Exploring past, present & future: Q&A with Qin Xu

Qin Xu.
Qin Xu.

During February, as part of NOAA’s Heritage Week, NSSL will feature some of its longest-serving employees. They will share their favorite experiences through the years, and highlight some of the most significant changes they have witnessed.

Qin Xu has been a research scientist at the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory for nearly 20 years. In 2016, he received the NOAA Distinguished Career Award.

Q: How did you get into your field?
A: After I graduated from the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics with a Bachelor of Science degree in material science in the late 1960s during the “Cultural Revolution” in China, I was assigned to countryside factories to work as a mechanic and electrical technician. Due to my strong interest and curiosity in math and physics, I spent a lot of my after-work spare time teaching myself advanced mathematics and mechanics, including fluid mechanics. Then I moved back to my hometown and got a research assistant position at the Qingdao Institute of Oceanography, where I chose to work in the marine meteorology section. This was how I entered the field of meteorology.

Qin Xu in a group photo in 1979.
Qin Xu is pictured in the back row, third person from the right, in 1979. Professor Hsiao-Lan Kuo, whose seminal work inspired some of Xu’s research, is pictured in the front row, third from the right.

Q: Describe the path leading up to your current job.
A: As the graduate education system was re-established in China after the “Cultural Revolution,” I took and passed the nationwide enrollment examination and started my formal graduate education in atmospheric science at the Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Sciences and earned my master’s degree. I then continued my graduate education in meteorology at Penn State University. In 1983, I attended the First Conference on Mesoscale Processes in Norman, Oklahoma, where I met the conference chairman, Kerry Emanuel, and the director of The University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, Professor Yoshi Sasaki. As soon as I earned my doctorate, I started my post-doctoral research at CIMMS, and then worked as a research scientist and senior research scientist on various topics in mesoscale dynamics and data assimilation in collaboration with scientists at OU and the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. Because of my work on radar data assimilation, I was hired as a federal employee in 1996 by the Marine Meteorology Division of the Naval Research Laboratory at Monterey, California, where I developed a 3.5dVar method for radar data assimilation and applied it successfully to de-classified phased array radar data collected by the Navy’s shipboard SPY-1 radars in collaboration with scientists at OU, NRL and Lockheed Martin. I was then hired by NSSL to work on mesoscale dynamics, radar data quality control and assimilation for improving numerical predictions of severe storms.

Qin Xu at a meteorology conference in 1983.
Qin Xu, center, at the First Conference on Mesoscale Processes with Professor Brian J. Hoskins  in Norman in 1983.

Q: What is one of the most significant achievements of your career?
A: I developed a simple analytical model in a rigorous framework to quantify the dynamic controls of vertically sheared environmental flow on the depth and propagation speed of cold outflow (from a thunderstorm) and the shape of the outflow front. This study has inspired many subsequent studies to present time on understanding the dynamic importance of environmental wind shear in producing long-lived thunderstorms, and especially squall lines.

Q: What is it about your job that interests and engages you?
A: There are scientific and technological issues in my research that are important and often critical for quantitatively analyzing and numerically forecasting thunderstorms and tornadoes. These issues are often very challenging and difficult, and the involved difficulties, especially their mathematical and computational aspects, interest me constantly and engage me immensely.

Q: What advice would you provide to up and coming meteorologists or others in your field?
A: Find your own talents and maximize their uses to build your professional career.

Qin Xu and his family sitting around a table with former NSSL Director Edwin Kessler's family on their farm in 1984 celebrating Christmas.
Qin Xu and his family celebrating the holidays with the first NSSL Director Edwin Kessler, and his family, on the  Kessler Family Farm in 1984.

Q: What is your personal philosophy?
A: Live simply and healthfully. Always make conscious choices on what to do or not to do, and try to do the right things right. Work hard and do not be frustrated by failures.

Q: Where is your favorite place to be?
A: My favorite place to work is NSSL in the National Weather Center where in-depth scientific exchanges and consultations can be conducted easily across disciplines — even between different professions and efficiently often face-to-face in person  on storm and hazardous weather researches. My favorite place to live is Norman, Oklahoma, where living can be as simple, clean both hygienically and environmentally and time-saving as I like.

Q: Who is a famous person you have met and describe the circumstances?
A: I met several famous people whose seminal works inspired my research. I met professor H Hsiao-Lan Kuo when he visited the Beijing Institute of Atmospheric Physics and taught a course on atmospheric dynamics at the Graduate School of Academia Sinica in 1979, and I met professor Douglas K. Lilly when he visited the PSU Department of Meteorology in 1982. Their seminal studies (Lilly 1960, Mon. Wea. Rev., 88, 1-17; Kou 1961, Tellus, 13, 441-459) on conditional convective instability inspired my research on conditional symmetric instability and frontal rainbands from which I derived analytical CSI solutions in a rigorous framework for the first time (Xu 1986, Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 112, 315-334). I met professor Brian J. Hoskins during the First Conference on Mesoscale Processes in 1983. His seminal studies on frontogenesis inspired my research on moist frontogenesis and frontal rainbands.