Rob Hunter
Computer Science Major, Class of 08, URECA Summer '07 Researcher

Research Mentor:
Profs. Malcolm Bowman and Brian Colle, School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences

We’ve had some times when the model has gone down right before we’re going to have a big storm and we’re panicking to get it up and working. . .

Interview:

Researchers of the Month: past features

Photos provided courtesy of Malcolm Bowman. Left: Malcolm Bowman, Alex Mintz, Rob Hunter, Brian Colle, Chris Cluett, Frank Buonaiuto.

Researcher of the Month

About Rob
RobHunterTalk about the calm before the storm! Meet Rob Hunter, the low-key computer science major who prior to impending nor’easters and the like can be found quietly at work—tweaking models, correcting for grid instabilities, doing all he can to improve surge forecasts for the Storm Surge Research Group. Rob currently serves as senior software developer for the team, a group he joined in 2005 as a freshman when he began working with Dr. Malcolm Bowman, professor of physical oceanography and Distinguished Service Professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Rob enjoys collaborating with all members of the team, including Frank Bouonaiuto and Professors Brian Colle, Roger Flood, Robert Wilson, also of SoMAS.

StormSurgeTeamLast summer, Rob’s research was funded through the URECA Summer program; in the previous two summers, his work was supported through New York Sea Grant. The storm surge team’s important work was profiled last March in the New York Times article “How Safe is My Home?”  The breadth of research experience Rob has had while working with the Storm Surge group, using the MM5/WRF meteorological models, and the ADCIRC (ADvance CIRCulation model for oceanic, coastal and estuarine water), models that run daily with different ensemble members using different initial conditions, atmospheric predictions and model parameters, has been invaluable. Currently, Rob plans to further his expertise by pursuing a graduate degree in the field of oceanography/ marine sciences.

Difficult as predicting the weather can be, anyone trying to forecast Rob’s current course of study and professional trajectory from freshman to senior years might have been quite at sea. As it happens, Rob hails from Silver Spring, Maryland and was a Magnet student at Montgomery Blair High School. While his interest in physics was what initially drew him to Stony Brook, it was a happy chance meeting off campus with Prof. Bowman that brought him first to the Marine Sciences Research Center for undergraduate research― a niche he's since been quite at home with, in any kind of weather! Rob plays trumpet and writes science fiction; he has presented at URECA’s Celebration of Research, the annual campus wide research symposium, for the past 3 years. Look for his poster this April 30th at the Student Activities Center. Below is his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: Describe your research area. What do you do?
Rob: We’re working on modeling storm surge in the NY harbor area to real time warnings of water level and coastal flooding using constantly updated weather forecasts. We also look at long term relative to sea level rise to see how that would affect the threats to the area. Over the summer I was working on developing a new grid to have the model run on which we hope to be more accurate and which covers the south shore of Long Island (something we didn’t have before).
To get it running, we have 9 runs in the model that run every day. I work on the programming to pull in the weather data, run the 9 models, do the post processing and then plot it to the website. One of our big goals is trying to get a model that works and can provide accurate forecasts. We’re trying to continually improve that. Occasionally, we’ve gotten groups that are interested in specific things, like say―knowing where it’s going to flood with a category III hurricane, or if the sea level rises so many centimeters. . . So we run tests and see what happens.

How many days’ forecast do you attempt?
We have 60 hour weather forecasts.

How long have you been working with the group?
I’ve been working since my freshman year— so it’s now 3 years I guess, including summers. I actually happened to meet Malcolm Bowman at one of the local churches. We started talking and he told me he was looking for some undergraduate researchers. At the time, I was thinking of being a physics major. But I was interested in the project and we went from there. Malcolm is a great person to work with. And I’ve had the chance to work with the rest of the team— Frank, Brian …Its’ been great.

How much time do you actually spend doing research?
During the academic year, I’d say about 10 or 15 hours a week. And during the summer, it’s full time.

Are there other undergraduates in the Storm Surge Team/Research Group?
Therearen’t at the moment. But there have been several students involved. Recently, we had a high school student, Chris Cluett, working with us over this past summer who was in the Simons Program.

Has your project or the focus of your project changed significantly over the time you've worked there?
It’s moved away from just computer science and programming to more of actually working with the model and developing the grid, tweaking the model parameters and such. Our model has definitely gotten better with the new grid. And we have an ensemble with multiple runs which helps.

Has doing undergraduate research enhanced your education?
I would definitely say it has. It’s given me a chance to explore other things I wouldn’t have taken classes in. I probably wouldn’t have thought about doing marine sciences otherwise. So it’s definitely helped broaden my experiences. And having the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned in computer science has been good also. I’m now planning on going into grad school in marine sciences!

Did being around graduate students have an impact on you?
We have a few graduate students working with us, two right now. Just being around them, and doing research, and seeing what they’re doing has influenced me, and made me realize that this work is what I want to do. I’m looking into several oceanography graduate programs.

What are your best and worst days of research so far?
We’ve had some times when the model has gone down right before we’re going to have a big storm and we’re panicking to get it up and working. Sometimes we can’t figure out why it’s down and we have multiple problems. We’re all stressed out then. Sometimes the model goes down and we have to make sure to get everything up and running, and make sure that we’re not going to fill up the hard drives and crash or anything like that.
The best days are after a storm, when you’ve had a good forecast, and predicted it fairly accurately. Then we’re happy with how it went. We do some analysis of the storm and see how accurate we were.

Did you previously have a strong background in atmospheric/marine sciences?
Not at all! I had taken a marine bio in high school. But I hadn’t thought about atmospheric sciences. I was more focused on particle physics. I had done high school research when I was in the magnet program at Blair. I did Intel. I didn’t do well at it, but I did a research project with Dr. Rabindra Mohapatra, a physics professor at University of Maryland, that involved neutrinos and neutrino oscillations as they pass through different density areas.

Last summer, I know, you were funded with URECA. Have you had other funding opportunities?
The Storm Surge project gets funded through SeaGrant. They’ve provided funding for me in past summers.

Tell me about any presentation experiences you’ve had.
I haven’t presented off-campus. But I’ve presented at URECA for the past 3 years, since '05. It’s been good both to present a poster, and to see what everybody else is working on. Each year, we’ve had several members of our group presenting on our Storm Surge project. A lot of people come by. And it’s great having the chance to explain the project to people who don’t have the background on it or the familiarity with it. Being able to do that helps the general understanding of what exactly we’re doing. People have been very receptive to it.

What advice would you give to other students?
I’d definitely recommend getting involved in some sort of research. It provides new experiences that you wouldn’t have just in classes. And it definitely helps for figuring out what you want to do— especially if it’s not something you would immediately think of doing but is related to what you’re interested in.  It helps just to make sure you know what you want to do. Meeting people and working with professors is also good because it provides a very different interaction than when you’re taking classes with them.

Can you articulate what it is that you enjoy about research?
I think it’s mostly the problem-solving ― seeing results from all the hard work. Making the model better, doing well when we have storms. . . But the teamwork is nice too!