Elburn resident named among NIU 2010 Board of Trustees Professors

By on April 23, 2010

Dekalb—Northern Illinois University recognized geology professor Ross Powell as one of its top professors.

Powell, of Elburn, is one of three professors who were awarded 2010 Board of Trustees (BOT) Professorships, recognizing faculty members who have achieved a consistent record of excellence in teaching, academic leadership, scholarship or artistry, and service and outreach.

Each BOT Professorship is accompanied by a $10,000 stipend, renewable annually during a five-year term.

Powell is a veteran NIU professor and world-renowned geologist. Whereas most people read books to learn about history, Powell reads rocks. He has gone to great lengths—from Arctic fjords to the bottom of the Antarctic sea—to recover sediments that he and other scientists use to interpret how ice sheets behaved millions of years ago and how they will react to global climate change in the future.

“Ross has put NIU on the map and has kept it there,” NIU colleague Reed Scherer said. “He recognized the importance of studying polar records of climate change long before climate change took its place at the forefront of critical research.”

Powell’s groundbreaking work early in his career in the Arctic and Alaskan glacial marine environments is now cited in textbooks on the topic. He currently serves as co-chief scientist of the $30 million international Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) Program, which involves more than 100 researchers.

In recent years, ANDRILL scientists drilled into the Antarctic seabed, retrieving sediment cores that hold a wealth of information about past ice sheet behavior during periods of warmer world climate. The information is vital to predicting how ice sheets and sea levels will respond to projected warmer temperatures in the future, and the project’s results have attracted worldwide media attention, including an upcoming NOVA special.

Powell’s work attracts millions of dollars in research funding. Just this past fall, the National Science Foundation awarded NIU $2.5 million for his lead role in a new project that will investigate ice sheet melting using a 24-foot-long robotic submarine.

Equally important is his mentoring of students, from undergraduates to post-doctorates. Many have accompanied their professor on research expeditions.

“The opportunity to work one-on-one with someone at the top of his field completely changed my whole educational experience,” said geology alumnus Ryan Cumpston, who as an undergraduate traveled with Powell on a 2005 research expedition to arctic Norway.

“You learn about something in a classroom, but to see and learn from someone who can do it so fluidly in the field takes it to a new level,” Cumpston said. “It was inspiring.”