Dr. Imke Durre, Climatologist


It's 9:00am in Asheville, North Carolina, and Dr. Imke Durre, a research scientist at the National Climatic Data Center, is already hard at work. She is organizing a collection of weather balloon measurements from around the world into a dataset. Analyzing this dataset will allow Imke and other climatologists to forecast possible trends or find evidence of global warming and other climatic phenomena. Periodically she runs her fingers along her computer's braille display to check her work and then, satisfied with her progress, returns to her programming.

Act One

Imke was born October 5, 1972 in Karlsruhe, Germany. She was born blind, with cataracts in both eyes. After undergoing surgery she could see from one eye, but secondary glaucoma set in when she was three and her sight was gone.

Imke grew up in a traditional family. Her father was a professor of computer science at the University of Karlsruhe and her mother stayed home, caring for Imke and her younger brother. Imke's parents did not shelter her from the world on account of her blindness; rather they made sure that she got the same experiences as other kids her age. She says:

"My parents have always provided every possible kind of support and encouragement. From when I was a small child, they not only allowed, but encouraged me to move around, play, and explore like my brother and other sighted peers, and they made sure I was never idle. When I was 7, my mother taught me how to climb one of the trees in our yard. The other two were soon to follow."
These childhood experiences also helped refine Imke's blindness skills. Her understanding of orientation and of the concept of space and things existing in space was exercised early. When she was very young she would make patterns of various shapes on a game board. "When I had finished the pattern," she recalled, "my father turned around the board to see if I still knew where each shape was located when the pattern was reversed."

As was expected of blind children in Germany, Imke began her educational odyssey by attending a school for the blind. Her parents wanted her to attend a regular school instead, and they started making arrangements. Imke's father knew there had to be a technological way to ease Imke's integration into the regular school system. His goal was a system that allowed Imke to attend classes without her teachers needing to know braille. Personal computers had recently become available, so he devised a state-of-the-art system that incorporated an Apple IIe® and a VersaBraille®. He had to invent software to allow the two units to communicate with each other. When finished, he had created a perfect tool for Imke's educational needs. She could read texts from the computer on the braille display of the VersaBraille®. She could type her homework and tests into the computer and print regular text hardcopies for her teachers. It wasn't until Imke was ten that the computer system was ready, and her parents finally found a local public school whose principal was receptive to the idea and willing to allow Imke to attend. Meanwhile, her parents saw her interest in numbers and geography and helped it along, creating or purchasing tactile maps for her. Imke's introduction to climatology came soon after she started attending the regular school. "It was when my mother read temperatures of different places from the weather page of the newspaper to me that I began to be interested in weather data." Her mother read her the weather page on a regular basis, and it wasn't long before Imke knew that she wanted to follow a career in atmospheric science.

From 1983-1987 she attended that local public school. Her mother was her transcriber, brailling texts and handouts or else typing them into the computer. In 1987 the family moved to the United States. Imke's new school had a vision resource teacher to take care of the transcribing duties, which allowed her mother to attend graduate school, pursuing a master's degree in special education/rehabilitation teaching of the visually impaired.

Imke spent her first school year in the U.S. in Texas, attending ninth grade at a Dallas junior high. This was a considerable change from her previous life in Germany. One example of the transition Imke had to make was in language. She went from hearing English during English class at her German school, spoken with a British accent, to hearing English during every class at her American school, spoken with a Texas accent. "I found myself pondering how to take accurate notes in math class when I wasn't sure whether the teacher was referring to the letter 'a' or the number 'eight'."

In addition to the dialect difficulties, Imke also had to face the expected problem of taking classes taught in a foreign language: vocabulary. How do you answer a true/false question when you don't know the meanings of all of the words in the question? How do you learn the meaning of a vocabulary word when you don't understand the words in the definition? For Imke, the answer was to apply herself, through extra time spent studying, diligent attention to details, and maintaining a sense of humor about it all.

The family moved again that summer, so Imke attended high school in Fort Collins, Colorado. She also let go of her old Apple IIe and moved on to IBM compatible PCs. She had one at home, and two at the school, one on each floor. The computers she kept at school were set up (with a monitor and printer) on sturdy metal carts-the kind usually used for audiovisual equipment such as overhead projectors. This allowed them to be wheeled from class to class. Imke continued to use her VersaBraille with these computers, and her vision resource teacher hired students to type worksheets and other handouts into the computer. Because the computer automatically displayed regular text and braille, this task didn't require knowledge of braille and was an easy job for anyone who could type.

