Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program Receives AGU Award


The founders of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been selected by their peers as the 2008 recipients of the American Geophysical Union’s Excellence in Geophysical Education Award.

The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics (GFD) Program is an intensive, ten-week summer fellowship that brings together researchers from all over the world to debate how water and other fluids move in the ocean, on planets and stars, and in the atmosphere.

Started in 1959 by two WHOI scientists – George Veronis, now at Yale University, and Willem Malkus, now professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – the program sought to introduce graduate students to basic principles in a new field called geophysical fluid dynamics.

While much has changed in the field since then, the program still follows the highly interactive format put in place by members of the original steering committee: Edward E. Spiegel of Columbia University; Louis Howard of Florida State University; Melvin Stern of Florida State University; Henry Stommel of MIT; and Joseph Keller of Stanford University, in addition to Veronis and Malkus.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) honored the original steering committee members for “founding, running, and continued participation in the GFD program for 50 years.” Over the years, more than 450 student fellows and over 1000 visitors and have participated in the program.

The Excellence in Geophysical Education Award is given annually to acknowledge outstanding educators who have made a long lasting, positive impact on geophysical education. Veronis, still an active participant in the GFD program, accepted the award on May 29 at the AGU Meeting of the Americas 2008 Joint Assembly in Fort Lauderdale.

“I believe that I can speak for the others as well when I say that it isn’t our arrival at this half-century point that I find so satisfying about the GFD program,” said Veronis. “It’s what each of us has experienced every summer.”

Every summer, the fellowship begins with two weeks of principal lectures focused on the program’s theme; this year’s theme is Perspectives and Challenges in GFD. Past themes have included Tides, Dynamics of the Outer Planets, and the General Circulation of the Atmosphere. Graduate student fellows – usually eight to ten each year – are expected to prepare a summary of those principal lectures, then design and complete an individual research project under the supervision of the staff. At the end of August, students must present a lecture on the results of their individual research.

“The aim of the program is to induce fellows to learn by doing research rather than by taking courses,” Veronis said. “That transition is the most difficult one for graduate students to make.”

To help in that transition, staff work closely with the fellows cooperating on research efforts; they also break down the student-teacher barrier by playing softball together in WHOI’s summer softball league, Veronis said.

Housed in the small, quaint Walsh Cottage on the Woods Hole village campus, even the setting promotes intimacy between students and scientists. Following the highly interactive seminars the program is known for, students can often be found on the cottage’s porch discussing research and working on formulas with senior-level scientists.

“The GFD program has maintained a persistent, positive example of dynamic education by example and apprenticeship throughout its entire lifetime,” said Jack Whitehead, a scientist emeritus in the WHOI Department of Physical Oceanography and long-time organizer of the GFD program. “I wish every student could have such an experience.”

AGU is a worldwide scientific community that advances the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity. AGU conducts meetings and conferences, publishes journals, books and a weekly newspaper, and sponsors a variety of educational and public information programs.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.