January 12, 2022

By Alaina Uricheck ’24

Graduates Meet on Research Vessel

In Nuuk, Greenland, on the eastern side of Baffin Bay, 14 scientists and technicians boarded the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. While all had a common interest in climate change, it wasn’t long before two researchers discovered they had another special connection: they both graduated from Susquehanna University.

Ben Kopec '10, left, and Robert Pickart '81 aboard the USCGC Healy. Ben Kopec ’10, left, and Robert Pickart ’81 aboard the USCGC Healy.The location of their jobs couldn’t be much farther apart, with Robert Pickart ’81 serving as senior scientist in the Department of Physical Oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and Ben Kopec ’10, a young postdoctoral investigator working at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Graduating 29 years apart, they were aboard the research vessel to better understand the role of freshwater in the North Atlantic Ocean and look into some of the most pressing issues facing our rapidly changing planet.

“The warming climate is melting large amounts of sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean and causing accelerated melting of the Greenland ice cap. If this freshwater becomes prevalent enough over the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, it has the potential to slow down or even halt the global overturning circulation that helps regulate Earth’s climate,” Pickart explained. “Our research targeted two critical questions: How is warm sub-surface water in Baffin Bay reaching the fjords of West Greenland where it melts the glaciers from below, and where does the resulting surface meltwater and Arctic-origin freshwater go?”

Kopec was aboard the USCGC Healy to measure the isotopic composition of the seawater in order to trace changing water cycle processes.

“In the seawater, the water isotope measurements allow us to trace and quantify freshwater influxes and we observed significant freshwater flowing into Baffin Bay in multiple locations from melting Greenland glaciers,” Kopec explained. “In Baffin Bay, we could see that these large freshwater pulses corresponded with increased biological productivity, suggesting that the freshening of the Arctic seas is driving fertilization.”

Meeting Testament to SU Education

Both Pickart and Kopec said their encounter in the Arctic – more than 2,000 miles away from their alma mater – is testament to the far-reaching impacts of an SU education.

“My education at SU laid the foundation for my graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole,” Pickart said. “The intimate classroom settings at SU and personal interactions with the professors allowed for a deeper understanding of the material, promoted more critical discussion and provided the opportunity to explore things outside of the planned syllabus.”

Kopec expressed similar feelings, saying his SU education prepared him for the challenges of graduate school.

“The education I received in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and SU in general prepared me to take the next step to graduate school at Dartmouth College, where I was able to step right into a doctorate program after graduating from SU,” Kopec said. “The liberal arts education allowed me to examine scientific questions and perspectives of people other than scientists, who often can be hyper-focused on certain ideas, methods or ways of understanding. By giving me a broad base of knowledge, one of the most important ways SU prepared me was to build the skills to communicate and connect with a diverse audience from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

Another similarity? Pickart, who graduated with majors in physics and mathematics, and Kopec, an earth and environmental sciences major and mathematics minor, both count Fred Grosse, emeritus professor of physics, among their mentors.

“Our science faculty strenuously teach the fundamentals of their discipline,” Grosse said. “Students are thought to think, not just memorize. We can be proud of all of them.”