Imke's fascination with weather combined with her drive to learn and crystalized:

"By the time I had reached high school, my goal was to major in mathematics or statistics, obtain a PhD in atmospheric science, and pursue a career as a scientist researching climate."
She kept her focus on this goal all through high school, proving that she had a real calling to the field of climatology. Imke raced through the math classes offered at her school, completing calculus while still a junior. Since the high school didn't offer any further math classes, Imke's calculus teacher arranged for Imke to take the next semester of calculus-- for both high school and college credit-- as an independent study course during her senior year.

At home, Imke continued to investigate weather data. She selected ten cities and every day she recorded their temperature and precipitation information, read to her from the daily newspaper by her parents. She kept track of these cities throughout her high school years, generating summaries of the data each month.

"I generated summary statistics... both because I enjoyed generating statistics and because this exercise allowed me to learn about geographical differences in average temperature, the amount of rainfall, and the frequency of extreme events."

In her senior year, Imke took advantage of her high school's internship program to get some real-life job experience: she became a volunteer intern for a local meteorologist. She was given a computer disk with 100 years of daily weather observations for Fort Collins and told to "create a climatological record book." This activity gave her some practical experience in collating and summarizing data, and, as we will see later, helped to get Imke her first real-life job in climatology.

She had an interest, motivation, and a plan. We'll find out about Imke's experiences with higher education after the intermission, where Imke is going to answer a few questions about climatology!


What is Climatology?

"Climatology is the study of climate, that is, average or long-term weather conditions. Some important areas of study in climatology are seasonal, year-to-year, and decade-to-decade changes in weather, the potential causes of such changes, and the effects of climate variations and change on society and industry."

What does a Climatologist do?

"Climatologists analyze average weather conditions, research potential causes of variations in climate, assemble weather observations into datasets useful for the study of climate, and provide data and information on local, regional, national, and global climate conditions to researchers, industry, and the general public."

How much education does it take to be a Climatologist?

"One needs at least a Bachelor's degree in a physical science that includes coursework in meteorology and/or climatology. A Master's or PhD degree in atmospheric science or a related field provides a larger variety of career options than a Bachelor's, particularly if one is interested in pursuing research. Students interested in the field of climatology may be able to obtain internships or summer jobs with climatologists at a local university, their state's or region's climate center, or other agencies."

Act Two

After graduating from high school Imke attended Yale University, where-- according to plan-- she majored in applied mathematics, with a concentration in geology and geophysics. College life required a great deal of change and adjustment. Like many other young freshmen, Imke had to get used to living in the dormitory; used to living away from her home, her family, and her friends.

"One place where my blindness affected my social life was in the dining hall. When choosing a place to sit, I was not able to look around for people I knew. As a result, I prefered to sit at one of the long tables in the center of the dining hall, where I met many interesting people."

Naturally, she gradually built new friendships. She became involved in extracurricular activities, and even got used to the dining hall food.

Academically, Imke now carried a laptop computer and the refreshable braille display from class to class. She used it to take notes, do her homework, and to take tests. Technological advances in scanners and in optical character recognition (OCR) reduced the need for braille transcribers or typists. Yale's disabled student services office arranged to have her course materials scanned by students, allowing Imke to access them as electronic texts.

"On occasion, I also used taped books, but I much prefered electronic texts over tapes, particularly in the natural sciences. I asked professors to read aloud anything they wrote on the board, so that I could take accurate notes during class."

One semester, on the first day of class, a professor, who obviously did not notice that Imke had no residual vision, suggested that she change seats, as she would not be able to see the board from where she had chosen to sit. Surprised and more than a little amused by this statement, Imke moved to a different, more centrally-located seat. "It did not occur to me until later that what I should have asked him is whether he could show me a place from where I could see the board!"

During the summer breaks at Yale, Imke got summer jobs near her family's home. In 1992 and 1993, she worked at the Colorado Climate Center in Fort Collins. In 1994, her family having moved to Phoenix, Arizona while she was away, she worked for the National Severe Storms Laboratory on site at the Salt River Project, a Phoenix power company.

