Taking Physics Out to Sea

Fall 2016 Issue

Bob Pickart ’81 credits one professor in particular with inspiring him to major in physics and pursue a career in oceanography. Plus a little luck.

Bob Pickart ’81

He describes Fred Grosse, now a professor emeritus of physics, as “the best teacher I ever had.”

Pickart says he had no intention of majoring in physics, but “just by pure dumb luck, Fred taught the intro class that year. 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? Luck played a role in this, too.

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. That internship sparked a career with the research and higher educational facility that has lasted 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 explains. “This global overturning is a critical component of our earth’s climate system.”

Pickart, who in 1987 earned his Ph.D. in physical oceanography through a joint program between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and WHOI, is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society. He has been honored 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.”

He has also authored more than 100 scholarly articles that have appeared in science’s most highly respected journals, including Nature and Science.

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.

The one-time student turned teacher recently returned to Susquehanna to present the 2016 Claritas Distinguished Lecture in the Sciences, becoming the first alumnus to deliver the annual address. During the lecture, Pickart chronicled his expedition in the Labrador Sea to characterize its wintertime sinking.

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