By Jerry Zremski
NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
Updated: January 15, 2010, 8:00 AM
C. Coniglio’s dream carried him from
the snowbanks of Clarence to the
wind-swept plains of Oklahoma to the
trail of a tornado in Wyoming.
And this week, it carried him all the way to the White House.
Coniglio, 34, a Clarence native who now serves as a research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., was one of 100 winners of this year’s Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, presented Coniglio and the other up-and-coming scientists their awards Wednesday, and then the winners went off to the White House for a group picture with the president. “It was great — a real honor,” Coniglio said.
Obama said in a letter to the winners that it was well-deserved.
“You have been selected for this honor not only because of your innovative research,
but also for your demonstrated commitment to community service and public outreach,” he wrote. “Your achievements as scientists, engineers and engaged citizens are exemplary, and the value of your work is amplified by the inspiration you provide to others.”
Coniglio won the award for his work at the National Severe Storms Laboratory, where he studied storms producing damaging straight-line winds before switching to research on the atmospheric conditions that produce severe thunderstorms.
“My job is to turn research into something forecasters can use,” Coniglio said.
It’s Coniglio’s dream job. “Ever since I could remember, I was just fascinated by the lake-effect storms we would get back in Western New York,” said Coniglio, the son of Ronald and Marilyn Coniglio, now of Lancaster. “I remember seeing my father out there, shoveling snow onto snowbanks that were above his head. Every time I heard we would get lake-effect snow, I’d get excited.”
Coniglio’s fascination with the weather only grew when, in 1986, he saw a public television documentary on the “storm chasers” at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lab in Oklahoma.
After getting an undergraduate degree and witnessing more lake-effect snow at Oswego State College, Coniglio set off for the University of Oklahoma, where he got a Ph. D. that landed him the storm lab job he had been craving since childhood.
Now he works with some of the scientists featured in that decades-old public television documentary. And daunting work it can be.
In June, Coniglio and his colleagues set out for southeastern Wyoming, where they engaged in what the government called “the largest and most ambitious field experiment in history to explore tornadoes.”
The trip brought researchers a fuller understanding of how tornadoes form and brought Coniglio within about five miles of a big, ugly twister that he photographed.
“Tornadoes are very unpredictable,” he said. “I don’t like to get any closer than three miles of them.”
Even after years in Oklahoma and plenty of professional accolades for studying all sorts of severe weather, Coniglio acknowledged a continuing comfort with the winter days he knew back home.
“We had a blizzard in Oklahoma on Christmas Eve — 14 inches of snow,” he said. “Everybody was freaked out, but it was no big deal for me.”