As the first African-American woman to receive an undergraduate degree in meteorology from Iowa State University, Dr. Kandis Boyd is a huge weather enthusiast. Overseeing the Weather Program Office at NOAA, she integrates social sciences into the technical sciences to produce timely and accurate forecasts.
STEM to the Sky
Dec 11, 2020
Dr. Kandis Boyd is currently the Deputy Divisional Director for the Division of Grants and Agreements (DGA) at the National Science Foundation. During the time of this interview, she was the Acting Director of the Weather Program Office at NOAA. Nevertheless, she has been in the government for 26 years and has been in charge of several projects relating to the weather, both scientific and technical, throughout her career.
*This interview focuses on Dr. Boyd’s experiences at NOAA.
Growing up, there was an aptitude test I took in middle or high school, and it said that I should be an architect, and so I think I was kind of going that route. I was in a summer program called INROADS, and it was basically a summer program to expose students to different careers. They took us to a television station, and they allowed us to tour the station. We got to see what a journalist would do or what a stage manager would do. Well, I was really interested in what the meteorologists would do, and I actually stayed and talked to the meteorologists. That’s when my interest in weather started. When I first began exploring meteorology, I wanted to be an on-air meteorologist; it didn’t work out. But from there, I still pursued my degree in meteorology. I started with the National Weather Service, which is a part of NOAA. For the early part of my career, I was an operational forecaster in Des Moines, Iowa.
I had a summer internship to be an on-air meteorologist, but it did not work out. The TV station told me I did not fit the demographic of Iowa, so they did not want me to continue on after my internship.
Long story short, I’m sitting in class and a man comes in. He was a meteorologist in charge at the Weather Forecast Office in Des Moines, Iowa. He told me that they were looking for a summer intern through the Summer Career Experiences Program (SCEP), and what I heard was that I would be paid $10 an hour. At the time, I think the minimum wage was $5 an hour. I would get college credit, do something that’s related to my major, and get paid twice the minimum wage. I was sold! And from there, I started my career in the National Weather Service at NOAA.
(Credit: Dr. Kandis Boyd)
We describe our work with the term “R2O”, which stands for research to operations. Our goal is, and this is why I love my job, to come up with the next big thing. In other words, if you have an idea on how to improve the weather, our program managers help make that idea a reality. We are the ones who move it along the continuum. Then, we eventually have something tangible that we can then pass on to operational meteorologists to make the forecast better.
One of the things we do is hydrology, which is dealing with water. Hurricane Laura just came through our area, and when it came onshore, it dumped copious amounts of rain. There are still areas that are inundated, so we have to deal with that. We’re always constantly trying to improve upon that forecast, so another thing we do is computer modeling. We also have these things called testbeds, which are when you bring together the researcher and the operational forecasters, and they test out the idea to see if it actually works before the idea moves further in the continuum. We also work in social science, meaning we try to explain weather in an easy-to-understand manner, so the public is as informed as they can be. Another thing we do is what we call sub-seasonal to seasonal (S2S), which is basically coming up with a weather forecast for a long while into the future. Right now, if you turn on the TV and look at the forecast, it’s probably a five-day forecast or maybe a seven-day forecast. Well, after seven days, the forecast is sometimes not as reliable. Many companies need an accurate forecast for two weeks or maybe even two years into the future, so “S2S” really helps a lot of these companies make informed decisions.
These are just a couple of the things that we do in our office to help improve the overall forecast.
The best part of my job and the reason why I was at NOAA for 26 years is truly the people. These people really love the mission and are dedicated to what they’re doing. I know people who literally worked on one scientific topic for over 30 years, so to be that dedicated to try to advance research in a certain area is really extraordinary. Yes, we’re dealing with science, but at the end of the day, it’s really about the people.
I think if there was anything that surprised me, it was that I haven’t stopped learning in 26 years. I know that’s probably not what you want to hear as a middle/high school student, but there is always something new to do to expand your horizon. Over 26 years, I’ve learned so much, not only about weather, but how to work with people, how to manage people, and how to collaborate. I didn’t only learn about NOAA, but I also learned about other agencies as well.
The world is your oyster. During my career, I thought if you do a good job, then you’ll advance and get to where you want to be. However, after 26 years, I’ve learned that it’s a little bit more than that. You have to market yourself. You have to go after what you want. You have to be willing to hear the word “no” because you’re not always going to hear the word “yes”. In other words, you can have anything that you want, but you have to position yourself to be ready so that you are prepared to push yourself forward.
To be honest, there’s not that much change as to my work schedule pre-COVID and during COVID. Before COVID-19, I was the deputy director, so I was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the office. I was the type of person who always had to be looking ahead strategically, looking at potential issues like fires and trying to put them out before they turned into wildfires. Now, in the pandemic, it’s pretty much the same thing. I tell people that my biggest skill is my ability to listen. You want to listen to people’s needs so you can fulfill those needs. You also want to be a team player and collaborate with other people. I would say that my job before COVID-19 was a lot of meetings and collaborations. I traveled somewhat, but not that much. But, it is important to understand that atmospheric science and weather is more than just NOAA. I collaborated with people from across the federal government, people in academia, and people in the private sector. My job is mostly talking, collaborating, and negotiating, which boils down to a lot of meetings.
(Credit: Dr. Kandis Boyd)
Go for it! I am a firm believer that we really need more people in STEM. There’s not a lot of people in the ocean and atmospheric sciences that look like me, so not only am I a big proponent of STEM, but I’m also a big proponent of diversity and inclusion in STEM. We want to hire a workforce that’s representative of the society that we live in.
I. Intern. I think an internship is a great way to test something out. I had several internships that didn’t work out, and I think that was just as impactful as the internship that did work out. So, I would encourage anyone to try an internship because the experience is going to be extraordinary. Even if you don’t like it, then you know, that may not be your path.
II. Build your network. It almost sounds cliche, but there are so many times where I’ve found out about opportunities by talking to someone who introduced me to an activity or a meeting or a conference. You go to those activities, meet and talk to people, and network. That builds your base. You can be an amazing resource for someone else, just like someone else can be a resource for you.
III. Believe in yourself. So often, you are your worst enemy. You cast doubt upon yourself, saying things like “Oh, that’s not for me or I don’t have all the skills to fulfill that position”. You’d be amazed at how many people talk themselves out of a job or an opportunity that they’re really qualified for. You really need to believe in yourself.
The big thing right now is artificial intelligence (AI), which in simpler terms is programming computers that can think like us. Let’s go back to the example of Hurricane Laura. I believe it was a category 4 when it made landfall. That’s a pretty powerful storm that causes a lot of damage. Sometimes, there are humans who have to go door to door and under debris or rubble to check to see if there are any injured people. Now, with AI, a drone can survey an area using infrared heat technology. The drone looks down into debris and can warm spots where there is likely to be a person. It’s a much more efficient surveying method. Moving forward, I think we are going to see many applications of AI in atmospheric science in terms of creating a better forecast or helping to inform the public, or in this case, using drones to survey a damaged area.