Geography: An Integrative Science and Springboard to a Fantastic Career

Hello everyone! I am pleased to share with you the impact that coming to OSU and joining the Atmospheric Sciences Program in the Department of Geography has had on my career and my personal life. I joined OSU as a masters student in the Atmospheric Science Program (ASP) in 1973. I had just made my first big career decision which was to relinquish a fellowship in the Department of Physics at Miami University (Oxford, OH) because I realized that I lacked the passion or what is often call “the fire in the belly” required to spend 5-years on a PhD. I then spent two years working in the IT section of a medical bookkeeping firm in Columbus and considering my options. Eventually I accepted a fellowship at OSU in ASP which, at that time, was housed in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Soon thereafter, ASP was transferred to the Department of Geography under the direction of Dr. John Rayner. This provided an excellent situation for me and was also a very formative event for ASP. The move to a department that values diverse forms of scholarship and encourages collaboration across multiple areas of inquiry provided a much broader canvas on which I was able to develop my career.  Three other very important occurrences during my first year were the choice of Dr. John Rayner as my academic advisor,  my new affiliation with the Institute of Polar Studies, forerunner of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC), and meeting two of my closest friends and colleagues, Claire Parkinson and Keith Mountain, also ASP students, with whom Lonnie and I have maintained 45+year friendships.

My B.S. from Marshall University (Huntington WV) was in physics and math and I never had the opportunity to take a class in climatology or meteorology and I was never required to write a research paper. Fortunately, once I was ensconced in geography I had the opportunity to take a course on Geographic Thought taught by Edward (Ned) Taaffe. In addition, my advisors John Rayner and John Arnfield were excellent professors and skilled writers and from them I developed a deep interest in climate science and gained very strong writing skills. Over the years, my students have commented regarding how much “red ink” I have placed on their theses and research papers; however, they were unaware of the volume of “red ink” my advisors had placed on mine.

As a student affiliate in the Institute of Polar Studies (IPS) I was quickly immersed in the excitement of all things “polar”, and my interest in Antarctica grew. Simultaneously, I joined Lonnie Thompson, my spouse and fellow graduate student (Earth Sciences), in the development of our research program focused on ice core paleoclimatology, a relatively new area of scientific inquiry.

Job # 120504
Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie Thompson
Scott Lab
Photo by Jo McCulty
The Ohio State University

Again I was fortunate that Drs. Rayner and Arnfield were very supportive as I developed an “individualized’ multidisciplinary graduate program to include classes in paleoclimatology, glacial geology, geochemistry, isotope geochemistry, and scanning electron microscopy taught by Professors Goldthwait, White, and Faure (Earth Sciences). This was a busy and exciting time as Lonnie and I continued developing the ice core paleoclimate research program, writing proposals to support our research, and publishing our first papers. The most important event occurred in 1976 when we welcomed our daughter, Regina.

By 1980, we had completed our PhD studies (Lonnie in 1976 and me in 1979), obtained research positions in the IPS, and developed a growing research program attracting national and international interest. Regina was now 6 years old, so I decided it was time to take the plunge and engage in my first Antarctic field season. An opportunity arose to join a team of Swiss and American scientists and ice core drillers at South Pole Station (SPS) in 1982 to collect a 300-m long ice core for paleoclimate studies. Scientifically this experience was magnificent, but it was an eye opener when I realized how few women were engaged in Antarctic research . There were only two women at SPS that year, and the other was a construction contractor. I soon realized that most of the U.S. ice core drilling projects were being conducted at or near established bases. At that time the U.S. only had three stations located in areas of the ice sheet where cores could be drilled and this limited our opportunities to examine the “spatial” aspects of our ice core-derived climate histories. At the same time I was very engaged in the NSF’s Polar Programs’ Advisory Committee which positioned me to address two systemic issues. These were securing greater support for scientists who wanted to conduct research at remote locations where no previous ice cores had been drilled and promoting greater opportunities for women to not only participate in field programs, but to serve as team leaders at remote field camps.

Fortunately, in 1985 I was funded to lead a drilling project at Siple Station, Antarctica and thus, my second goal was achieved. The photo (left) includes two OSU alums. On the far left is Keith Mountain (PhD, ASP, Geography) and immediately left of me is John Paskievitch (B.S. Earth Sciences). The following year, 1986, my first goal was achieved when I lead a field team of six to drill two 200-meter deep cores at our ”Plateau Remote” camp, a site in East Antarctica located near the “Pole of Inaccessibility” which means the location that is furthest inland from the coast in all directions .

Fast forward 21 years during which I led multiple projects to drill ice cores at other remote sites in Antarctica and Greenland and you will see the progress that we have been able to achieve. The photo to the left is from our remote drill site at Crawford Point, Greenland (2007). Shown is my field team that includes two female OSU alums, Lijia Wei (PhD, Geography, ASP; second from the right) and Natalie Kehrwald (PhD, Earth Sciences; far right). Although there have been a number of accomplishments in my 48 years at OSU, I am so proud to have opened the door to enable more women scientists to lead remote field projects in both Polar Regions. I also served from 2009 to 2018 as the first (and still only) female Director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC).

But this story is incomplete. During the 11 years after my graduation, John Rayner and others including Larry Brown encouraged me to teach classes in Geography on an as needed basis. This kept me engaged with the faculty and students in Geography until 1990 when I joined the department as an Associate Professor and began developing courses focused on paleoclimatology, Earth system science, climate science, and climate and environmental change. I am so indebted to my advisors, Drs. Rayner and Arnfield, and my past and present colleagues in both the Department of Geography and the BPCRC  who continue to broaden and deepen my interest, understanding, and appreciation of the rich and complex relationships among Earth’s climate system, its environment, and its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. If I had not taken the risk of leaving basic physics and eventually pursuing climatology and atmospheric science, especially through the broad lens provided by geography, I certainly would not have had so many diverse experiences and worked with so many talented and interesting people both national and international and from within and outside academia. Moreover, I would not have been able to enjoy such beauty during a stroll home from work or engage in signing O-H-I-O from the “remote” Bruce Plateau drill site in the Antarctic Peninsula (see photos).

Ellen Mosley Thompson

Professor, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

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