Mike’s Background

I realized soon after putting my CV online that it wasn’t really suitable to explain my real background.  The CV says something about your formal education, papers you’ve published and the likes, but this is really only a small fraction of an individual’s experiences.  For someone reading our website, you may well wonder why the focus of this website (natural history, travel) is not exactly what I worked on for most of my career.

I became interested in weather from my brother – while I was in elementary school.  I grew up in La Jolla, California, a northern coastal suburb of San Diego, after my parents moved to the town from Montreal, Canada when I was four.  My brother, three years older, interested me in weather, astronomy (we built two telescopes), geology, but not aspects of biology – those I got from neighbors or from High School school friends.  I was a “birder” since elementary school, and an active “amateur astronomer”.   My parents took us to the national parks of the western US, ranging from Seattle  to Taos, on annual summer “road trips”.

A summer course I took at the end of 9th grade was pivotal in my life’s trajectory.  Being in La Jolla, and living only just over a mile from the ocean, was good for laying at the beach on the summer school break, but I wasn’t really aware of what lived at the beach.  A summer marine biology course was offered by the High School and I was convinced to enroll.  The 6-week, all morning course with frequent early morning field trips to the beach and the many habitats I wasn’t aware of was very interesting.  I became aquainted with a student in the class (Henrik Kibak, now professor at CSUMB), whom I would later take other courses with (at nearby junior colleges), and we did a project to identify the marine algae of the La Jolla peninsula.  Something like 57 species we identified with the help of field guides and this was my first real introduction to taxonomy.  We took short courses in field botany (university extension courses for the general public) over the next couple of years and I became interested in cacti (with Henrik’s motivation) and other native plants from the California Native Plant Society and from the taxonomy- and field-oriented botany courses we took.

It might have ended there – me becoming a botanist or the likes, but I was following in the footsteps of my brother – who went straight towards Physics.  So I took the route to the “hard” sciences, having in the back of my mind that I could always do botany if I had a background in Physics….  Such was the mind of a somewhat innocent and ill-informed youth!  Well, I started a Physics program at the nearby university (U/California at San Diego) but I became more interested in the Earth Science courses that were being offered there.  Unfortunately, I was limited in the courses I could take in San Diego, so I transferred to UC Berkeley for more courses and a specific degree program in Geophysics.  This was interesting, but focused mostly on seismology – not surprisingly.

I might have been destined to work for an oil company, using seismic techniques to prospect for oil.  But fate stepped in.  Because I had taken many college mathematics courses while I was still in High School  (I took math courses during some of my summer vacation periods and thus advanced faster in this way) I had the option to take several “elective” courses during my year at Berkeley.  One of these courses was titled “The Humid Tropics” taught by a Brazilian geographer.  That got me really interested in the tropics – even more than I was already.  Then,  I took a basic weather and climate course taught by climatologist Orman Granger.  This course explained to me many of the weather-related observations I had noted since elementary school days.   Up to that point I had not understood much about the atmosphere – only how to “read the sky” and simple concepts.

Since the climate and weather course had been such an eye-opener, and because the geophysics field seemed to revolve around diagnosing seismic waves from infrequent earthquakes and “watching” continents drift around ever so slowly (this was pre-GPS days remember), my interest started to move towards a greater interest in the atmosphere.  I saw opportunities for graduate study on the bulletin boards and rather than spend another year at Berkeley taking more elective courses (I already had what was required to graduate), I decided to apply to three schools to study meteorology or atmospheric science.  I was accepted to all three, but choose the University of Miami because 1) the National Hurricane Center was there, 2) Miami was the most “tropical” location, and 3) Miami seemed like a nice place!  The other options had been Los Angeles (too close to home) and Florida State University.

Well, to make a long story short, eleven (yes – 11) years later I had a PhD in Meteorology from Florida State University.  I had spent 3 months in India, flown into hurricanes and monsoon depressions, and even gotten married – to my wife of now 33 years.

To see what I did, and the kinds of subjects I worked on while I was “gainfully employed” please see my CV.  What is not evident from this vita is that I was able to travel very extensively around parts of the world where I wanted to travel (as opposed to “business” travelers).  During these travels I explored many interesting aspects of natural history, from volcanoes in the Andes and Hawaii to succulent plants from South Africa or the altiplano of Bolivia.  And the most fortunate aspect of these travels was that nearly all were done with my wife Rosario, who helped with innumberable aspects of my actual field work activities and with the personal travels.  Much of The Naturalist’s Travel Page is based on experience gained during such travels – or on more recent travels returning to regions first seen during my work travel.

Fast forward to 2013.  Although I very much enjoyed my work and challenges for most of my career, I took early retirement from NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory to pursue my other interests.  I am still doing work on weather and climate topics, but with a different focus.  I am focusing on biogeography and climate information – something I had been tangentially working on for some of the last years of my employment at NOAA.  However, they were rarely part of my official duties, so in the end, to have full freedom to pursue whatever I thought would be most interesting – and most important (education) – I took an opportunity for early retirement.  I’m just not intellectually retired yet.