Imke landed the Fort Collins job by identifying and seizing an opportunity. It was during June, 1991, just after Imke had graduated from high school; Fort Collins was undergoing a heat wave. One morning there was an article in the paper in which the local Assistant State Climatologist, when asked what was the earliest date that Fort Collins had a temperature over 100 degrees, was quoted as saying that he could not immediately provide that information. Imke wasted no time taking advantage of this opportunity.

Remember that "climatological record book" she created as part of her internship? She went to her computer and accessed that data. Within a few hours she had put together a summary of the statistics and submitted it to the newspaper. Her summary appeared in print the very next day.

"A week later, I received a letter from the climatologist, thanking me for my contribution and encouraging me to contact him if he could ever be of assistance. I called him up and received a tour of the Colorado Climate Center that same summer, a summer job for the next two summers, and a friendship for eternity."

Imke received her BS in 1994 and then-- still according to plan-- moved to Seattle to pursue a PhD at the University of Washington. "I chose UW," she explains, "primarily because of the quality of its atmospheric science program and the experience of the professor who was to become my thesis advisor, a decision I have never regretted."

Living in Seattle and attending graduate school was new and exciting, but it was not as big of a change for Imke as one might think. UW is a much bigger university, with more than 40,000 students compared to Yale's 10,000, but a graduate student is busy being immersed in a specific field and out of necessity tends to associate mainly with the relatively small community of their department. "I quickly bonded with my classmates with whom I attended first-year courses. I also made friends with officemates and other students in the department."

Imke also rented an apartment just off campus, which resulted in a marked change from her lifestyle in the dormitory at Yale. She put her independence and self-sufficiency to the ultimate test--living alone. Grocery shopping, housekeeping, paying bills-- all of these needed to be dealt with in addition to her classes at the university. Of course, Imke was prepared for the responsibility. "Since my graduation from high school, my parents have... helped and encouraged me to become independent and self-sufficient." Living on one's own also provides valuable life experiences, such as the time Imke unknowingly shared her apartment with a pigeon for four days, or the time she picked up a mysterious something off of the floor only to find out that it was a live wasp that did not care for or appreciate Imke's attempts to identify it.

Imke's first two years of graduate school were spent in intensive coursework. She found the work to be similar to college, and she spent her time studying and doing homework. One big difference occurred at the end of the first year. All of the first-year students had to take an intense, two-day "qualifying exam" on the topics covered during the entire year of classes. During that first summer, and when she wasn't busy with coursework during her second year, she conducted research on various aspects of climate variability, searching for a suitable thesis topic. At the beginning of her third year, she started to examine temperature variations in locations throughout the United States during the past 50-100 years. This research ultimately led to her PhD thesis. The number of classes Imke took gradually decreased until she finished her required coursework during her fourth year.

Despite her intense coursework, Imke also was active in the various extracurricular parts of graduate student life. Examples of these activities include: organizing her department's annual "Research Orientation Seminar" for new students; meeting with prospective students visiting the department; and working in the department's outreach program to local schools.

Outside of her department-related activities, Imke devoted a lot of time and effort to the University of Washington's DO-IT program (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). This program is designed to help high school students with disabilities pursue academics and careers, and also promotes the use of technology to maximize the independence, productivity and participation of people with disabilities. Imke used her personal example and her optimism and sense of humor to mentor young students struggling to get on the path to success.

In addition to her mentoring duties, she also traveled to local elementary schools and gave disability awareness "show and tell" sessions, demonstrating adaptive technology and giving many kids their first interaction with a blind person. She also has participated in DO-IT's Summer Study programs, teaching classes such as "Up, Up, and Away into the Atmosphere" and "Cooking With Sunshine." Imke's Summer Study involvement also included leading discussion groups regarding accommodations for people with visual impairments.

And in her spare time, once her coursework had tapered off, Imke enrolled in a correspondence course to become a Library of Congress certified proofreader of braille books. She completed the certification in early 1999, but she had actually started working earlier, in 1997, proofreading braille math and science textbooks for the Arizona Instructional Resource Center, where her mother is the director. At about this same time, Imke began championing refreshable braille displays and promoting their use by students. In collaboration with her mother, Imke released COBRA-- the eight-dot braille code that she had been using in one form or another since 1983. Using eight-dot cells allows the COBRA user direct braille access to electronic texts and allows print readers to instantly read the student's text output. Find out more about COBRA at: http://www.shellworld.net/~cobra.

