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Modeler, mentor, friend

Colleagues salute Tom Warner at NCAR symposium

16 December 2011  •  Whether he was dealing with hugely complicated weather prediction software, writing the definitive book on desert meteorology, or meeting a protégé with a question, Tom Warner liked to find out what makes things, and people, tick.

Tom Warner
After earning his Ph.D. in 1976 at Pennsylvania State University, Tom Warner served as a faculty member at PSU until 1994, when he came to NCAR and the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

A daylong symposium on 2 December honored the personable and prolific NCAR scientist, who died unexpectedly in May.

“He was a pretty calm, cool, and collected guy. He hardly ever got his feathers ruffled,” said Terry Tarbell, the first Ph.D. student advised by Warner during his career at Pennsylvania State University. Tarbell, now vice president, science and engineering at Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, was among several colleagues from PSU and NCAR describing Warner’s illustrious science accomplishments, as well as his interpersonal genius, at the symposium.

A standout in Warner’s stable of achievements was his lead role in shaping the Penn State/NCAR mesoscale model. Eventually dubbed MM5, it became the world’s most widely used mesoscale model and informed the even more popular Weather Research and Forecasting model (WRF).

Warner’s involvement with MM—nicknamed the Mesomonster for its formidable code—began when he became the first graduate student of Rick Anthes, who taught at PSU before joining NCAR and eventually becoming UCAR president.

“It was much more of a collegial relationship than a professor-student relationship,” recalled Anthes, whose hurricane model from the 1960s served as the nucleus of the first PSU/NCAR model.

While in graduate school, Warner worked as a teaching assistant for PSU’s John Cahir. Here again, the learning went both ways.“He was a tremendous influence on me,” said Cahir, who noted Warner’s philosophy of getting to know students as individuals and tailoring instruction to their strengths and needs.

“He had a clear philosophy of teaching that was way ahead of its time,” Cahir said.

Visitors affiliated with PSU at Warner Symposium
Students and faculty from Pennsylvania State University joined PSU alums for the Thomas Warner Symposium. Left to right: Rick Anthes (UCAR), Jared Lee (PSU/NCAR), Dave Stauffer (PSU), Ola Persson (NOAA), Luna Rodriguez (PSU/NCAR), Greg Byrd (UCAR), Sue Ellen Haupt (NCAR), John Cahir (PSU), Andrew Annunzio (NCAR), Terry Tarbell (Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies), and Mike Fiorino (NOAA). (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

The symposium closed with an afternoon reception, where many staff from NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory provided anecdotes about their colleague and reflections on his knack for both formal and informal mentoring, including staff not on the research ladder. “He took seriously my interest in the science,” said RAL administrator Joanne Dunnebecke.

Susan Warner and Scott Swerdlin
Two guests of honor at the symposium were Tom Warner’s wife, Susan, now retired from a longtime position in UCAR Corporate Affairs, and Scott Swerdlin, who worked closely with Tom Warner for years at NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory.

“Tom Warner was an incredibly kind and passionate man on a mission,” said RAL colleague Scott Swerdlin, who led the reception proceedings. “We’ll never replace him. Who’s going to write books while mentoring 40 people?”

Warner’s life and work were profiled in a June feature in UCAR/NCAR Staff Notes. His colleagues at NCAR, PSU, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, have established the Warner Internship for Science Enrichment (WISE) program to honor Tom. This program is supported by donations. To learn more about this fellowship program, please write to WarnerSymposium@rap.ucar.edu.

Reception at Warner Symposium
A day of scientific lectures at the Thomas Warner Symposium was capped by a reception where Warner’s friends and colleagues got a chance to reminisce.