just kept running back and forth between the television and my parents, telling them, 'Mom, the winds are doing this!' and 'It's moving this fast!' and 'The surge is coming up!' So I've really always loved it, but it wasn't until I got to be a teenager that I really decided that's what I want to do for a career."
After starting her career at CNN, the Texas Tech University master's student now has her dream job, studying and analyzing severe storms while working for The Weather Channel.
"For me, personally, meteorology has always been a huge passion of mine," Dillingham said. "My family and friends have always been very supportive of me and whatever I wanted to do. It was actually my mom who helped me to realize that."
The movie "Twister" is one of Dillingham's favorites, despite some elements that aren't exactly accurate in it. Upon first seeing the film, she told her mom she was going to become a storm chaser for a living. When her mom explained she would need to be a meteorologist to make enough money, Dillingham knew her way forward was clear.
Originally from Dalton, Georgia, Dillingham chose to attend the University of Georgia for her undergraduate education.
"Once I decided I wanted to be a meteorologist, I pretty much never looked back – I knew that's what I was going to do. I said, 'I'm going to go be a meteorologist, I'm going to chase storms and do severe storms research,' and that's what I did," she said. "There were a couple times it got really difficult because it's a very rigorous program with a lot of math and a lot of science. I took calculus classes I didn't even know existed, thermodynamics and physics and all that stuff. You're half an engineer and half an earth scientist."
As she neared the completion of her bachelor's degree in 2008, Dillingham studied her options for graduate programs. Her academic adviser at the University of Georgia recommended she look into Texas Tech.
“So I went to my first American Meteorological Society conference in Atlanta and met the group from Texas Tech,” Dillingham said. “I talked to them about what they do and their severe storms research program and I just fell in love with it. I said, ‘I have to go here. I have to go here.'”
Among her best memories from Texas Tech, Dillingham recalls the familial atmosphere between the atmospheric science graduate students and her time working on the Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2 (VORTEX2), in which team members studied tornadoes.
“Getting to take my then-family on the road for VORTEX2 for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, I wouldn't trade that for anything,” Dillingham said. “My time here at Texas Tech was perfectly timed so I was able to participate in both years of that. Our first year, it took us the entire season, but we finally got the only tornado of that 2009 season.”
Chris Weiss, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Texas Tech, is in charge of the VORTEX project.
“Sarah was a very important part of VORTEX2 in 2009 and 2010,” Weiss said. “I had her involved in the deployment of StickNet probes, which were responsible for the measurements of temperature, humidity, pressure and wind near developing tornadoes across the Great Plains. She was incredibly reliable and always had an upbeat attitude, even on those days when the deployment did not go so well.”
Dillingham clearly remembers the tornado in which the deployment was most successful.
“It was the most well-observed tornado in history and I was standing there, taking a picture of my colleagues Ian Giammanco and Frank Lombardo, who both received their doctorates from Texas Tech,” she recalled. “Our team was deploying a StickNet right in front of a developing tornado, so we were able to observe its entire life cycle. It was an incredible experience, and I'm very lucky to have been a part of that.”
The experience helped Dillingham pinpoint the topic of her master's thesis.
“The Texas Tech severe storms research team deployed StickNets in eastern Nebraska back in June 2008, and it was a high-precipitation supercell that transitioned into a pretty significant bow echo. We collected some great StickNet data on that event,” she said. “Since the storm also occurred very close to the Omaha, Nebraska, radar, we obtained some great radar data. It's an incredible dataset.
“Transitions of these types of storms – supercells to bow echoes – are well noted to occur, but the mechanisms that lead to them aren't really something that is discussed often. If you read a research paper, they'll say ‘it underwent transition' or that kind of thing. There are some processes we think lead to that transition, and I think we actually sampled some of those. So my thesis is diagnosing what happened in this storm and trying to apply it to future research.”
On the way up
As an undergraduate, Dillingham interned at CNN, which led to a freelance position during her senior year. That experience opened doors for her in Lubbock as well, and she began as a meteorologist for KLBK-TV in March 2010 while working on her master's degree. And then, unexpectedly, she was offered a chance to return to CNN in 2011 as a full-time weather producer, working behind the scenes.
“I was done with coursework and was working on finishing up my master's thesis, making great progress, and I decided to take the job at CNN. So you kind of pick up everything and move across the country, move to a different shift,” Dillingham said. “I went to the mornings, so I was getting up at 2 a.m. every day and going to work, and that was kind of exhausting to get acclimated to that.”
After a year and a half at CNN, Dillingham became friends with several people who worked for The Weather Channel, including her now-supervisor who, unbeknownst to her, had been eyeing her for a new job.
“He presents this offer and I'm thinking, ‘This is really cool. You're going to be working with Greg Forbes, Jim Cantore' – I mean, these are the biggest names in the business,” Dillingham said. “And it was really scary to hear that because you're thinking, ‘Wow, do I have what it takes to do that?' I actually said no two or three times.”
