From M.D. to weather geek: BCC professor helms innovative program
PITTSFIELD — When Joe Kravitz was a mere lad of 3 in Willow Grove, a Philadelphia suburb, a snowstorm blanketed his front yard: "It was piled up all around me," he recalls.
Before long, he became a "weather geek," but it took an abrupt career change when Kravitz was a 40-year-old M.D. to turn his passion into a day and night job.
Based at Berkshire Community College since 2008, he runs a one-man Department of Atmospheric Sciences, creating opportunities for students to pursue advanced degrees through an innovative partnership with the University at Albany in a booming field encompassing forecasting, climate-change research and the alternative energy industry.
A different track
During a free-wheeling conversation in his BCC office, Kravitz recalled a daily after-school ritual, tuning into AccuWeather's analysis on local radio and eagerly awaiting his next present from his parents, such as a rain gauge or barometer.
"There are kids in Berkshire County who are like that, too," he said confidently.
"There are a lot more 'weather weenies' around here than in, say, California," he pointed out, citing western New England's highly variable four-season climate.
In high school, Kravitz intended to pursue weather science. However, he applied to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he was accepted, much to his surprise, only to discover that the renowned university offered no atmospheric science courses.
"I decided to put weather on the back burner," he explained, and he went on to major in biology on a pre-med track. He earned his M.D. from Penn State University — ironically, also the home of a nationally recognized meteorology program.
Weather bug bit
The first week at medical school, Kravitz met "Midge," whom he married in their junior year. Dr. Marjorie Devries is an internist at Family Practice Associates in Pittsfield and the couple is about to celebrate their 33rd anniversary.
While at Penn State, Kravitz's nightly routine was watching a local TV show, "Weather World," put on by grad students.
"Ever since then, we always just assumed at some point I would go back to school" to study atmospheric science, he said.
After interning at Roger Williams Hospital in Providence, R.I., he spent his diagnostic radiology residency at Rhode Island Hospital and won a fellowship to Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston for ultrasound and nuclear medicine. Then, he spotted a medical journal ad for a radiologist position at Berkshire Medical Center.
"I came here in 1990 and fell in love with Berkshire County immediately," Kravitz recalled.
After a year at BMC, he spent 10 years at North Adams Regional Hospital. However, he confessed, the weather bug kept biting, "every day of my life."
By 2000, his wife was encouraging him to pursue his dream. But their oldest son Steven, now 27, wondered why his dad was willing to bail on an M.D. career.
Now, Steven and his brother Scott, 24, are on board, as Kravitz explained: "Like every adult kid, now they say, 'Maybe Dad wasn't as much of a jerk as they thought he was.'"
Change of course
As Kravitz considered his options, UAlbany beckoned. Professor Vincent Idone, chairman of the atmospheric sciences department at the state university, urged him to pursue a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science. A master's followed in 2007.
In another fortunate twist, Bennington College in Vermont then offered a one-year teaching position in atmospheric science and climate.
"They let me design my own courses" — Introduction to Meteorology and Extreme Weather, Kravitz said.
Seeking a campus home combining his medical and meteorological skills, he landed at BCC in 2008 as an adjunct professor and program adviser.
With the encouragement of Charles Kaminski, academic dean for business, science, math and technology, Kravitz created the college's first Atmospheric Sciences Department, starting with the same two courses he had introduced at Bennington College. He also teaches anatomy and physiology at BCC, but has passed up potential full-time faculty positions in order to avoid attending meetings.
By 2014, Kaminski and BCC President Ellen Kennedy were considering a formal partnership with UAlbany's highly regarded Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, where the Albany office of the National Weather Service also is located.
After wondering whether there would be sufficient interest among Berkshire students for the transfer program, Kravitz said, "I decided to give it a go, and it's still in its infancy now."
The partnership agreement was signed at a BCC media event in October 2014 by Kennedy, also a weather enthusiast, and UAlbany's R. Timothy Mulcahy, interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
Prospective weather scientists who take two years of Kravitz's courses are automatically eligible to enroll at UAlbany as third-year students if they maintain a 3.0 grade point average, leading to a bachelor's degree in atmospheric sciences.
A weather station atop BCC's Hoffman Environmental Sciences Building serves not only as a teaching tool but also provides the public with online, real-time Pittsfield data and local forecasts. Kravitz also plans to resume his daily weather blog in September.
He calls the college's partnership with UAlbany "a great opportunity for Berkshire students."
Kravitz hopes to attract high schoolers "who have no idea that this is here at all. They think they've got to attend a four-year school, but this gives them a chance to save an enormous amount of money. They'd be way less in debt if they started here. I want to reach as many of those kids as I can."
For the innovative BCC program to succeed financially, three or four students are needed each year in his upper-level courses.
"I think it's really important for Berkshire County and for the people here," Kravitz said, crediting campus president Kennedy for being "incredibly supportive of me and doing whatever she can to promote this and keep things going. We're a broader academic institution and this is a cutting-edge science right now."
Asked if his program is on solid ground for survival, he responded: "50-50, I'm waiting to see what happens in the next couple of years."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
On the Web ...
BCC Atmospheric Sciences Department's local weather page: rainwise.net/weather/bcc.
Info. on the department's courses and partnership with UAlbany: berkshirecc.edu/academics/programs-and-classes/atmospheric-science/
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