Physics Alumnus Takes Skills to Sea

Physics Alumnus Takes Skills to Sea
Physics Alumnus Takes Skills to Sea

May 24, 2016

Bob Pickart '81 credits the passion and excitement of one professor in particular with inspiring him to major in physics and pursue a career in oceanography. Plus a little luck.

Pickart described Fred Grosse, now a professor emeritus of Susquehanna University, as "the best teacher I ever had."

"I had no intention of majoring in physics and just by pure dumb luck, Fred taught the intro class that year," Pickart said. "His excitement for that field turned me into a physics major and I owe so much to him."

But how does a physics major become an oceanographer? This is where luck comes in.

Pickart was a junior at Susquehanna and in need of a job when his father gave him a lead on an internship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. Pickart has now been with the research and higher educational facility for more than 30 years. At WHOI, Pickart studies physical oceanography, specifically the motions and physical properties of ocean waters. He conducts his research in the Arctic, studying how water is formed in high latitudes.

"Water becomes very dense and it can sink during wintertime, flooding the deep ocean with water that used to be on the surface," he explained. "This global overturning is a critical component of our earth's climate system."

Pickart, who in 1987 earned his PhD in physical oceanography through a joint program between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and WHOI, is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, an honor conferred to a small fraction of society members who have made outstanding, long-term contributions to atmospheric, oceanic or hydrologic science.

He was recognized for his research with the society's prestigious Henry Stommel Research Award for "pioneering work in the exploration of high-latitude water masses and currents and for advancing the understanding of their climatic impact."

Over his career, he has authored more than 100 scholarly articles that have appeared in science's most highly respected journals, including Nature and Science. Pickart will return to campus in the fall to present the Claritas Distinguished Lecture in the Sciences-the first alumnus so honored by Susquehanna.

Pickart has led dozens of research expeditions over his career, but a highlight was bringing Grosse on a 20-day expedition, allowing the one-time student to become the teacher.

It was Grosse's first time on a boat in the open sea. "On that trip we had incredible weather," Pickart said. "We never experienced a rough day."

Next year, he will embark on his final winter expedition, but he plans to continue studying the Arctic during the summer months

At Woods Hole, Pickart continues to extend opportunities to students like the one he had when he was an undergraduate at Susquehanna.

"It's an exciting field," he said. "And I'm blown away by how accomplished students are."

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