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A conversation with Oklahoma meteorologist Liz Leitman, the first woman to issue a thunderstorm watch

Liz is wearing a teal blouse and glasses, smiling with her arms crossed. She's standing in front of a row of glass windows, through which you can see computer screens with weather maps of the U.S. In the window, black sign says "Storm Prediction Center" in red lettering.
Graycen Wheeler
Liz Leitman is wearing a teal blouse and glasses, smiling with her arms crossed. She's standing in front of a row of glass windows, through which you can see computer screens with weather maps of the U.S. In the window, black sign says "Storm Prediction Center" in red lettering.

Every thunderstorm or tornado watch you’ve seen was issued by a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman. But until a few weeks ago, those watch issuers had always been men.

Liz Leitman changed that on February 15, when she issued a thunderstorm watch during her first training shift to become a lead forecaster. KOSU's Graycen Wheeler spoke with Leitman about how she became a meteorological trailblazer.

Graycen Wheeler: To start off with, would you mind telling me a little bit about who you are and what you do at the Storm Prediction Center?

Liz Leitman: I am a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center here in Norman, Oklahoma. And my main job is assessing severe thunderstorm risk. And recently, I began working lead training shifts. Our lead forecasters have sole responsibility for issuing severe thunderstorm and tornado watches for the entire country. And so recently, I had my first training shift and was able to issue my first severe thunderstorm watch.

The watch that I issued was on February 15th, and it was across parts of north Texas and central and southeastern Oklahoma.

Wheeler: And can you tell me a little bit about why that's a big deal?

Leitman: Yeah, it was a big deal because I was the first female forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center to issue a convective watch.

Wheeler: Were you aware that this was a historic watch? Like, did you know that leading up to it, or is it something you realized afterwards?

Leitman: Yeah, we had known that I had the training shifts coming up. You know, historically there have only been, I believe, five women to work at the Storm Prediction Center, and none of them have been in the position that I am currently in to be able to train on the lead desk. So we knew that I would be the first female forecaster to do so. So it was kind of exciting.

Wheeler: I saw you had a really cool Twitter thread about kind of why it's taken so long to have a woman in your position. Would you mind talking a little bit about why that is?

Leitman: So there are only five lead forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center. And again, they have the sole responsibility for issuing watches for the country. So on any given shift, there's one person who's doing that job. And our lead forecasters stay in that position for a long time. We've even had a lead forecaster who had over 30 years of experience on the lead desk in that one position. So there's not a lot of turnover in that position. So those opportunities and vacancies don't come around very often. And in the 60 plus year history of the SPC and all of its former iterations, there have only been 36 lead forecasters. So that's part of it.

The other part, of course, is that meteorology has historically been a male dominated field. And so there haven't there weren't always very many women in the science and in the field. That's changing. Even since I started in the National Weather Service in 2006, the number of women has increased dramatically. So, you know, we're we're making progress.

Wheeler: Nice. I think that thing about not having a lot of turnover, especially in areas that require a lot of expertise, happens in a lot of scientific fields. And I think that lots of times it can end up being a situation where there's not this outward, like “boys only” hostility. But it can feel unwelcoming for people with particularly feminine identities or other identities that aren't already represented.

So when I was looking through your Twitter, I was really excited to see you post about like romance novels and things like that. I was wondering if you could talk about who you are as a person and whether it's helped you as a scientist, or whether you keep those things kind of separate.

Leitman: I think one of the things that I've really loved about gaining this following on Twitter is that it makes me human to those who know what my job is. I'm not just some nameless person behind a screen. You know, I'm an actual person, just like everyone else. And so I think that helps build relationships. It helps build trust. And, you know, it humanizes the science in the process. And I think that's really important.

I think representation matters. And so making sure that we're accessible. Especially for young girls who are interested in sciences and things like that, I think it's important for them to hear my story and to see other women doing things that they might be passionate about but maybe are a little hesitant because of how things have been historically. And you know, them seeing, “Hey, she's doing it. I can relate to her. Wow, maybe I can do this, too.”

People have all different kinds of experiences. And my experience as a woman is going to be different from a person of color’s experience in life. And, you know, life experience matters. Even in our jobs that are very logical and rational scientific, we also serve the public, and the products that we issue are meant to be lifesaving. Doing things like outreach and connecting with the community is really important. And I think that we can do that better and more efficiently and more thoughtfully if we have greater diversity.

Wheeler: Does it feel like extra responsibility to be a woman scientist in such an outward-facing field?

Leitman: I know from my own experience, whenever I first started college, I had an advisor tell me, “I don't think you will be successful in meteorology.” And I was like, “Well, I guess that's your opinion. But I'm determined, and this is what I want. There's no other option for me.” And so, you know, I went ahead and I did it. And I've heard that other people have had similar experiences.

I think it's important for not just women but everyone to see that—you know what you're capable of, and you know what your passion is. You know what drives you. So don't let anyone else determine your path. But it is important for people to see others that that look like them, that share similar experiences as them doing the job that they are passionate about and that they're doing it successfully.

Wheeler: Were there other meteorologists or scientists that you admired when you were younger or even just recently? Anybody you saw who inspired you?

Leitman: The weather community in general is pretty small, especially the severe weather community. And at SPC, whenever you come here, you stay here for a long time. It really is like a career goal for a lot of people to be here.

When I was a teenager, I already knew I wanted to work here, and I was fascinated by severe storms. And so I would go online, and I'd read SPC outlooks, and I'd see the names at the bottom of the product, and you start recognizing those over time.

So when I was a senior in high school, I came and visited the University of Oklahoma and visited the Storm Prediction Center. And one of the first people that I met when visiting SPC is currently a lead forecaster here. And so it's really kind of surreal that some of the names that I recognized in the severe weather world and kind of aspired to be, I'm actually working with now.

Wheeler: I imagine it feels really cool to be training for lead forecaster. Have you done more training shifts since you issued your watch?

Leitman: I haven't done any more yet, but I have some scheduled in March and April. And so as we get into the course of severe weather season, especially here in the plains, I should be all trained up and ready to fill in as needed.

Wheeler: So there might be, like, the first tornado watch issued by a woman sometime soon?

Leitman: Yeah. Yeah, that would be the case.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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