The Alumni Interview: Paul Sirvatka

“A storm is an amazing experience—there’s curiosity, excitement, the hunt, the conquest,” says storm chaser Paul Sirvatka ’85 LAS. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane)
The veteran storm chaser on the adrenaline rush, the thrill of teaching and knowing when it’s time to turn around.

When I was a kid, I loved storms. Any time there was severe weather—thunderstorms or snowstorms—I went nuts. My dad and I used to take benches from the garage at our home in Glen Ellyn [Ill.], and sit and watch storms come out of the southwest. Sometimes, when I would be punished—no TV for a week—I’d hide in the pantry and try to watch the weather report on TV. By sixth grade, that fascination with weather was cemented in me. In addition to the visceral excitement, a lot of it was—and still is—the intrigue of trying to figure out what’s going on with the weather. I loved the idea of forecasting. I remember telling my mom and dad, “There’s going to be a tornado in this storm”—and one did hit Oak Brook [Ill.]. That was based on my gut instinct. After junior high, people started asking me to predict the weather.

This is my 27th year at the College of DuPage [in Glen Ellyn], where I established the meteorology program, which includes storm-chasing classes. I earned my master’s in meteorology at Florida State University in 1987 and began teaching at COD in the fall. In 1989, we started our storm-chasing classes, the first such classes held anywhere in the nation for undergraduates.

Teaching is so full and rich that it’s the ultimate for me. But when we go storm chasing, there is something awe-inspiring about being surrounded by nature. I love the fact that I’ve shown hundreds of people a side of the world they would never have seen without taking my classes. When the students actually see a thunderstorm or tornado developing, it changes their perspective about weather.

I started out majoring in engineering at Illinois. You could do meteorology on the side, so I took Introduction to Meteorology. Erik Rasmussen, who today is one of the world’s leading tornado researchers, was a T.A. for the class. He brought in a video of a storm chase in Oklahoma. I was so amazed by it that I said, “Oh, I want to do that!” What I’m doing today—teaching and storm chasing—is because of Erik. On one of our first storm-chasing trips, in 1989, we were in Kansas and our van got hit by lightning, which blew out two tires. In a separate incident, our windshield got smashed when we hit a pheasant. People at COD were like, “What are you doing to our vehicles?” I told them, “We’re storm chasing.” At that time, nobody knew what a storm chaser was. It wasn’t until the movie Twisterwas released in 1996 that “storm chaser” entered the vernacular.

Now we have two vans equipped with TVs, two-way radios and computers for GPS, radar and forecasting. Every spring we make five storm-chasing trips with 14 students. COD is one of the leaders in Web information for weather forecasters worldwide. The government and the military use our satellite, radar and weather-modeling pages.

My interests have always been divided between meteorology and music. Most people don’t think of scientists as being creative. When I teach, I do a lot of theatrics, visual demonstrations. I try to find entertaining ways to explain hard-core science.

What do students want from their college experience? They really want to use their minds, they want to be engaged, they want to be challenged. When we go into the field and they see a thunderstorm or tornado developing, that expands their minds even further about the things we’ve talked about in the classroom. I’ve chased thousands of storms throughout the central U.S. I know every town, every road. So I have to remember the excitement of experiencing severe weather from the perspective of a student who has never been out there.

A lot of chasers are there for the adrenaline rush. There’s a lot of ego-driven chasing, people who want to get close to the storm, to get pictures. It’s like a competition. To say that we’re not all enjoying the adrenaline rush would be a lie. A storm is an amazing experience—there’s curiosity, excitement, the hunt, the conquest. All those things are part of it emotionally, for the educator and student, too. When our classes are in the field, the primary focus is to observe nature, to educate students. However, my No. 1 concern is always safety. Things happen that you cannot foresee, but I’ve never felt that we were going to get hit by or die in a tornado. There have been times, though, when I’ve said, “I think we’re vulnerable right now.” That’s when you take your escape route.