Penn State

Penn State dean of EMS chosen for National Science Foundation post

William Easterling, dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, talks about letting scientists do what they’re good at in his office in Deike Building on May 12.
William Easterling, dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, talks about letting scientists do what they’re good at in his office in Deike Building on May 12.

William Easterling is going to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. He might also go on a deep-sea diving research vessel.

Those are just a couple elements of his new job that he’s looking forward to.

The dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences has been selected to head the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) in Washington, D.C., a four-year appointment that begins June 1.

GEO provides about 61 percent of federal funding for basic research in the geosciences at academic institutions. That research spans atmospheric, earth, ocean and polar sciences.

Easterling will also manage a complete renovation of the McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is why he’ll be heading south for a visit at some point during his time with NSF — likely in October, he said.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Dean Easterling, who will now be in a position to help guide investment in basic research across the nation with the goal of increasing the understanding of issues that impact our environment,” university President Eric Barron said in a statement.

Easterling has always been a proponent of the value of basic research, Barron said.

The important thing about the research funded by NSF is that it’s often curiosity driven, Easterling said.

“It may not be of any immediate advantage or use by society, but just knowing the answer is important,” he said. “It’s intrinsically important. And who knows, someday that answer could cause a revolution in some kind of new technology.”

The NSF will greatly benefit from Easterling’s knowledge and insight, Provost Nick Jones said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, though, it represents the loss to Penn State of a strong force in Earth and Mineral Sciences,” Jones said.

Science was a part of Easterling’s childhood growing up with a dad who served as a medical school physician.

The family moved from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Tennessee and then made the journey out West when Easterling’s dad took a postdoc at UCLA.

Easterling was 10, and he said it was an eye-opening experience to see the landscape change across the country.

“I was just old enough to really appreciate it,” he said. “And so I was quite taken at an early age by environmental sciences and geology and weather and just how it varied so much across the places that I lived. That deep-seated interest stuck with me through college.”

Easterling said he’s spent his career examining whether climate change will cause more food insecurity across the planet.

“My research has been on the question of: If we are to have a world with 10 billion people in it by the middle part of this century, can we feed all those people and not overuse the natural resources that it takes to produce that food? And can we do it as the climate changes?” Easterling said.

He said he’s stayed somewhat active in research throughout his time as dean.

Easterling has been dean of EMS since 2007, and though he’ll be “on loan” to NSF from the university, he said he’ll still have some responsibility to Penn State.

After his time with the NSF, he said he intends to return to a faculty position at the university.

Among the high points of his career with Penn State so far, he said, is seeing the creation of the research institutes across the university.

He was the inaugural director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

These institutes were “almost unprecedented” in their ability in cross-disciplinary research across colleges with the resources of the university, not strictly on government grants, Easterling said.

He also praised EMS’ “amazing” faculty, breadth and depth of work on energy and high-quality students.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz