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Modern meteorology would not be what it is today without contributions from Pauline (Polly) Morrow Austin PhD ’42, a longtime director of MIT’s Weather and Radar Research Project. Last month, MIT recognized her influence on the field of weather radar with a centennial celebration of her birth. Throughout the day, MIT faculty, students, and Austin's friends and family gathered in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) to remember her work, share personal moments, and discuss current weather and climate-related research.
The events of the day built to the unveiling of an exhibit on the 16th floor showcasing Austin’s meticulous application of radar to weather study and to MIT’s role in its development. A generous gift from an MIT alum and one of Austin’s longtime colleagues made the exhibit — as well as new equipment for the Synoptic Meteorology Lab, including a weather camera, weather stations, and a display screen for meteorological data — possible, all in Austin's honor.
“The glass ceiling was not something that Polly acknowledged and continuously broke,” said Austin's daughter, Doris Austin Lerner.
As one of the first women to graduate from MIT with a doctorate in physics and work in the field of weather radar, Austin set the bar high. She came to MIT in 1939 with degrees in mathematics and physics, and began working with Professor Julius Adams Stratton, a future president of MIT, on electromagnetic theory and radar, which was developed in England during World War II. In order to develop the technology further, radar research was moved to MIT, where Austin became involved.
She joined the Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab) at MIT, studying the reflection of megahertz radiowaves off of the ionosphere to extend Long Range Navigation (LORAN) from ground waves to skywaves, shared Earle Williams, principal research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, during the course of the day. This classified work was crucial to wartime efforts and brought Austin recognition from The New York Times in an article, “Special Roles Vital to Nation Filled by Women Scholars.”
After completing her thesis work on the “Propagation of electromagnetic pulses in the ionosphere,” and with Stratton’s encouragement, Austin joined MIT’s Weather Radar Research Project at its inception in 1946. This was the first critical investigation into how radar technology could be used to monitor weather; she focused on comparing measurements of actual rainfall with those found using radar. “She really had a love affair of measuring rainfall with radar and doing it quantitatively, and she did that for decades. The seeds of that came from the Rad Lab, but she was really working on that until 2004 when she was at MIT the last time,” said Williams. Later, Austin went on to direct the Weather Radar Research Project until she retired. She died in 2011 at age 94.
The scope of Austin's research extended further yet, and arguably she’s best known for her work on a weather radar phenomenon called the “bright band.” This is a feature seen on radar that delineates between rain and snow as you go vertically in the atmosphere, and helps with weather pattern classification. Her work here is still referenced today and can literally be seen across America. “The reason that the whole United States is covered with s-band radar, it’s probably safe to say, [is] because of Polly Austin. In Europe, there are many networks of c-band radars, but Polly knew that if you wanted accurate [rain] measurements, you had to go with s-band,” said Williams. Austin was also instrumental in installing radomes on MIT's Green Building (Building 54), home of EAPS.
Austin also chaired the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Radar Meteorology, and in 1974, she was the first woman to be elected a councilor.
Austin, as her students remembered her, was more than a brilliant mind; she was a mentor and scrupulous advisor. Looking on a photo of Austin, Robert A. Houze Jr., professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, remarked, “There’s the intelligence in the eyes, the smile, and the soft look that sort of hides the fact she was as tough of an advisor as you’d ever imagine, which was to my great benefit.” She questioned results with a fine-toothed comb, provided constructive feedback, and demanded clarity of thought in scientific writing — an experience each of her former students was all too familiar with. But all present at EAPS on Pauline Austin Day expressed a high level of appreciation for the opportunity to work with her. Houze summed it up: “I’m not exaggerating that this mentorship has had a lasting influence that goes right up through today.”
Several of her students, children, and contemporaries shared moments spent with Austin and described MIT's involvement with radar development. These included Howard Bluestein, Robert C. Copeland, Kerry Emanuel, Robert A. Houze Jr., Lodovica Illari, Frank D. Marks Jr., William M. Silver, Melvin L. Stone, Earle Williams, Marilyn M. Wolfson, and Austin's daughters Doris Austin Lerner and Carol West.
Following remembrances, attendees of the celebration explored current departmental research through a poster session. Presenters included Vince Agard, Brian Green, Mukund Gupta, Michael McClellan, Diamilet Perez-Betancourt, Madeleine Youngs, Emily Zakem and Maria Zawadowicz. They also toured the Synoptic Lab, posed for photos in front of Austin’s radomes on the roof of the Green Building, and watched as her daughters unveiled the new exhibit honoring Austin and MIT’s radar work.
Thinking back on Austin, William Silver of the MIT Weather Radar Research Project described her as “mild mannered” — as many before him had done — but noted that Superman’s Clark Kent shared a similar disposition. However, he noted that Austin’s power emanated from her intellect: “Now, that great laboratory is long gone. All that remains, the iconic radomes on the roof. … And as that great laboratory fades from the memory of this building, this Institute, let’s at least not forget Pauline Austin, Class of ’42, PhD physics — one of the founders of radar meteorology [with a] mind of steel.”