Third Thursday Interview: Ron Baskett

I am so excited to share with you this month’s Third Thursday interview with Ron Baskett. I first met Ron as a very nervous candidate when I walked into the board room to take my Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) oral exam in January 2015. His friendly demeanor, along with that of the rest of the board, immediately put me at ease and helped to make the experience much less nerve-wracking, and, dare I say, even enjoyable? He was later assigned to me as a mentor as I began my term on the CCM Board. Ron has a background in air pollution meteorology, and so our different backgrounds and areas of expertise really gave me the opportunity to learn so much about an area of meteorology that is so different from what I do on a day-in, day-out basis. I learned so much from Ron during my time on the CCM board, and he was always happy to answer my (many) questions! Ron always made time to discuss board-related topics with me whenever I had a question, and always took time to first inquire about how things were going personally and professionally. As a new CCM, that meant a lot and I was grateful to have had such a mentor. He is now retired from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and enjoys an active life full of time spent outdoors, with family, volunteering, avidly reading journal articles and other material, and generally enjoying a well-earned retirement! We continue to correspond periodically, and I always enjoy receiving an email update from Ron. While we haven’t seen each other in person in quite some time, I always look forward to those opportunities. I hope you enjoy getting to know Ron via this interview as well!

Could you introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you got into meteorology?
I was born and raised in Stockton, California with an agrarian heritage–my father came from a wheat farming family who homesteaded on the Camus Prairie in northern Idaho and was a farm advisor after returning from the War. My earliest encouragement to study meteorology came from my middle school science teacher, Mr. Hitt, who inspired me to build a weather instruments for a science fair. I put together an outside enclosure for a thermometer, homemade hair hygrometer, and a barometer as well as homemade vane and cups mounted atop a tall post in the back yard.

Middle School science fair project.

I embraced the country’s focus on the space race of the 1960s. Excelling in math and science in high school, after my junior year, I was awarded a summer working scholarship in the College of Agriculture at University of California at Davis (UCD). There among other
things, I learned Fortran programing. My high school senior year was spent in the Philippines, as my dad took a job with the Rockefeller Foundation working on the “miracle rice.” Attending a Jesuit school in Manila and taking several courses by University of California correspondence, I graduated from my Stockton high school remotely. Having missed advanced placement classes and career counseling, I chose to apply to familiar UC Davis, declaring an Engineering major. Applying my hobby of map collecting, after the summer after my freshman year, I was awarded one of two US Geological Survey Western Topographic Division’s Engineer Trainee positions. So that summer I had a great time assisting field surveyors in completing several 7.5-minute quadrangles in mountainous northern Washington and Idaho. Returning to UCD I became disgruntled with the plug-and-grind problem sets and limited Engineering curricula. Engineers ask how, scientists ask why… I was always inquisitive … Two new departments were just being started at UCD—Computer Science and Atmospheric Sciences. An enthusiastic Leonard Myrup fresh out of UCLA inspired me to join the first UCD class of three atmospheric science students to earn the Department’s new bio-meteorology undergraduate degree. Before you knew it, we were out in the field taking Bowen Ratio energy balance measurements to use in verifying computer simulations of the Sacramento urban heat island. My interest in use of instrumentation and modeling began to take on a professional flavor. I worked my way through several years of college programming code for professor’s research models of the atmospheric boundary layer. But one of my most rewarding experiences was to study the origins and meteorological setting of air pollution in Yosemite Valley for my masters thesis. Who gets to fly over one’s favorite backpacking country measuring the structure of the subsidence inversion which concentrates particulates and creates the environment for ozone production? Dr. John Carroll was an incredible mentor who also instilled in me an appreciation for the value of publishing research which clearly had the potential to advance the science.

What is/are your current position(s)? 
In mid-2017 I retired from full-time employment but continue taking on occasional forensic
cases or small projects as a Certified Consulting Meteorologist. As a Visiting Scientist at
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), I also assist with several projects and
review journal papers. Staying active professionally part time has been a very rewarding experience.

What is your workday like?
Being a morning person, my day starts early—I now enjoy having time to read more journal
articles, explore new areas, and communicate with colleagues. Most of my days don’t
involve “work,” but when under a forensic deadline, my workday can easily become full time
gathering and analyzing data specific to the case. I especially enjoyed Elizabeth Austin’s
presentation at the 2018 AMS Forensic Science course which focused on the value of
developing graphics that communicate—I attribute the success of my recent testimony to
explaining to the jury how unforecasted high winds caused a prescribed burn to jump its
firebreak using a 3D visualization of wind flow over terrain.