Despite all of this extra-curricular activity, Imke never neglected her studies.

A major requirement of a PhD degree is the dissertation or PhD thesis. This is much more than a simple research paper, as it has to add something new to the field of knowledge. First, Imke had to get her research approved by a committee of professors, then write the dissertation, then present her project in an hour-long department seminar and defend it before the same committee of professors who had approved the research. Imke proposed her thesis to her committee in January of 1998 and successfully defended it in September of 2000. She was now Imke Durre, PhD, and in October of 2000 she took a position as a post-doctoral research associate at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

Act Three

The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency under the Department of Commerce. Imke came to NCDC as a post-doctoral research associate supported by the National Research Council and assumed a permanent position as Physical Scientist there at the end of July 2001. "I spend much of my workday writing and executing computer programs that process climate data or perform statistical analyses on such data," Imke said, when asked to describe her work. "After running a program, I evaluate the files generated by the program for accuracy and decide what the next step in the analysis should be."

Where does climate data come from? Imke's current project deals with data collected by weather balloons.

"Weather balloons are helium-filled balloons launched once, twice, or more times a day at more than 1000 locations around the world. Instrument packages, called radiosondes, are attached to these balloons and are used to gather observations of temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction as the balloon rises up to an altitude of 20, 30, or more km into the atmosphere."
NCDC has an archive of these observations collected during the past 60 years. Imke is currently creating a new and improved dataset of these weather balloon measurements, putting the data into a form that is more easily used by researchers and other interested parties.

Imke also keeps up-to-date with new developments in the climatology field. She reads the professional journals and occasionally submits articles of her own. She attends meetings and she consults with her colleagues at NCDC and, via email or telephone, with scientists from around the country and all over the world.

Imke still uses a refreshable braille display to access her computer. She explains that "the braille display provides me an accurate representation of computer programs and tables of numbers which would be more difficult to navigate with speech output." The internet is also a useful tool:

"In keeping up with the scientific literature, I rely heavily on online versions of journals in my field. When an article I need to read is not available online, I request a print copy of it from the in-house library and scan it into the computer."
Imke also uses a Tektronix Phaser 850® printer. Because it "applies a waxy substance to the page," the Phaser is suitable for printing tactile graphs.

When she's not hard at work on things climatological, Imke enjoys playing the piano, reading, cooking, playing cards, Scrabble® and other games, and solving puzzles. She also makes time to volunteer in a special needs classroom at a local elementary school, and even though she now lives in North Carolina, Imke still is involved with UW's DO-IT program: "I am still an online mentor for the DO-IT program" she explains. "As Lead Mentor for DO-IT participants with visual impairments, I monitor and initiate discussions on the electronic mailing list for this subgroup and also communicate one-on-one with students in the program." She also continues to proofread braille math and science books.

We turn our closing words over to Imke, who has some "mentoring" for our readers:

"I would like to encourage students who are blind to pursue their career interests, however unusual they may be. As you pursue your educational and career goals, take responsibility for your own success, learn from your mistakes, be open to the advice from others, and be ready to adapt to unanticipated situations."

Internet Resources about climate:

The National Climatic Data Center web site includes links to reports on current climatic conditions under the link "In the Spotlight."

The web page of Imke's project (Warning! - Very technical!).

The Climate Diagnostic Center's list of resources.

National Weather Service.

Curricular Resources in Weather and Climate at the Community Learning Network.

Encyclopedia of the Atmospheric Environment.

Eisenhower National Clearinghouse: a list of websites with climate lesson plans for educators (K-12).

Resources in Atmospheric Sciences prepared by Dr. Bart Geerts and Dr. Edward Linacre. Contains short articles on climate and weather, links to information on the internet, and real-time weather displays.


blind_schoolb said…
I attended ISB.

Daniel Watkins said…
Thank you for providing this biography! Dr. Durre's story is inspiring. I rely on her weather balloon archive project for my thesis work, and that project is an amazing achievement even without consideration of any visual impairment.

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