Why we chase storms

The devastation caused by the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma has generated controversy and curiosity about storm chasers—those who follow deadly weather for the sake of science, fascination or curiosity.

San Francisco State meteorology professor John Monteverdi is one of them. The atmospheric scientist just returned from the field where he has been observing one of nature’s most unforgiving environments.

A weather forecaster by training, Monteverdi says there’s no better way to understand the weather patterns that create these supercell thunderstorms.

He says he was initially drawn to study tornadoes because tornadic thunderstorms also occur here in California.

“Bringing this knowledge back to California has helped meteorologists here understand how certain patterns produce tornadoes,” Monteverdi said.

Basically, the more we are able to forecast the patterns, the more time we have to prepare for the development of thunderstorms that might produce a tornado. And with more time, there is more potential to save lives.

In fact, the efforts of some storm researchers have actually helped to increase warning times—not only by their research, but by promptly notifying the National Weather Service when they spot a tornado.

Those who pursue these storms only for the sake of research are few and far between. But they are also a tight-knit community. Monteverdi knew Tim and Paul Samuras and Carl Young, the three meteorologists who lost their lives in last week’s tornado near Oklahoma City. They were well-respected among this small group of scientists who often are grouped incorrectly with individuals who are merely chasing tornadoes for thrills.

Monteverdi recently posted a piece on his blog about why they chase storms.

He says television specials on extreme tornado chasers and movies such as Twister have created the misconception that meteorologists purposely drive into tornadoes. Unfortunately, this has invited a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the risks and who do not understand such storms into the chase, putting themselves and others at risk.

“These researchers aren’t seeking thrills or personal publicity. They are actively contributing to our knowledge of tornadoes,” Monteverdi said.

posted in “Science & the CSU”


John Monteverdi (above) and his storm chasing colleague Thom Trimble (below) near Rozel, Kansas May 18, 2013. Copyright © John Monteverdi and Thom Trimble

Explore more at Monteverdi’s “Chasing Storms” blog.


CSU Competition Highlights Student Research

A Humboldt State student found that stem cells have the potential to help the bones of older individuals heal faster after breaking.

A team of Cal State L.A. engineering students developed new experimental designs for supersonic rockets.

A Cal Poly Pomona student is testing a new vaccine for the flu.

These are just a few of the nearly 200 student researchers who presented projects at the CSU’s 27th annual Student Research Competition at Cal Poly Pomona May 10-11.

Ranging from social sciences to engineering to agriculture, the research was as diverse as the students and their academic fields. However, it all shared the power and potential to either help us understand our world, or make it a better place.

The annual CSU competition aims to foster student research and growth in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. All of the students who compete are already winners: in order to participate, they have to be selected by their campus or take top honors in their own campus research competition.

All student projects are judged by professional experts from major corporations, foundations, public agencies, and colleges and universities in California.

The first place winners are listed below. A full list of all participants and winners can be seen here.

Behavioral & Social Sciences

Carlos Gonzalez, CSU San Marcos (Undergraduate)
Ketamine-Induced Conditioned Taste Aversion Differs in Adult and Adolescent Rats

Elaine Clemings, Fresno State (Undergraduate)
The Effects of Classroom Acoustics on Reading Fluency in Primary School Students

Tony Ye, Cal State L.A. (Graduate)
Cognitive Inflexibility after Adolescent Methamphetamine Exposure

Kristi Hendrickson, San Diego State (Graduate)
You Can Look but Don’t Touch: The Real-time Dynamics Between Infants’ Visual and Haptic Responses

Biological & Agricultural Sciences

Amberle McKee, CSU Long Beach (Undergraduate)
Substrate Attributes Determine Gait in a Terrestrial Gastropod

Ashley Chui, CSU Fullerton (Undergraduate)
Aggregation of Intrinsically Disordered Proteins: An Investigation of the Behavior of Stathmin Aggregated in the Presence of Ficoll 70

Brandon Kim, San Diego State (Graduate)
Regulation of Tight Junction Complexes in Brain Endothelium by the Meningeal Pathogen, Group B Streptococcus

Brian Maurer, San Jose State (Graduate)
Optimization of a technique to measure bulk viable biomass, based on the hydrolysis of fluorescein diacetate (FDA) by ubiquitous enzymes

Business, Economics and Public Administration

Adam Sharma, San Francisco State
Patient No-Shows: Identifying the Determinants of a Patient’s Likelihood to No-Show

Creative Arts and Design

Todd Wilkinson, San Francisco State
Re-Connecting Manual Wheelchair Users With Nature


Allee Macrorie and Bijan Ghaffari, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
NMR-Based Kinetic Experiments for Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratories

Engineering & Computer Science
Azizkhan Pathan, Cal State L.A. (Undergraduate)
Experimental Sounding Supersonic Rocket Design

Jamie Adkins, Yuriy Bazylev, Jessica Lopez, and Henry Kwong, Cal Poly Pomona (Undergraduate)
Mechanical Properties of Spider Silk

Shad Kish, San Francisco State (Graduate)
Miniaturizing RFID for Biomedical Implants

Health, Nutrition & Clinical Sciences

Du Cheng, Humboldt State (Undergraduate)
Using a stem cell-based approach to restore bone-healing capacity to aged individuals

Joseph Henriquez, Cal Poly Pomona (Graduate)
Long term protection in Swiss Webster (SW) mice using a liposomal M2e Influenza A (L-M2e) vaccine

