Purdue EAPS Professor awarded NSF CAREER Award for tornado research - Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences - Purdue University Skip to main content

Purdue EAPS Professor awarded NSF CAREER Award for tornado research


A lifelong fascination with severe weather has led a Purdue University alumni and professor to pursue a career centered around severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.  This passionate pursuit of weather analysis has recently been rewarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Dan Dawson, Assistant Professor in the Purdue University Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), has been awarded a NSF CAREER Award.  The grant award titled, “Variability of Severe Convective Storm Mode and Hazards as a Function of Environment and Pre-convective Updraft Forcing,” will allow Dawson and his team to use high-resolution computer simulations to study how the initiation details of severe convective storms influence their structural mode and the type and magnitude of severe hazards across a range of large-scale environments.

NSF CAREER awards are the organization’s most prestigious awards given to junior faculty who embody the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of those concepts within the mission of their organizations. CAREER awards support promising and talented researchers in building a foundation for a lifetime of leadership. Receiving this award reflects this project’s merit of the NSF statutory mission and its worthiness of financial support.

“I envision this grant becoming the centerpiece of my efforts over the next five years and a springboard for many further initiatives beyond that,” says Dawson. “I am particularly excited about the interdisciplinary opportunities that come with the partnership with the Purdue Envision Center to develop cutting-edge VR visualizations of the output of the storm simulations. I frankly can't wait to get this into the hands of students and other young people who may be considering a career in STEM. My hope is that showing how interesting and dynamic these storms can be and how we can use computational resources to simulate the storms, that students will be inspired to give a STEM career serious consideration.  These students may already be familiar with virtual reality in the form of computer games, but may realize this technology can also be used to perform cutting-edge science.”

The project will also fund a graduate student to work with Dawson’s EAPS group. The group will be performing ensembles of idealized simulations initialized from environmental soundings derived from a large National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center database relating observed storm mode, environmental profiles, and severe reports.

“The goal is to test specific hypotheses concerning how the details of storm initiation depend on their large-scale environment,” says Dawson, “and how these factors act together to influence the subsequent storm mode (i.e. supercells vs. quasi-linear convective systems, or QLCS) and type of severe weather (tornadoes, straight line winds, and/or large hail).  We will also be partnering with the Purdue Evaluation and Learning Research Center and EAPS K-12 Outreach.”

Dawson received his bachelors of science degree in Atmospheric Dynamics from Purdue University in 2002.  He then attended graduate school and earned both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Oklahoma. As a postdoc, he worked for the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) and the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms (CAPS).  Soon after, he returned to Purdue but this time as an Assistant Professor in the Fall of 2015.

“After meeting and marrying my wife and fellow atmospheric scientist Robin Tanamachi, I moved back to Purdue with her to start our current position, “says Dawson.  “I was born in Virginia, but moved around a lot during my childhood years including a stint overseas in Saudi Arabia where my father worked as an aircraft mechanic. I eventually ended up in central Indiana and finished my middle and high school years in Plainfield, IN.”

His fascination with severe storms and tornados started at early in life.  He says he has always been interested in how the natural world works.

“Growing up, I used to get frequent nightmares about tornadoes. I'm not sure why my young brain fixated on those, but I suspect that the tornado scene in the opening to "The Wizard of Oz" (which is still one of the most realistic depictions of a tornado in a movie by the way) may have had something to do with it,” says Dawson. “I remember a particularly wicked summer storm that struck my town (Martinsville, IN) during the night when I was about 11. The lightning activity was the most intense I ever remember seeing.  The next day we found shredded cornstalks all over our yard and grain silos on a nearby farm that were crushed like aluminum cans. Then, in 1995, I was in high school (in Plainfield, IN), and that year was a particularly active hurricane season in the Atlantic. I remember being entranced by the coverage on the Weather Channel, particularly the analysis of John Hope. That was about the time the internet was coming into its own, and I would log on to track the hurricanes and view satellite images at my local library and at school. When I could I would go out stormchasing and out to dusty fields in the summer to watch dust devils. I realized that there was a whole world of scientific research that had been done and was still to be done on the dynamics of the atmosphere, and it was about that time that I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. in atmospheric science and make a career of doing fundamental research, with a focus on severe weather.”

Currently, Dawson teaches EAPS 53200 (Atmospheric Physics 1), EAPS 53900 (Mesoscale Meteorology) and co-teaches EAPS 59100 (Severe Storms Field Work) with Tanamachi.  His research centers around the study of the dynamics of severe convective storms and tornadoes through a combination of field observations, high-resolution numerical modeling, and data assimilation.  He has several avenues of study within this area and the CAREER Award will draw on his research in these areas while also taking it in new directions.


About the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University

The Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) combines four of Purdue’s most interdisciplinary programs: Geology & Geophysics, Environmental Sciences, Atmospheric Sciences, and Planetary Sciences. EAPS conducts worldclass research in the Earth and Planetary sciences, educates undergraduate and graduate students, and provides our college, university, state and country with the information necessary to understand the world and universe around us. Our research is globally recognized, our students are highly valued by graduate schools, employers, and our alumni continue to make significant contributions in academia, industry, and federal and state government.


 Writer: Cheryl Pierce

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