It’s not easy to be a Division I athlete. Division I is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics overseen by the NCAA in the United States. It requires elite skills to earn a spot on a team, and after achieving that goal, it’s estimated that Division I athletes spend upwards of 20 hours a week training.
Pursuing a PhD? Also not easy. PhD is the highest level of academic degree a person can achieve, and requires candidates to produce their own work and research – something that brings with it an incredibly demanding time investment.
Being part of both these high-performing worlds at the same time is an ultra-rare feat. It’s so rare, in fact, that PhD student/softball player Erica Bower is the first student-athlete to accomplish the impressive feat since Stony Brook began keeping records 17 years ago.
Erica’s dedication and focus go all the way back to her childhood. During her high school years, after playing competitive softball for more than a decade, she set a goal of playing in college. Erica achieved that goal, playing outfield while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Western Connecticut State University.
The exceptional focus that served her well on the softball field served her even better in the classroom; she completed her BS in Meteorology in only three years, compiling an impressive 3.97 GPA along the way – which left her with one more year of NCAA eligibility to play softball.
Expecting that her softball career was behind her, the Hillsborough, New Jersey native began researching grad schools, ultimately choosing Stony Brook after finding a champion, mentor and supporter in Kevin Reed, associate professor in the School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences (SoMAS).
But softball was still on her mind, “I had kept up with my workout routines from Western Connecticut, including skill work and general fitness,” she says.
After considerable thought, Erica decided that the fact that she graduated early didn’t mean that she have to give up the sport that she loves. Driven by a new challenge, she dug out her spikes, bat and glove and tried out for the Seawolves softball team, making the squad as a walk-on in September 2019.
“People told me it was crazy to even try, but I’ve always enjoyed proving that other people’s expectations do not limit me,” she says. “I already have a successful career in the books, but now I have the chance to write another chapter. Why not take the opportunity to continue doing something I love?”
Erica began research for her PhD almost immediately after graduating from Western Connecticut, coming to Stony Brook in early June, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Atmospheric Science.
“Being a meteorologist is something you’re born with,” says Erica. “I’ve been staring at clouds for as long as I can remember, and the 2005 and 2008 hurricane seasons sealed the deal for my specialization in tropical cyclones.”
Erica cites her mentor, Kevin Reed, as her greatest supporter at Stony Brook University.
“We collaborate on our research projects, and we work well together and with the rest of the group,” she says. “Dr. Reed has gone above and beyond, helping me fit softball into my life and being supportive of all of my endeavors. My coaches have also been very supportive of what I’m doing. They took a chance on me, and I’m so grateful that they’ve given me an opportunity to be a part of this team.”
“From day one, Erica has been a hard-working member of the Climate Extreme Modeling group,” said Reed. “Building on her previous research experience as an undergraduate, her graduate research focuses on understanding extreme rainfall associated with hurricanes and how scientists can better forecast these events. This is an important and timely topic.”
Erica’s ultimate career goal is to work in a government facility that combines tropical cyclone research and its applications to operational forecasting during the hurricane season.
“The National Hurricane Center and the Hurricane Research Division are two of the most widely known centers that perform this type of work,” she says. Along the way, she also hopes to get her work published, present at conferences, and collaborate with other scientists in the field at different universities and facilities around the country.
Erica attributes much of her success to exceptional time management skills developed when she was young. Not only did those skills help her through a busy and productive high school career – she was the 2016 Valedictorian of Immaculata High School (NJ) – they helped her squeeze a BS, two minors, two internships, three jobs and college softball into her three years at Western Connecticut.
“It takes a lot of work,” says Erica. “Ask my teammates. They see me studying and doing research in the locker room, the hallways, the ferry, all over. The hours are long and the work is hard, but nothing worth having ever comes easy.”
— Robert Emproto