Humanities and Letters

Anna Marie Storti, Cal Poly Pomona (Undergraduate)
But You Don’t Look Like a Lesbian: The Portrayal of Queer Life Through a Feminine Experience

Alexandra Katherine Vicknair, CSU Stanislaus (Graduate)
Mountains and Mindsets: The Ideologies and Politics behind the Mineral King Controversy, 1965-1978

Physical & Mathematical Sciences

Christopher Patillo, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (Undergraduate)
Controlling Surface Energy and Wettability with a Light Responsive Linker System

Michelle Gevedon, CSU Fullerton (Graduate)
Zircon Hafnium and Oxygen Isotopic Evidence for Major Compositional Variation in the Mesozoic Mantgle Source Region of the Sierra  Nevada Volcanic Arc

SJSU, Cal Poly Take Charge in Energy Innovation

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called on America to advance clean energy research and technology. Obama said that investment in clean energy innovation holds the most promise for both our environment and economy.

San José State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo recently made announcements regarding their roles in such innovation: SJSU has launched a program to train students for the fast-emerging energy storage industry, and Cal Poly received a $1.3 million grant to help turn San Luis Obispo’s wastewater into energy.

Reducing our carbon footprint means making more powerful and longer-lasting batteries. Right now, there are roughly 40 battery-related companies in California—working to solve challenges that are critical to the electric vehicle sector, the solar sector, the wind sector, consumer electronics and more.

In an effort to educate the specialty workforce now needed for this rapidly growing industry, SJSU teamed up with energy storage innovation accelerator CalCharge to launch a “battery university.” The program’s courses are expected to be offered this summer through SJSU’s professional education program.

“The fast-emerging energy storage industry is key to the continuing success of the multi-billion dollar global clean energy economy,” said Jeffrey Anderson, interim executive director of CalCharge. “Ceding this important sector to another country would be a tragic and short sighted mistake.”

Cal Poly’s grant from the US Department of Energy will go toward the university’s involvement in the experimental raceway ponds at the City of San Luis Obispo Water Reclamation Facility—a pilot facility that has been invited to join the US DOE National Algae Biofuel Testbed program.

“Ultimately, we would like our research to help commercialize the use of algae in the wastewater recycling process and production of biofuel,” said Cal Poly civil and environmental engineering professor Tryg Lundquist.

Unlike fossil fuel, biofuel is produced by living organisms. Oils, carbohydrates or fats generated by microbes or plants are refined to create the green and renewable energy.

Lundquist and chemistry professor Corinne Lehr lead Cal Poly’s Algae Technology Group, which will coordinate the effort. The group is composed of faculty and students from six departments, including environmental engineering, chemistry, biology, animal science, food science, and electrical engineering.

Obama back by popular demand: a CSU Fullerton professor does the math

With polls showing the presidential race neck and neck, Americans are coming up with some creative ways to predict our next president—from a psychic pet squirrel, to the number of Obama and Romney masks sold for Halloween, even to the outcome of an Ohio Buckeye or Florida Gators football game.

However, math remains the most reliable way to predict the president. Although polling is not an exact science, CSU Fullerton civil engineering professor Chandra Putcha is using math and science to take it to another level of accuracy.

Putcha created a comprehensive way to make predicting less guessing and a more scientific process. He forecasted the outcome of the Nov. 6 presidential election using his own integrated approach that includes both state polls and probability calculations based on historical information.

The winner according to Putcha’s model? Barack Obama—by a popular vote of 51.81 percent vs. 48.19 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. It also places Obama’s Electoral College total at 286 and Romney’s at 252, with 270 needed to win.

Putcha's predictions on what states will go for Barack Obama (blue) and Mitt Romney (red).

Putcha used a similar model based on probability to correctly predict the outcome in the 2008 presidential election.

In order to create the probabilities that each state’s votes would go to a certain candidate, Putcha took historical polling data from that state to come up with a mean value and standard deviation. When that probability is added to several current national and state polls, it creates a bigger picture of what the outcome should look like come Tuesday night.

But why would an engineer whose teaching and research focus on building bridges and other structures tackle trying to make a presidential election prediction? Putcha says there’s a lot in common—math.

“My research areas of interest are reliability, risk analysis and optimization. These principles can be applied to any discipline—engineering and non-engineering,” said Putcha, who’s taught at CSUF for 31 years.

In fact, Putcha’s work has resulted in more than 135 research papers in this area and he has applied these principles to other disciplines, including political science, sociology, medicine and kinesiology.

As for the psychic squirrels, football games and Halloween masks?

Putcha says that aside from their entertainment value, those predictions are essentially meaningless.

“If it can’t be connected to the election, then it will not decide it,” Putcha said, adding that subjective information including voters’ changing attitudes about issues are already reflected in the polling data.

“It’s about the math. This is what the numbers are saying,” he said.

Updated: 11/7/2012

With the national results in, Obama’s re-election once again validated Putcha’s mathematical model.

Putcha’s popular vote predictions were within one percentage point for Obama, and less than one-tenth of one percent for Romney. And with the exception of New Hampshire, Florida and Virginia, Putcha’s state predictions were spot-on.

The results again show how mathematics can be applied to real life problems, Putcha says.

“In probability models, you are never 100 percent right,” Putcha said. “However, this is about as close as it gets. Overall, the mathematical model is correct.”