Penn State professor, climate scientist continues to rack up awards for work

For the CDTMay 10, 2014 

  • A CREATIVE SCIENTIST

    Here are some of Alley’s words to the tune of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” written by John Denver and made popular by him and the Eagles:

    “I like the way your folded mountains lay,

    waving smoothly ’cross the land.

    I want to hike across your thrust faults today,

    with your ancient rocks on either hand.

    ‘Cause I get a peaceful, easy feelin’,

    where so much history is easy shown,

    while I am living and loving in your old obduction zone.”

— Richard Alley’s office in Penn State’s Deike Building is no one-room affair — it’s four rooms long, each filled with scientific research books.

His desk stands in the corner of the back room, but you won’t find Alley sitting there.

The bearded, fit and trim Evan Pugh professor of geoscience is a man on the move. He works on a nearby stationary bike with a large, flat surface attached to it, his Macintosh computer in front of him while he pedals and answers emails.

He wears khaki pants and a button-down shirt, not exercise clothes, while he rides.

The 56-year-old glaciologist and climate scientist is known around the world for his work studying climate change in the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland. His research contributed to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with former Vice President Al Gore, in 2007.

On April 27, Alley was presented with the National Academy of Sciences’ Arthur L. Day Prize and Lectureship award at the academy in Washington.

The award is given every three years to a scientist who has made a lasting contribution to the study of the physics of the Earth and to someone who can give lectures to increase knowledge and literature in their field.

The National Academy honored Alley for his study of the movement of ice sheets and streams, which he has shown can give important insight into the stability of the Earth’s ice masses in Antarctica and Greenland.

On April 26, Alley and Penn State distinguished professor of meteorology Michael Mann jointly received the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of the Planet Award at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

For Alley, riding a bicycle is central to his research. He said he can think best without his phone or email around him, so he does most of his science thinking and writing while in motion.

He regularly rides to and from campus on an All-City bike equipped with drop handlebars, fenders and a rack. Although his home is just 3 miles east of campus, he’ll take a 5-, 8- or 11-mile route.

“I will be down somewhere in Big Hollow below The Penn Stater, or coming in the old rail grade from Waddle, or down in the Spring Creek Canyon, stop, pull the computer out of the saddle bags and write up a page of new ideas,” Alley said.

If the weather is not safe to ride, he runs to work.

“I jog every day in the winter, just under 3 miles each way,” Alley said in an email.

“My favorite path involves going through Thompson Woods and then stopping at the Duck Pond across from the Centre Furnace to see who is visiting.

“A remarkable selection of the waterfowl in the Atlantic flyway drops in on the Duck Pond at some time during the year.”

Alley doesn’t own just one stationary bike. He has purchased seven: one for his office, one for each of his two daughters, three that are sprink-led about his department, and one for home.

“Unless the work he is doing needs a lot of concentration,” his wife, Cindy, said, “he is on the bike.”

Even in his childhood, Alley was on the move, exploring caves or moving rocks.

He grew up in Worthington, Ohio, and became interested in rocks at a very young age. He became involved in a few rock and mineral societies in the area that took him on caving and rock-climbing trips.

Alley and his family lived near an abandoned house, and he would explore the rocks that surrounded it, carrying home petrified wood and rocks he called “cool” to keep in a stash.

In the summer of 1977, after his first year at Ohio State University, Alley was looking at two available jobs. One was cleaning fossils with a dental brush.

The other was working with a glaciologist.

“I wasn’t quite sure what the glaciologist did, but it sounded really interesting and I am still doing it to this day,” he said.

The following year, Alley made his first trip to Antarctica to do paleo-magnetic sampling, the study of the orientation of a rock’s magnetic minerals and their alignment with minerals at the time of the rock’s formation.

On that summer trip, the famed glaciologist began his career with the menial task of pumping water out of a can by hand for hours every day.

Soon after he graduated in 1980, Alley married Cindy, a geology major as well, whom he met in the dorms at Ohio State.

He stayed at Ohio State to receive his master’s degree. His wife worked as a librarian to help pay for his degree.

“If my elder daughter, Janet, arrived on time, she would have arrived on the day I defended my thesis,” Alley said. “Luckily, she arrived a few days later.”

Alley earned his doctorate in 1987 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

After spending a year there as a post-doctorate, he was hired by the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at the time, Eric Barron.

Barron is set to replace Rodney Erickson as Penn State’s president on Monday.

“He told me at the time that he would get me a job, and he did,” Alley said. “I have been here ever since, and I now have my 25-year rocking chair sitting in my living room.”

When Alley joined the college, the department was growing. Barron hired a group who are still at Penn State. Alley said it’s the people he works with every day that is one of the reasons he has stayed so long.

“It is absolutely clear that this college is world-class,” he said.

Aside from his fame in glaciology, Alley is known among students for his online class, “Survey of the National Parks,” which has an enrollment of approximately 1,000 each semester.

The course includes virtual “field trips” to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The “field trips” are composed of photos taken by Alley and his team to help students visualize the concepts they are studying.

Alley is also popular for his “rocking” course-review videos set to music by groups like the Eagles or Johnny Cash. Cindy Alley assists in filming the videos.

Some of the videos are set in the middle of a forest. Alley sits on a rock, singing and playing his guitar. Family members provide accompaniment.

Other videos show Alley playing the piano and singing a song to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

When he is not traveling around the world conducting research and educating U.S. senators on global warming in Greenland, Alley enjoys bird-watching, hiking and, of course, riding his bicycle, on which he has logged almost 3,000 miles over the past several years.

He gardens and grows tomatoes and said his front yard is full of daffodils and tulips in the spring. He has also started growing kiwis — not the kind typically found in the grocery store but those that can survive in below-zero temperatures.

Once a week, Alley plays soccer in an adult league.

He is the oldest member of the team, Cindy Alley said, but is always the one at the end of the game with enough energy to do all the running.

Megan Caldwell is a Penn State journalism student.

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