Leah Swinney discovered an open door to the world of radar analysis when she learned about a prestigious graduate assistantship at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) at the University of Oklahoma. Two years later, that opportunity has given her access to research that has broadened her education and career.

Over the last two years, Swinney has analyzed the case study of a May 23, 2011, Oklahoma storm that produced record-size hail of up to six inches in diameter. There were three mobile Doppler radars and one NEXRAD Doppler radar in the area recording the evolution of the two-hour storm. Swinney is comparing the data from each radar to get a more complete picture of how the hail moved up and down the updraft and the conditions of the winds in the storm.

“Each of the radars recorded a snapshot of the storm, and that's what we see with the reflectivity values, velocity, etc. I overlayed them together to see a more in-depth analysis of what the survey is looking at,” Swinney said. “We want to have an understanding of what the hail does while it's in a storm.”

The early conclusions of Swinney’s research indicated that hail occurred throughout most of the lifetime of the storm and mostly in the forward flank of the supercell with hydrometeors varying between wet and dry hail. Swinney will be able to connect the size

of the hail during the phases of the supercell once comparisons are made between the radar data and ground observations from a concurrent field campaign.

Swinney is the 2022 recipient of the Research to Transform Diversity assistantship from CIWRO. The assistantship, which includes a stipend up to $30,000, has allowed her to concentrate on her own research interests while she completes her master’s degree. She expects to graduate this summer.

As a Hispanic woman of Native American descent, Swinney brings a valuable lens to her area of research. She was raised by her mother and grandparents in Cotulla, Texas, a small ranching town, where her high school graduating class consisted of eighty students.

“I knew I wanted to be the first one to graduate college in my family. It meant a lot for me to see where my grandparents and great-grandparents came from. My grandma doesn't know how to read or write properly because she didn't finish elementary school. And so, looking back, in just those two generations before me, we have come quite a long way,” Swinney said.

The goal of the Research to Transform Diversity Graduate Assistantship is to transform the research pipeline by offering new opportunities to emerging scholars from underrepresented groups who pursue advanced degrees in an area of interest to CIWRO. Ultimately, this assistantship helps transform the research climate within the weather enterprise by increasing the diversity among researchers, the topics studied and the critical problems identified.

Swinney said she was drawn to studies involving radar data because of the instantaneous observations radar can provide and the insights they can provide to different parts of the storm. When she took a small radar meteorology class in her junior year at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, she was hooked. As she was finishing her bachelor’s degree in atmospheric sciences with minors in mathematics and geographic information science, she heard about the Research to Transform Diversity Graduate Assistantship and applied.

“Honestly, whenever I heard that I got the assistantship, I cried. It was really awesome to choose whom I wanted to work with. Because the other way around, advisors reach out to you, and they may assign you a project. This way I got to pick whom I wanted to work with, whom I really vibe the most with. And I could have a say in what project I really wanted to do. It also gave me more stability in a sense that I knew I was covered financially through the entire master's program, to where I wouldn't have to do additional work on top of my research, and I could just focus on my research. I'm really, really grateful for it,” Swinney said.

Howard Bluestein, the George Lynn Cross Research Professor within OU’s School of Meteorology, has served as Swinney’s faculty adviser the last two years. He described her as cheerful and enthusiastic in her approach to radar analysis.

“Leah is thorough and self-critical about her work. She persists when she encounters a problem and figures out what went wrong and successfully how to fix it. She is skilled at searching the literature for help and for reaching out to other researchers,” Bluestein said.

Swinney said her enterprising project is tiring but rewarding.

“At the start of this project, I felt overwhelmed. I was worried that I didn’t have what it would take to complete a large research project,” Swinney said. “In moments like those, I would think of my late grandmother. She would always say ‘Piensa, no te oges en una tasa de agua,’ which translates to ‘Think, don’t drown in a cup of water.’ It was one of her many little sayings. Each time I would feel overwhelmed, I would think of that saying, and it would help me calm down. I was able to stop, breathe and think. Yes, I had many things I needed to do, but I should start with one thing at a time and not overwhelm myself.”

Swinney encourages promising young researchers to compete for the Research to Transform Diversity Graduate Assistantship, which opens annually in the fall and closes each January.

“Whenever I go to conferences, I’ve seen how important it is to have a more well-rounded community. It's nice to hear people coming from different backgrounds and how they would go about doing research in a different way. I haven't met too many other Hispanic -- especially female Hispanic -- researchers in this field. I feel it's really important for me and for my culture to have representation in the science field,” Swinney said.

To learn more about Research to Transform Diversity, visit https://ciwro.ou.edu/research-to-transform-diversity-graduate-assistantship