Third Thursday Interview: Jennifer Saari

In February 2014, I attended my first AMS Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement y’all. There were so many great talks, posters, and people. My professor at the time had told us to make sure we asked questions and talked to people….but, man, can that be intimidating! I didn’t get the courage to ask any questions in oral sessions…I mean, what if I asked a “dumb” question?! Luckily I now know that it is a very welcoming crowd – particularly for students – and there are, of course, no wrong questions. BUT – I did browse the poster session and got the courage to talk to different people presenting their work and research. Of course, a lot (okay, probably most) of it went over my head, and I certainly don’t remember what most of them were about…except for one. Even six years later, I still remember my favorite poster from that weekend and the person who presented it. This week’s Third Thursday interview will be highlighting that individual – Jennifer Saari.

Jennifer grew up in Plainfield, Illinois, and when she was young, and EF-5 passed through her community in 1990, the day before school was supposed to start. Although she was really young when it happened, the impact that it had on her community and her family really affected her and sparked her interest in weather. She has fond memories of sitting in the garage with her dad watching thunderstorms outside and learning when they needed to head into their storm shelter. From there she went to Valparaiso University and was able to visit and volunteer at the National Weather Service Office in Chicago.

After graduation from Valparaiso, she was supposed to begin working at the National Weather Service in Huntsville, Alabama in April 2011. Unfortunately, the tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011 delayed her start date about a week until the power was back on at the office in May. She still works at the Huntsville NWS Office where she works as a Meteorologist and serves as the Social Media and Aviation focal points. She also serves on the outreach-oriented Decision Support Services team. She loves that when you work in weather (whether with the NWS, private sector, or broadcast), no day is going to be identical (Amen to that! Definitely one of my favorite things about my job as well). She also says that she and her colleagues work really well together as a family and a team, which is critical to success.

Okay, so I know y’all are dying to know…..what was her poster about? Making sure that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing were able to receive weather information. What a cool (and much needed!) idea! In June 2012, she was volunteering at a NOAA Weather Radio programming event that the media was hosting when a group of deaf and hard of hearing individuals came with their weather radios. In that moment, no one was really sure what to do and Jennifer stepped up and began signing what little she knew at the time to establish what counties they lived in and help them program their weather radios. She knew there was more they could do for this community though, so she talked to her management at the NWS Office in Huntsville and reached out to her colleague Trevor Bouchee who was also working to establish partnerships with the deaf and hard of hearing community in Nashville. Trevor recommended that she reached out to the State Coordinator for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Alabama – Bedarius Bell, Jr. He was thrilled to partner with the National Weather Service because he knew the need was there for better education, especially after the 2011 outbreak, and particularly for vulnerable populations. There is a huge emphasis on Storm Ready Communities, and collaboration between the NWS, WeatherReady Nation partners, and other core partners in Huntsville because severe weather is possible at any time during the year and any time during the day.

The Weather Radio Event in June 2012 that sparked the movement for more inclusive weather preparedness materials

Establishing a partnership with Bedarius early on was critical to the success of this program, as he was eager to help supply interpreters and captioning for events, such as the Skywarn Spotter program. The main goal of these events is for everyone to know what’s going on with the weather – even if there is no closed captioning on the television – so that they can be educated and prepared for what to do next. Partners who work with the deaf and hard of hearing community in Alabama worked to secure grant money and purchase weather radios with strobe light attachments so that the Skywarn attendees can receive one when they attend Jennifer’s class. That way they walk away with an education and a life saving device. They worked with core partners, including a deaf graphic design artist, to design an entire package of new outreach materials and to create effective spotter trainings. They have had immense success with this initiative, and they’re currently working on finishing up winter weather safety videos to include interpreters, so that those videos are also accessible to everyone.

A D/HH Skywarn Spotter Class in Huntsville with an interpreter and live captioning.

In March of 2016, Jennifer was honored to become NOAA’s Employee of the Month due to the Lightning Safety Research she’d done and her repackaging of outreach materials for the deaf and hard of hearing. Jennifer also was shocked and honored to receive the Public Education Award from the National Weather Association in 2017, an award that’s voted on by peers, for recognizing the unfulfilled and unique needs for the deaf & hard of hearing community, including the development of a more suitable lightning awareness campaign. As I spoke with Jennifer, she seemed truly grateful and humbled to have been recognized for her hard work.

Jennifer when she received the NWA Public Education Award in 2017

As awesome as those experiences were, she thinks one of the coolest experiences she’s had in her career was just this year, in January 2020. She was invited to speak with NOAA and NWS leaders at NOAA Headquarters. She was honored and excited to meet Admiral Tim Gallaudet, whose great-grandfather (x3) founded Gallaudet Universiy (which is a university for the deaf and hard of hearing). He took her on a tour of the university and introduced her to the president of the university (who also happens to be the first female president of that university!). They were able to meet with the provost and a core group of professors of the university about opportunities within the NWS (and NOAA in general) for partnerships and collaborations. One of the highlights of the trip? There is a Starbucks near campus that hires only deaf individuals, so Jennifer practiced her sign language in order to be able to visit and order her coffee correctly!

A photo of the round table discussion at Gallaudet University

I asked Jennifer the best piece of advice she’d ever gotten, and I thought her answer was really great. Essentially, recognize that there is always movement in the Weather Service (or any job in general). There will be opportunities within your office that you want to apply for, and if someone is chosen for a job over you, don’t criticize or have spite against them. Use the experience as an opportunity to learn and to build and better yourself. People will remember how your react. Someone gave her this advice early in her career, and a couple years later, she had to use it. She talked to the individual who was chosen, let them know that there were no hard feelings, and asked if they could help her with her weak points. Your reactions matter, and friendships and mentorships are critical.

I then asked if someone asked her for advice (and she couldn’t repeat the advice that had been given to her), what she would say. I think her response is really fitting to who she is as a person, and I think it’s something we can all learn from. She said, “Be passionate about something, and be kind. Don’t be afraid to talk to people at conferences or in offices. Build friendships, partnerships, mentorships. It’s nervewracking..but just do it. Have an elevator pitch and a business card. Don’t be afraid to talk to anyone! It’s okay to be introverted, though. Find an extrovert to help break the ice and introduce you.”

Jennifer and Admiral Tim Gallaudet at the Gallaudet University archives

In her free time, she really enjoys golfing because it’s a mentally challenging game that doesn’t involved running, while allowing you to spending time outside as well. She also really enjoys gardening and trying new teas. It was a true pleasure speaking with Jennifer, and I know that I personally learned from our chat. I hope you all do as well. Happy Third Thursday!

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