But eventually Dillingham agreed to meet with The Weather Channel supervisors to discuss the offer. After the meeting, she decided to pursue the job. She interviewed and had a one-on-one luncheon with Forbes, where she was able to talk about her research as well as things she'd done and learned and wanted to do. And when it was offered, she took the job.
“It was a little scary because I had a good thing going at CNN and great bosses, but they're a news organization who does weather and I wanted to do weather all the time. At The Weather Channel, I get to do that. I get to cover the biggest events, the most severe events, and I'm right there in the seat next to the experts. Now I am one of the experts, actually getting to present the weather to the viewers. It was a huge opportunity and I'm glad I took the risk.”
The Weather ChannelNow three years in as a storm specialist and expert weather producer at The Weather Channel, Dillingham said her favorite part is the incredible wealth of knowledge among her coworkers.
"All of the meteorologists are very good at what they do, and they're very good people. I have a lot of really close friends I work with," she said. "They're all so smart and I've learned so much. That's just something I've always had a passion for, learning about the weather."
Because of her expertise, Dillingham now works during the late-evening severe weather hours, but she's fresh off a stint on "Weather Underground." Hosted by The Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes, the show is intended to provide insights into the science behind forecasting with live social media interaction, weather roundtable discussions and more.
"I had so many questions when I started in college: what causes this, what causes that, how does this happen? That keeps my curiosity going, and I've learned so much in just the last year, certainly in the last three years," Dillingham said. "The ability to learn from so many of the greatest minds in the business, I really feel very fortunate to have that at my disposal every day and teach that to other people."
Of course, not every experience has been good. Only a few months into her new job at The Weather Channel, she had one of the scariest days of her career on May 31, 2013.
"Being a severe weather producer at the time, I had worked with Dr. Forbes and Jim Cantore on particular events in the Southeast, and also the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado. That happened earlier in the month, but the El Reno tornado, when Mike Bettes' vehicle was tossed by the tornado, I was back there at the computer producing for Dr. Forbes at the time," Dillingham recalled. "We were all talking to each other on-air and said, 'We haven't heard from Mike in a while.' I go back and look at the radar and said, 'Well there's the last GPS location, and there's the couplet,' which was the tornado, so we were very nervous. It was very relieving to hear from him, but they had in fact been hit.
"I think that was really scary for all of us. Sometimes when we're out there covering storms, you don't want to end up in it. You want to keep people safe, and I think that was a very real reminder for everyone that severe weather can impact anyone at any time, even when you don't plan on it."
It's an ideal segue into Dillingham's second passion: emergency management and public education.
“The more we can educate the public on what to expect when severe weather is impending, helps them to act appropriately because that's really what it comes down to,” she said. “The science is pretty good. Yes, there are still advances that need to be made, but we have pretty good lead times most of the time with tornadoes.
“A lot of times people don't know what to do with the information we provide, and we want to teach people, ‘When you see this, this is what it means,' or ‘This is the kind of damage that can result from this,' or ‘When a tornado comes through, don't get under an overpass because here's why.' You can give people all the information you want, but if they don't know what to do with it, that's not going to be very helpful to them.”
Of course, putting other people's reactions on her own shoulders comes with a certain amount of self-imposed pressure.
“I'm so passionate about the weather and teaching others about the science, but with that passion comes enormous pressure,” Dillingham said. “Loving what I do so much makes me want to be one of the best at what I do. That can make it difficult to deal with struggles that come along because everyone is their own worst critic. I certainly am. I really have to focus on getting out of my own head and getting rid of that little voice that says, ‘This is too hard. I don't know if I can handle this.'
“I think that's the biggest struggle, just having that self-confidence all the time that even when it's difficult, knowing you've got what it takes to do what you want to do. It's a work in progress, but certainly when you're working with such brilliant people at The Weather Channel, you want to keep up that level of presentation and knowledge. I think it's just putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform a certain way. Ultimately, I just want to focus on doing what I love and it really does help to know this is what I was meant to do.”
Dillingham's immediate plans are focused on finishing her master's degree, which she left in progress when she took her job at CNN.
“It's very difficult to try to do a full-time job in something that's as demanding as television – certainly meteorology – and try to work on a thesis, but the passion I have and the work I've already put into that, I know I have what it takes to finish it. It's just a matter of time-management, so that's my biggest piece of advice. If you want something, don't give up. You can do it. It might take time, but the time is worth it. My goal is to eventually finish it and be done, because I certainly have the knowledge for it.”
She plans to return to Lubbock at least twice in the foreseeable future: once to defend her thesis and once for graduation.
“Obviously I'm coming back for graduation because after all the work I've done, I am walking across that stage,” she laughed. “I'm really proud of the program here at Texas Tech. My adviser, my professors, the students who have come through here – I really respect the work they do and the dedication they have. Being part of the Texas Tech family is an honor, and I hope I can make them proud in return.”