BOSTON — When Mishtu Mukherjee was five, a tornado ripped through her family's apartment complex in Baltimore, taking her tricycle with it. Mukherjee still remembers the night as if it happened yesterday. "I was really just drawn to it (weather). After that, I would look up and wonder about stuff up there all the time," said Mukherjee, better known by her television name, Mish Michaels. Mukherjee's fascination with weather led her to become the chief meteorologist at Boston's CBS4 station.
A computer-simulated model of Mukherjee will help children read maps and forecast the weather, through a future exhibit at the Museum of Science titled, "Predicting the Future: Science and technology of Weather Forecasting." She is the co-principal investigator on the $2 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation. The grant will also help fund annual teacher conferences developed by Mukherjee to promote understanding of the weather.
Mukherjee is involved with outreach and research activities, and leads the seven-member meteorology team at the station.
Mukherjee's position at the station is unique, and she has created for herself a role that encompasses her broad range of interests in the field, including special features, outreach activities and forecasting.
Her passion and interest has veered toward understanding the forces of nature better, she said. "I like doing 'atmosphere stories,' that help me understand atmosphere in a more deterministic way," said Mukherjee, whose career spans 15 years as a meteorologist.
Yet, Mukherjee would have ended up a horse veterinarian, and was studying to be one at Cornell University, when her friend's horse died. "I could not cope with it, and it struck me that I probably wasn't cut out to deal with their (horses') pain and suffering," she said.
The future literally flashed through her eyes, as a thunderstorm passed her house, and she realized meteorology was a perfect fit for her, and transferred to the program in atmospheric sciences.
While in college, she had to substitute as a meteorologist at WICB- TV, a local television station, as part of her coursework. Mukherjee could not quite get the hang of it, and wanted to do it right, and move on to further research.
She landed a job forecasting weekend weather at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., and it was there that her name was changed from Mishtu Mukherjee to Mish Michaels, a name she picked out of a phone book with her mother.
A chance trip to NBC's WHDH station in Boston proved to be the break she was looking for. When Bart Feder, then news director of WHDH walked Mukherjee to her car, all she could think about was hiding her "T-STORMS" license plates from Feder. "I didn't want to come across as a teeny-bopper," she said. "I was heartbroken when he saw the plates."
They proved to be more than useful, though, when a job opened up and Feder wanted to give Mukherjee a chance. Boston, Mukherjee said, is the Mecca of weather forecasting, as the area receives every possible weather system except killer tornadoes. In fact, the American Meteorological Society is headquartered in Boston.
Mukherjee, then a 23-year-old minority woman working in the most competitive area in the country, faced an uphill task getting approval from her peers.
"At that time, there were almost no women in the field," she said. "People were very critical, and at conferences, they would stare at me with daggers."
Mukherjee worked seven days a week, and simultaneously graduated from Harvard University with a master's degree in technology in education. "It was one of those cases where, to be a superstar, you had to be twice as good," she said, adding that she now collaborates with the same men on various projects.
During those tough times, she found a mentor in ABC meteorologist Harvey Leonard, who helped her navigate the field of television meteorology. Leonard said Mukherjee was destined to succeed as a meteorologist.
"Mish has and did have so much intelligence, ability and curiosity, and was knowledgeable in both science and life, that she was destined to be successful whether she encountered me or not," Leonard said.
He adds that Mukherjee, in fact, helped him recharge his batteries at a time when he was fatigued.
After eight years at WHDH, Mukherjee moved to the Weather Channel, where she co-hosted, with Jim Cantore, "Atmospheres," a one-hour show on weather patterns and man's response to it.
For the show, Mukherjee went ice climbing in Calgary, Canada; flew over the Sphinx Observatory in Switzerland; and rode thoroughbreds in Kentucky. The show planned to go truly international with trips to Spain, Malaysia and Egypt, when Sept. 11 happened. The show got cancelled, but having built a strong reputation for herself in the field, Mukherjee picked CBS4 to be her home. "I could create my own 'reality' and the channel gave me quite a bit of freedom," she said.
One of her more memorable stories for CBS4 was chasing tornadoes in July 2003, with famed tornado chaser Howie Bleustein, in what turned out to be the most active month for tornadoes in U.S. history. Ironically, they never once saw a tornado. Mukherjee recounts the story of traveling 800 miles one day, from their base in Oklahama to Kansas, returning to find a tornado had hit just five miles from their hotel. "They were very, very anxiety ridden, high-speed chases," she said.
Mukherjee has had people criticizing her for her forecasts, an occupational hazard.
"I really wish people realize how remarkable it is that we are able to predict the weather to the accuracy we currently do," she said. "We are like the referees [in a game]. We try to call it as best we can." People's ignorance of science saddens and eggs her on to do more outreach and educational activities, she said. One of Mukherjee's pet projects is the annual weather almanac, which details New England weather. The almanac is given to schools for free, and sold at nonprofit science centers.
Mukherjee is an adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where she taught a course on "meteorological communications." She hopes to get back to teaching in the future, when she has more time. Mukherjee is also involved with Women in Natural Sciences, an organization that seeks to inspire girls to pursue careers in science.
Mukherjee would rather be curled up with the latest meteorology journals, and said that for her, it's not about being a television star. "I'm a nerdy scientist, and am proud to be one," she said.
Mukherjee will always remain connected with the weather, whether she writes books for children on the topic, or forecasts the weather. Leonard agrees that Mukherjee has a need to both educate and be educated.
"Wherever she is [in the future], she needs to be involved in a lot of different things," Leonard said.