How did you get to your current position? (Previous positions, etc)
Just married, and having completed a masters at UCD studying the air quality of Yosemite Valley, rather than continuing in air quality, I chose to start my career on a different path—to develop a phenological model for the new NASA Earth Resources project which had a mission to estimate worldwide wheat production. So, we moved from California to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) south of Houston. In addition to the experience of being on a multidisciplinary team supporting cutting-edge research, my wife and I made lifelong friends. The path not taken was to pass up getting in on the ground floor of Paul MacCready’s new AeroVironment air quality consulting firm in Pasadena.
After two years at JSC and with a child on the way, we decided to move back to California. I took an air quality job with the Westlake Village, California division of Environmental Research and Technology. Working with giants like George Hidy and Peter Mueller on the Electric Power Research Institute’s Sulfate Regional Experiment was an incredible experience. Developing skill applying Bruce Egan’s new 3D numerical dispersion models in complex terrain to permit new industrial developments in the west, I connected with my lifelong interest of integrating measurements with models to solve problems.
With a successful position in a great company run by meteorologists, my colleagues couldn’t understand why I took the risk to change jobs. I jumped at an opportunity to become the Principal Investigator for a project involving a large new mining and milling operation proposed in the central Colorado mountains. AMAX’s molybdenum deposit was in the side of Mt. Emmons in a deep mountain valley with an environmentally sensitive area to the west and the Crested Butte ski area to the east. After completing that and many other projects, environmental consulting proved to be precarious due to the decline in industrial developments in the Rocky Mountains in the early 1980s. Being laid off was a humbling experience, but a colleague came to my aide with a contract with Alberta Ministry of Environment and Parks to model accidental releases of sour gas from pipelines in the Canadian Rockies. This motivated me to apply to AMS for my Certified Consulting Meteorologist.
Having been the Teaching Assistant while in graduate school for Dr. Joe Knox, visiting professor at UCD and the head of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), proved to be a great connection 15 years later. I was able to capitalize on my real-world experiences to gain employment with LLNL’s National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC), one of DOE’s assets used in Federal responses to emergencies involving accidental radiological or chemical releases worldwide. My positions would evolve over the next 34 years including leading the NARAC operations team and being a Deputy Division Leader before retiring in mid-2017.

Explaining NARAC plot to NASA Administrator Bolden before the 2011 Mars Science Lab launch at Kennedy Space Center.

What is the best thing about your job?
The best thing about each position I held was learning and growing from collaborating on
team projects and building lasting professional relationships as well as personal friends.

Working with the NARAC team at LLNL.

What is one goal you are working towards right now?
My goal is to give back to the community that gave me such a rewarding career. Locally I am a volunteer consultant with the non-profit Tri-Valley Air Quality Alliance. Funded by California State Legislature Assembly Bill 617 this group works with local governments and
citizens to develop policy and actions resulting in improved local air quality. I was honored
to be on the Board of Certified Consulting Meteorologists and look for similar opportunities
to contribute to the American Meteorological Society in the future.

What are some things you do in your free time?
My work-life balance has always included being active in sports and the out-of-doors. I now
enjoy spending much more time with family, travels and social functions as well as golfing,
hiking, backpacking, skiing, gardening, and yoga. I also follow several research themes and
read journal articles more extensively.

If a kid walked up and asked for advice and you only had a few minutes to give ‘em your best tip, what would it be?
Present yourself with a positive, can do attitude, and the chances are that will lead to successful realization of your potential. Many doors opened in my life just because I offered to help with a smile. A corollary is, when in an interview or even in a job, be aware of people who want “to own you,” in other words, managers that want you to dedicate all your energy and time to what they want to do and are not open to other’s ideas. That said, if you decide to be “all-in” for a favorite project, you may have to make personal sacrifices to successfully achieve common goals. But be aware when if you find yourself frequently setting aside your views or your input isn’t appreciated. Life involves continually finding your balance. 

What is the coolest experience you have had thus far in your career (life?)
One of the coolest experiences was to host brunch with John Glenn when his family toured LLNL on August 19, 2002. I shared my passion for space exploration including leading NARAC’s support to NASA’s interplanetary launches of spacecraft powered by DOE’s Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators. After my briefing John commented “This is wonderful.” It was so rewarding to receive such a complement from one of my lifetime heroes. 

Hosting John Glenn’s family visit to LLNL NARAC.

That said, one of my best project-related experiences involved leading a team to generate the air quality permit and environmental report for the AMAX Mining Company’s proposed new molybdenum mine and mill near Crested Butte, Colorado in the early 1980s. Under tight budget and schedule, I developed and implemented a plan to conduct a field tracer study to produce data adequate to evaluate a dispersion model for the air permits and environmental impact statement. This involved deploying meteorological and sulfur hexafluoride tracer instrumentation in the remote mountainous location. I acquired a 3D diagnostic numerical dispersion model developed by Dr. Ralph Sklarew, the author of the original paper on the Particle-in-Cell method. Using location-specific diffusivities that we measured from tracking lighted tetroons during the “worst-case” dispersion conditions at night, I modified the model code to account for local mountain-valley wind circulations. The resulting calibrated model reproduced the tracer data set within ±20%—greatly exceeding typical dispersion model accuracies of factors of 2-10 in complex terrain. What a challenge to demonstrate how a numerical Eulerian model produces more realistic air concentrations than the Gaussian plume models recommended by EPA! Motivating teamwork and developing camaraderie toward a common goal was the coolest thing. Getting mining company employees to work all night was challenging. Sharing my love of mountain meteorology was fun. 

Setting up tetroon releases for the field study near Crested Butte, Colorado.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
When bad things happen, respond with a realistic view of what happened, not from a perspective of the way you want it to be … from my yoga teacher.  

Ron, thank you so much for taking the time to allow us to learn about your unique background and experience, and to give some terrific advice to young people who are early on in their careers!

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