Gatepost Interview: Gregory Zielinski Department of Physics and Earth Science

(Photo by Kayllan Olicio)

What is your educational and professional background?

I got my bachelor’s from Penn State. I got a master’s from Idaho State and I got my Ph.D. from UMass Amherst. Professionally, after the Ph.D., I was at George Mason at Fairfax, Virginia for three years, but then they got rid of the department. It ended up being the best thing professionally to happen because then I was a research faculty member at UNH, then UMaine. … I worked with ice cores – reconstructing climate while looking at ice cores, among other things. I was one of the leaders in the world in this one area of research – looking at how volcanic eruptions affect climate. I did that for 17 years. It was soft money, so I had to generate my own salary. I was very successful at it, or else you don’t last that long. But I got burnt out. I felt like I needed to take a break. So, I took a couple of years. I actually got a master’s in exercise science, I was a personal trainer for a little while. … I was also the Maine state climatologist when I was up there.   

What has been your greatest professional accomplishment and what has been your greatest challenge?

When I did this work, in all honesty I can say I was one of the top two researchers in the world in my specific area – the top one in the United States. Because of the work I did, I was actually featured in documentaries – NOVA, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, History Channel. I have even forgotten how many I was on. I had many findings. I was in the right place at the right time and took advantage of it. And I was able to really make a name for myself and some big discoveries as far as how volcanic eruptions affect climate. … I was always making sure I could keep going and doing. That probably was the biggest challenge, just because of the position I was in. If you are in an academic position in a big research institution, you can get a lot more students to do your work. I couldn’t get as many students as I would have liked, because I needed money to pay my own salary. I had a lot of undergrads in my research, but not many graduate students just because of that.

What has been a memorable moment in your career?

One big highlight was being on NOVA. And that was involved with the biggest eruption of the last 500,000 years in the world. It was called Toba. It happened 75,000 years ago. It’s one of those eruptions … that’s the same as Yellowstone. They’re gigantic. It’s like the biggest known type of eruption and it could have led to 200 years of climatic cooling. If something like that happened today, there would be societies that would collapse easily because agriculture would be so impacted.     

Do you plan to continue your research in climate change?

I don’t know. What I would probably continue doing is something I was doing right at the end of when I got out of research. I was looking at personal diaries, annals and newspapers back into the 1700s and 1800s and reconstructing past climate and weather events. It’s really interesting to read this type of stuff, and I’ve had students involved in it. You are reading something from someone who lived in the early 1800s and their language and what they are talking about is so unique.

What is something your students would be surprised to know about you?

I’ve been able to go to all these – what people would think to be exotic places in the world. I’ve been to Antarctica. I’ve been to the top of the Greenland ice sheet. I’ve done work in the canyon Arctic. I’ve been in a research field that is very important, and I got to do really important things.   

You’ve eaten polar bear. What was that like?   

I’ve legally eaten it. I was doing a project. I was working with the Geological Survey of Canada. We were working on an ice core in the Penny Ice Cap – that’s a national park. So, while we were up there drilling the ice core, a ranger had to come up and make sure we weren’t distorting anything and he brought up an Inuit helper with him whose father had gotten a polar bear the week before. I don’t know if they still can – they used to be able to take one polar bear a year because they use it all. So, while we were up on top of the ice, the Inuit cooked polar bear for us. So, we got to eat polar bear. … A lot of people ask if it tastes like chicken. I felt it tasted like fish. Polar bears eat seals and seals eat fish so, it kind of makes sense. It’s very fatty, which you would expect. It’s kind of a darkish meat. He boiled it for ages. He used up a lot of gas in the camp stove, but I think he boiled it for two-to-four hours, if I remember.

What advice would you give to FSU students?

Shoot for the stars. … Work hard and be persistent. Something will come about if you can’t make it yourself. I mean, if you have this goal and keep plugging at it, sometimes things will fall on your lap that you didn’t expect.

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