Taking the world by storm

Posted on Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sophie Splawinski receives a kiss from her son Jacob at Convocation last June. / Photo courtesy of Sophie Splawinski.

By Neale McDevitt

Yesterday it was announced that two McGill students were among the winners if the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (UA) – an international academic awards program that identifies top students across the globe through their innovative undergraduate research. Hanting Por won in the Teacher Education category for his essay entitled “Bring School Math/Science Back to Real Life,” and Sophie Splawinski took top spot in the Agricultural & Environmental Sciences category with her paper “The role of anticyclones in replenishing surface cold air and modulating severe freezing rain event duration.”

For Splawinski finding a field of study wasn’t so much a question of reading the writing on the wall as it was listening to the answer blowing in the wind.

“When I was three I walked into my piano teacher’s office and told her that I wanted to be a weather girl,” said Splawinski from her Burnside Hall office where she is working on her Masters in Atmospheric Sciences. “My parents thought I’d grow out of that phase, but I guess they were wrong.”

Six years later, she watched in fascination as a twister touched down near her cottage and the nine-year-old Splawinski was hooked. “We were right there beside it and my mother was totally freaking out,” she said, “but I was completely enthralled.”

When it rains, it pours

That fascination led Splawinski to McGill where last June, she completed her undergraduate studies in Atmospheric Sciences.

Splawinski’s winning paper has been a labour of love almost since her arrival at McGill. “It has been an ongoing project for three years ago when I started working with John Gyakum [professor in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences],” she said. “The idea was trying to figure out a way for meteorologist to better predict the duration of freezing rain because if it lasts an hour there’s not usually much of a problem but if it lasts longer, it can cause a lot of damage – like the big ice storm in 1998.”

Ice storms form when a thin layer of cold air is overlaid by a warmer layer. When snow passes through the warm layer, it melts, only to freeze again as it falls through the cold below. Splawinski says conditions along the St. Lawrence valley are ideal because the shape of the valley will naturally hold the cold layer in place.

As one of the UA winners, Splawinski has been invited to Dublin from Nov. 7-10, to attend the UA Summit where she and the other winners will receive their awards from the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins

“This conference will serve as a three-day pop-up incubation centre for some of the world’s most exceptional young minds” said Louise Hodgson, UA Programme Director. “From hands-on workshops and talks with inspiring young achievers, entrepreneurs and academics to networking events with top graduate recruiters, the UA Summit is going to be one of the most exciting student-focused events in Europe.”

Storms and slaloms

The early November trip is timed well in terms of Splawinski’s other passion: downhill skiing. A former member of the National Ski Team when she was only 17, she put school on hold while she competed on the World Cup circuit. But, after blowing her knee out preparing for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, she decided to return to CEGEP to finish her studies.

A mainstay on the McGill ski team since coming to McGill in 2009, Splawinski is entering her last season, as she will finish her Masters in December 2013. The circuit’s individual champion in 2010, when she medalled in a record 10 events, Splawinski finished third overall last season.

And when she’s not charting storms or slaloming down the slopes? Splawinski is mom to five-year-old Jacob, who is proving to be a chip off the old block. “Jacob is really into the weather,” she said with a smile. “When I went to his preschool one day his teacher asked me what I was studying and I said atmospheric sciences. She said ‘Oh that makes a lot of sense, because we do the weather every morning and he refuses to call them big storm clouds. They have to be called cumulonimbus clouds.’

“Most kids are scared of thunderstorms. I love them so he’s never had any reason to be scared,” said Splawinski. “Every time there’s a storm he says ‘Mom, let’s look at radar imagery.’”

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