|Featured Faculty: Oliver Frauenfeld|
180 degrees of Research
Research interests often turn 180 degrees, but they can also head north by 60. Dr. Oliver Frauenfeld, assistant professor of geography, says a career in physical geography can take you anywhere, a claim his career path demonstrates. As a graduate student, Frauenfeld focused his research on the tropics, but he now studies Siberian permafrost. "We know permafrost is changing, but it isn't clear what's forcing the changes," he says. "It could be related to rising air temperature, changes in snow cover or vegetation, or a combination."
Frauenfeld says he always liked physics, biology, and chemistry in high school, just not enough to pursue only one. Environmental science, he discovered, was a good way to bring those fields together. "You need a good background in biology to study ecology and in physics and chemistry to study atmospheric science," he says. "The interdisciplinary and applied nature of environmental science was much more appealing." Frauenfeld was first interested in ecology, but an atmospheric science class steered him toward climate research. Frauenfeld says he initially dreaded the 8 a.m. class, but between the subject matter and an inspiring professor, he found it so interesting that he started taking graduate-level climate courses his senior year.
In those courses, Frauenfeld worked on projects that spawned his interest in the tropics, which led to his graduate study of ocean–atmosphere interactions—starting with the El Niño Southern Oscillation—before expanding his work to cover the whole Pacific. During graduate school he conducted fieldwork in the Marshall Islands that validated satellite observations. While he liked this tropical fieldwork, Frauenfeld is happy that his current permafrost research keeps him closer to home and out of the cold. "Field work in the tropics is more enjoyable than in Siberia," he says. "For obvious reasons." Instead of heading out into the cold, Frauenfeld rescues historical Siberian permafrost data through collaboration with Russian researchers.
Photo right: Frauenfeld climbing a tower at the Soltis Center in Costa Rica.
Modern technology has made international collaboration easier and much more common, Frauenfeld says. "International collaboration is a big advantage because having local people on the ground familiar with the data, the observing practices, and the region in general is crucial." International cooperation is also key for his climate change research on the Tibetan Plateau, in collaboration with Chinese scientists and local Tibetans.
Frauenfeld was previously a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. His activities at Texas A&M differ from his previous position mainly in the addition of teaching responsibilities. Frauenfeld likes the interaction with students, he says. "It may be a cliché," he says, "but I want to be one of those teachers who makes a difference."
The more structured routine of teaching also makes this job different from his last one. "As a new faculty member, I find teaching takes a lot of time," Frauenfeld says. "It seems like I spend all my time teaching, getting ready to teach, or thinking on how to teach better next time."
Teaching and research aren't the only contributions Frauenfeld has made to his discipline. He contributed his expertise to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2007, IPCC lead authors shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. As a contributing author, he was not actually issued a Nobel prize certificate, but "In theory, I can pretend I got the prize," he says with a grin.
The Nobel committee helped push climate change into the global spotlight, and Frauenfeld hopes that through his teaching, writing, and research, he and his students can build on that momentum.
Story by George Hale '99