Career Profile: Frederick E. “Fritz” Nelson

Frederick E. (“Fritz”) Nelson is Professor of Geography at the University of Delaware. With several close colleagues, Nelson (Ph.D. Michigan) has been awarded grants amounting to more than $4 million for research and education relating to permafrost, geomorphology, and applications of spatial analysis in coldregions science. His publications include two coauthored monographs, several edited volumes, and nearly one hundred articles in leading journals, including Nature, Science, Annals of the AAG, and Physical Geography. Besides more than 125 conference presentations, Nelson has lectured at numerous universities, and organizations in the U.S. and abroad. He currently chairs the AAG’s Cryosphere Specialty Group.

This profile was published in 2004. Fritz is currently still a Professor of Geography at the University of Delaware

AAG: What inspired your work in geography?

Fritz: As far back as I can remember I was interested in landscapes. I grew up in northern Michigan and spent a lot of time in the woods wondering about how nature works. As a sophomore in college, I discovered geography by taking a regional course. It was a revelation to me that what I was interested in could also be some form of gainful work. I found my calling!

AAG: Has your work satisfied that youthful curiosity about landscapes?

Fritz: Well, let’s just say that it’s been extended significantly. Science is an ongoing enterprise and one discovery generates ten more questions to pursue. AAG: What questions present a challenge today? Fritz: The work I’ve been involved in over the last decade is primarily global climate change science. One of the big challenges is sorting out the broad effects of climate change from more localized anthropogenic effects.

AAG: How can that challenge be met?

Fritz: On the ground, this is a commingled problem of insufficient observation networks and accounting for improper land uses and infrastructure design. With many colleagues and students, I’ve been involved with building an extensive network of observation sites—the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring Program—with more than 120 sites in both polar regions. We’ve just submitted a proposal to NSF for a second five-year block of support.

AAG: Do you run into problems with the time scale of funding programs versus the longer time scales your research is concerned with?

Fritz: Absolutely. Compounding that kind of scale mismatch, some funding agencies aren’t terribly interested in monitoring programs, although they are beginning to recognize their value for the long term.

AAG: What do you consider geography’s unique contribution to climate science?

Fritz: I think it lies in the nature of geography being an integrative discipline. We have a real advantage in the sense that our training involves a spatial focus, as well as a wide spectrum of science and social science. If we use that in an effective way, we can move into leadership roles.

AAG: How would you describe your experience in this role?

Fritz: I was trained—as most geographers of my generation were—to work either in isolation or in small groups, but not so much collaboratively with large groups of people from other disciplines. When I joined an interdisciplinary arctic system science program, I was well into my career and it was a completely new experience. All of a sudden, I was part of a very large and interdependent team, including ecologists, people from other branches of earth science, and some social scientists. My geographical training helped. It was a very steep learning curve to work in that context, but a very profitable one.

AAG: How so?

Fritz: Expanded horizons—the scale and importance of the scientific problems you can participate in investigating. One of the advantages of being a geographer in a collaborative effort is our spatial perspective, and having a routine part of our training in spatial analysis. I’ve found that in my work it gives me a real advantage. An awful lot of work in the natural sciences now is involved with spatial integration, not with measurements at point locations as an end unto themselves.

AAG: How can geographers take advantage of these opportunities?

Fritz: If you aspire to be a physical geographer, you have to do as much coursework in mathematics and science as possible. Once you’re trained and out of school, you have to work collaboratively, stay current in a wide swath of literature, and pursue funding opportunities aggressively. AAG: You first joined the AAG in 1973, when you were an undergrad at Northern Michigan University. What keeps you as a member? Fritz: Well, it’s the primary organization for professional geographers. It’s very important, I think, for anyone who is in American geography to be a part of the organization in order to stay informed and contribute to the discipline.

AAG: What’s in store next?

Fritz: Most immediately, I’m waiting to hear back on a couple of proposals. I’m on sabbatical this year and trying to catch up on a lot of the manuscripts I’m behind on! Over the longer term, I’m probably going to spend more time working on problems in geomorphology and its scientific history.

Dr. Patrica Solis, 2004