Dr. Alex DeCaria
This edition of Who Makes Millersville Special features Dr. Alex DeCaria, earth sciences professor.
Q: How long have you been at Millersville?
A: I started at Millersville in the fall semester of 2000.
Q: Some of the courses you teach like atmospheric dynamics and thermodynamics sound pretty intimidating. How do you explain to people outside the university your areas of study?
A: I try to explain to them that meteorology is really the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere. To many people, meteorology is simply the pretty maps on TV and the local weather forecast. What they don’t understand is that meteorology is the entire study of the atmosphere and all the processes that occur within it. Our meteorology majors are required to take the same amount of mathematics classes as a physics major.
Q: One of your current interests is the use of Python programming language. That sounds scary. Can you tell us about that?
A: Computer programming and literacy have always been very important in meteorology. Python is one of the newer computer programming languages and is rapidly gaining usage in the sciences for its intuitive syntax and ease of use. Rather than being intimidating, many students seem to enjoy learning it and using it for solving problems and displaying data graphically. And, it helps them get jobs and into graduate school.
Q: Why did you choose Millersville?
A: When I was finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, my wife and I were looking for academic jobs, primarily in the western U.S. where I am from. However, we saw a listing for the job at MU that looked like it had been written specifically for me. We looked it up on a map (I had never even heard of Millersville at the time), and decided to drive up to see the campus. We liked what we saw, and applied. I had another job offer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif., but comparing the cost of living, quality of life and environment for raising children, we chose Millersville.
Q: What is your favorite part of being a professor?
A: Besides working with some very talented and enjoyable students, one of the main reasons I enjoy being a professor is that I am not allowed to ever forget anything I’ve learned, and in fact am still learning new things regularly. I feel like I’ve gained an entirely new Ph.D. just in the time that I’ve been teaching, since in order to teach something well you really have to understand it thoroughly yourself.
Q: If you could change anything in your job, what would it be?
A: As with most faculty, I suspect, I would love to have a robot to do my grading for me. I love everything about teaching except grading!
Q: Do you remember students you had when you first started teaching?
A: I certainly do! I always enjoy seeing former students at homecoming or at professional conferences. I especially remember many of the students during my first few years, as we were all new to campus and learning our way around.
Q: Did you always want to be a professor?
A: No. My goal for many years (since ninth grade) was to be a naval officer. Since I always enjoyed math and physics, I chose meteorology as my major in college, figuring that it was a good subject for a ship’s captain to know. I never intended on working as a meteorologist, let alone teaching it. But, after a few years in the Navy, I realized I didn’t want to drive ships the rest of my life, and since I had a meteorology degree, I was able to become a meteorology and oceanography officer. The Navy sent me for my master’s degree, and that is when I really fell in love with the academic aspects of meteorology and decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D. and teach it.
Q: You recently finished writing a book: “A First Course in Atmospheric Numerical Modeling.” Tell us about that project. How long did it take? Why did you write it?
A: One of the things I was hired to do was to develop a course on numerical weather modeling. After several attempts at trying to find a suitable textbook to use for the course, I decided I would just have to write my own. At the time there was another faculty, Dr. Glenn Van Knowe, who was also enthused about the project and agreed to write the book with me. It has taken nearly 12 years to finally finish the book, but I am glad it took that long because I have learned a lot in those years, and the book is better for it.
Q: You spent 11 years as a surface warfare officer and meteorology/oceanography officer in the U.S. Navy. Tell us about that.
A: Growing up in Utah, I always dreamed of traveling, and the Navy seemed to be an ideal opportunity. My older brother was also in the Navy, and his stories inspired me. I went through Navy ROTC at the University of Utah and was commissioned an ensign in 1985. I served over two years on the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as a surface warfare officer. I then switched to the meteorology career field and was stationed in Iceland; Monterey, Calif; Jacksonville, Fla.; and finally Guam. I really enjoyed the Navy and all the places I traveled to, but once I had children, the thought of leaving them for long stretches was sad. So, I left the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 1996 in order to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. My wife stayed in the Navy and is now retired.
Q: What was your very first job?
A: My first job was in high school, working at my local county public library putting books back on the shelves. I worked there for four years and have always had a soft spot in my heart for libraries ever since.
Q: Tell us all the places you have lived. Do you have a favorite?
A: I grew up in Utah and lived in the same house for 22 years, until I graduated from college. While in the Navy, I lived in the San Francisco, Calif., area; Iceland; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Guam. I also live in Bowie, Md., while attending the U. of MD. My favorite place that I lived was Monterey, Calif. We would love to retire there!
Q: What’s your favorite food?
A: There are too many to narrow down, but if I had to pick, it would my wife’s chicken enchiladas.
Q: Favorite vacation spot?
A: Anywhere in the mountains or by the ocean.
Q: Have you read any good books lately?
A: I just finished rereading “Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville. It is one of my all-time favorites!
Q: Did you have a mentors/heroes growing up? If so, who were they and what were some of their qualities?
A: My mentor is Dr. Malcolm Harvey, my high-school physics teacher. I was rather aimless academically until I took his physics class. After that, I knew I wanted to study science. He is now retired and living on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, but I still go visit him every few years.
Q: Tell us about your family.
A: I am the youngest of nine siblings. My nickname in my family is Golden Boy because by the time my parents got to me, they were worn out, and I got away with a lot more than my older siblings. I am married to Marcia, who is a retired naval officer and meteorologist. Both my sons currently attend Millersville. Victor is a senior math major, and is heading to the University of Pittsburgh to work on his Ph.D. Michael is a first-year physics major.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
A: I have always been interested in trains and railroad photography. Both of my grandfathers were railroad men. I tell my wife, only half-jokingly, that the only career I would trade being a professor for is being a train engineer!