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Can you describe your work?

ECE graduate student Vijay Venkatesh has been down Tornado Alley and knows that it’s not an easy ride. Tornado chasing means spending 15 hours a day tracking storm cells, gobbling fast food in truck cabs because there’s no time to stop at local diners, and checking into motels at 2 or 3 a.m. to grab a few hours of sleep.

Even a seeming break like spotting a twister can have its downside. “On one hand,” Venkatesh says, “it’s good for our research if we see a tornado. On the other hand, I was at Greensburg, Kansas, a year after it was wrecked by the EF-5 storm. While we were there a severe-storm watch was on, and you could see the concern on the faces of the local folks. It was natural for us to hope we didn’t see anything that day.”

This summer Venkatesh was one of a team of four from the Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL) that played a critical role in the largest attempt in history to study the origin, structure, and evolution of tornadoes. Before setting off for the Midwest, Professor Stephen Frasier, director of MIRSL, said that this year’s research would be different for the team “in that we’re part of a huge experiment that’s going to involve 50 different scientists all traveling in a herd following the storms.”

Frasier led a research team composed of research engineer Pei-Sang Tsai and graduate students Venkatesh and Krzysztof Orzel. They operated two mobile Doppler radars: a mobile W-band and a mobile, polarimetric, X-band. The project, the Verification of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment 2 (VORTEX2), involved more than 40 chase vehicles, including 10 mobile radars. VORTEX2 was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and included scientists from NOAA, 10 universities, and three nonprofit organizations. The researchers sampled wind, temperature, and moisture environments within tornado-spawning storms in greater detail than ever before, while chasing some of the super-cell thunderstorms that often form over a more-than-900-mile-wide swath of the central Great Plains. MIRSL primarily seeks to provide a better understanding of “the dynamics and kinematics of severe convective storms and the tornadoes they sometimes spawn.” The MIRSL team used the truck-mounted Doppler radars they’ve developed to “see” inside the violent storms at ground level. They are among the most precise radars ever used for tornado detection and are far more accurate than units mounted on high towers or satellites. But the art of deploying these radars, as Orzel quips, is being “in the right place at the wrong time.”

What did you study?

2013 – PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering, UMass Amherst
2006 – MS in Electrical & Computer Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
2004 – BE in Electrical & Electronics Engineering, Bharathiar University.

What do you do now?

Vijay Venkatesh is a systems engineer at the Radar Science and Engineering section at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) . Prior to joining JPL, he was with the High Altitude Radar group at Goddard Space Flight Center working on climate research.