PAOC Spotlights

Pauline Austin: Celebrating a Pioneer of Weather Radar

Tue January 10th, 2017
Lauren Hinkel

Made possible by a generous gift, a new, permanent exhibit was unveiled in December, honoring the life and achievements of Pauline M. Austin, PhD ‘42, who served as Director of MIT’s Weather Radar Lab for over 25 years.

Did you ever wonder about the history of the radome on top of the Green Building and what exactly is inside? Thanks to the new exhibit unveiled on the 16th floor at a special event in honor of Dr. Pauline M. Austin, you can now find out.

On December 1st, a group of alumni and friends gathered with the family of Dr. Pauline (Polly) Austin PhD ’42, an early Director of MIT’s Weather Radar Research Project, to celebrate the opening of a new exhibit in the Green Building that honors Dr. Austin’s contributions to the field of meteorology and weather radar.

Thanks to an anonymous gift from an MIT alum who worked with Dr. Austin for many years, EAPS was delighted to be able to acquire new tools for its students of Synoptic Meteorology (e.g. a weather camera for the roof, new weather stations, and a large screen to display meteorological data) and also to install a handsome, museum-style exhibit on the 16th floor of the Green Building to honor Dr. Austin and highlight MIT’s role in the development of weather radar.

“Modern meteorology owes a lot to Polly Austin and MIT’s Weather Radar Lab”, noted Lodovica Illari, Senior Lecturer in Meteorology in EAPS, who oversaw the symposium and the design of the new exhibit.

“Polly was responsible for installing the radome on the roof of the Green Building. She worked for years on rain bands and obtained the first quantitative estimates of precipitation using radar signals – today we take it for granted that we have radar to track storms and precipitation. Polly’s work made that possible.

Pauline Morrow Austin, one of MIT’s earliest women PhD graduates in Physics, joined the Weather Radar Lab in 1946 and was its Director from 1956-1980. During World War II, she was recruited for classified research in MIT’s Radiation Lab, and was named by the New York Times as one of the top female scientists contributing to the war effort.

Despite this attention to her work, during her long career Dr. Austin never sought personal recognition. As one of a handful of women in her field, and the spouse of eminent MIT Professor James M. Austin (Boston’s first TV meteorologist), she worked “under the radar,” dedicating herself to her work and her family.

In addition to her daughters Doris Austin Lerner and Dr. Carol West, speakers at the Pauline M. Austin Day 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 and Marilyn M. Wolfson. After the talks, a student poster session and the unveiling of the exhibit, attendees enjoyed a tour of the Synoptic Teaching Lab and many braved the cold weather and a trip in the tiny, rusty elevator that goes up to the roof for photo opportunities beside the radome.

Reflecting on the day, Dr. West concluded: “I had an idea of the influence my mother had on some of her former students..however, it was a very different experience to have a group together in person talking about that influence. Although Mother always said she didn't want "any fuss made over her”, she would have loved the wonderful celebration. It focused on research issues that grew out of her own interests and how her students were following them up, redefining and updating them, and passing them on to another generation.”

Special thanks to student poster presenters: Vince Agard, Brian Green, Mukund Gupta, Michael McClellan, Diamilet Perez-Betancourt, Madeleine Youngs, Emily Zakem and Maria Zawadowicz.

More photos of the Pauline Morrow Austin Life and Legacy -- A Centenary Celebration can be found here.