James Foster (’17) knew he wanted to chase storms and predict the weather ever since he was a child. With the help of a bachelor’s degree in geography from Ball State, he’s now living his dream—and he gets paid to do it.
“I don’t know what it is—you’re just born with it. It sounds really sappy and cliché, but you sort of are,” said Foster. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to do weather and meteorology. I definitely would run outside and look at the clouds and say, ‘Mom, there’s a storm coming!’”
The Business of Forecasting
Foster doesn’t actually spend his days driving out to the heart of a thunderstorm to look for funnel clouds—although he did get to do that when he was part of the Ball State storm chasing group—but he does chase them in a scientific sense through radar, weather maps and various other data sources from his office in Wichita, Kansas.
As a storm warning meteorologist at AccuWeather for Business, Foster forecasts everything from gusts of wind and heavy snowfall to destructive weather like hurricanes barreling toward the American coastline.
“It can get kind of hectic sometimes, especially when you have a lot going on—like a landfalling hurricane.”
While organizations like the National Weather Service alert the general public to inclement weather that reaches certain thresholds (like winds reaching dangerous speeds), Foster’s clients include business and organizations throughout the country that rely on customized forecasting services that often aren’t reported by the NWS.
“We are way more personalized on what they get,” said Foster, who serves businesses such as railroads and coastal companies that need real-time updates on tropical storms. “It’s very, very, specific criteria that we watch out for.”
Chasing Opportunity at Ball State
After transferring to Ball State following his freshman year at another university, Foster immediately found a home within the Department of Geography.
“It was perfect and exactly what I wanted at Ball State.”
Not wanting to waste a minute jumpstarting his career in meteorology, Foster worked as a lab assistant and tutor in the on-campus meteorology and climatology lab, helped forecast weather conditions for Ball State football games in real time, joined the Gamma Theta Upsilon geography honors society and cofounded the Ball State chapter of the American Meteorological Society. He was also involved in outreach projects like teaching meteorology concepts to elementary school students.
And, of course, he joined the campus storm chasing group, where he met new friends, learned about storm chasing safety and even got to hunt down a handful of thunderstorms—although he never witnessed a tornado in person (which he says is actually a good thing).
“It’s good to have that on your resume,” he added, noting that his employer cited his experiencing on the storm chasing team as a reason they hired him. “It was definitely a great experience.”
Advice for Future Meteorologists
As exciting as it is to chase storms and monitor hazardous weather conditions in real time, meteorology also requires a strong foundation in scientific concepts like geography, climatology and data analysis. Foster advises students studying geography and meteorology to be patient when learning these concepts, which can be tough at times.
“Have patience because you’re not going to be right all the time, especially when you first start…It really is hard when you get into the grainy details of what actually happens. Keep it at because you’ll get better.”
He also encourages students to seek out their professors for help and to never hesitate to ask questions.
“There are very smart people at Ball State,” Foster said. “And they will help you. That’s one thing I loved about Ball State, are the professors. It’s amazing how cool every professor is and how willing they are to help and how much they want you to learn.”
Foster went on to earn his master’s degree in geography from Ohio University, but there are many meteorology jobs—like his own—that do not require graduate-level education. What is most important, he says, is getting involved as a student.
“Join the chase team, join (Gamma Theta Upsilon), do something where you’re getting yourself out there. I can’t stress this enough, how important it was.”
And finally, know that there is no ordinary day in meteorology—but that’s what is so exciting about the profession.
“I don’t really have a day-to-day. Every day is different things,” said Foster. “Sometimes everything you learned can get thrown out the window.”
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