Alumni Profile: Joan Von Ahn
In 1952, despite having absolutely no background in meteorology, Carol Reed was hired as the country’s first “weather girl,” as female forecasters are sometimes still known. Physically attractive, with a perky demeanor, she set the tone for the many other women later hired by various stations in an attempt to keep audiences tuned in. (A scholarly study of the history of women weathercasters in an American Meteorological Society journal documented that the women, uniformly young and pretty, were considered little more than a gimmick by network executives.)
As a grade-schooler, Joan Von Ahn naturally had no inkling of network hiring practices or the challenges facing women in that era. What she did have, however, was a deep love for a children’s book by Jack Bechdolt, Oliver Becomes a Weatherman, whose protagonist, Oliver Ott, sets up his own home weather bureau. “That settled it,” she says. “I had always loved watching snow and rain, and I became determined to become a meteorologist like Oliver.” (She still has her copy of that book, which she originally purchased at a school book fair.)
Von Ahn entered NYU at a time when the University Heights campus was still in operation and subsequently completed her bachelor’s degree in meteorology and oceanography at the main campus in 1976. She was, she recalls, the sole woman in most of her classes — a state of affairs not unique to STEM-related courses of study at the time. (She found herself in a similar situation while earning a master’s degree from City College of New York.)
Von Ahn’s first professional job was with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service, where she worked to produce accurate forecasts for the aviation industry. In 1978 Maryland Public Television began airing a 15-minute program featuring detailed weather forecasts presented by NOAA meteorologists. Broadcast on PBS member stations throughout the country, the show soon garnered a devoted viewership with its hand-drawn maps and instantly recognizable yellow pointer.
Thinking the assignment might be fun, Von Ahn auditioned and was chosen as a backup meteorologist; within a year, after one of the three full-time NOAA on-air meteorologists stepped down, she took over the high-profile post. In that capacity, she prepared and presented a satellite and radar segment; current weather information about fronts and precipitation relevant to the general population; and 12, 24, and 48-hour forecasts of that information. She also prepared and presented forecasts of terminal weather, icing, and turbulence for the aviation community. “Many pilots weren’t happy at first to see a woman in that role,” she recalls, “but after a while, they saw that I was a serious forecaster who presented solid information without joking around, and I won them over.”
Her on-air gravitas did not prevent viewers from writing letters praising her earrings or complaining they didn’t care for her blouse, but Von Ahn took both the compliments and criticism in stride. Luckily, the positive feedback far outweighed any invective, and she still receives email from those who remember her fondly. On one message board for weather enthusiasts, a longtime fan recently wrote, “Back before many of you were even born there was a weather program put together in a mobile studio near Silver Spring, Maryland. There were no radar graphics, no digital motion imagery, not much of anything except three NOAA meteorologists who gave us one heck of a good look at the weather expected for the day in the ways they could, using the visuals of the day. ... Joan Von Ahn was the brunette who not only did a great job with the aviation portion of the weather presentation, but I think I fell in love with her for just being so immersed in weather as a woman.”
In 1995 the public station lost funding for the program, but Von Ahn appeared on-air again when she filled in for the on-air meteorologists at the Washington-based NBC affiliate, WRC-TV.
Later, from 2003 to 2007 she was a staff meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Ocean Prediction Center (OPC), where she quantified the impact of QuikSCAT winds on the OPC analysis, forecast and warning process. The NASA QuikSCAT (Quick Scatterometer) was an Earth observation satellite carrying the SeaWinds scatterometer. Its primary mission was to measure the surface wind speed and direction over the ice-free global oceans. “This really revolutionized weather forecasting and became an important and valuable addition to our forecast process,” Von Ahn recalls. “It was a privilege to work with QuikSCAT winds, especially because of how important it is to monitor wind speeds over remote parts of the ocean to ensure the safety of everyone engaged in maritime activity, from shipping industry professionals to the casual boater.”
She so loved her duties that when a promotion became available, Von Ahn was torn. She ultimately accepted the new post, however, becoming the program manager for the National Weather Service’s new and enhanced products and services and remaining in that capacity until retiring in 2018.
Von Ahn still keeps in touch with friends from her NYU days. “Some of them continue to remind me about an incident that happened freshman year,” she says. “I hadn’t taken a single meteorology course yet, but they knew about my aspirations, and one day as we strolled around the campus, they were teasing me to make a prediction. I said that rain would begin in about 12 to 24 hours. Unfortunately, just a few minutes later the sky opened up. My NYU friends still jokingly remind me of my ‘first forecast.’ Fortunately, my forecasting skills greatly improved after that.”
Now that she’s retired, does she still watch television weather? “Of course,” she says. “There are some wonderful female forecasters working today; you can tell they really know the science behind what they’re talking about.” In that sense, Von Ahn undeniably paved the way for them.