Dr. Allan Weatherwax, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs



Allan Weatherwax, former dean of the School of Science and Engineering at Merrimack, was elevated in January to provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. A physicist and astronomer, he has conducted geophysical research in the Antarctic and Arctic for decades, and served as a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The Weatherwax Glacier in the Antarctic stands as testament to his contributions to the field. We spoke in his office at Austin Hall.

Q: So, what’s the greatest benefit of having a glacier named for you?
(Laughs.) I always joke that, with global warming, it could be a fleeting honor. You know, I’ve dedicated a large portion of my life—over 20 years—to working in the Antarctic. Having the glacier named for me is a nice recognition of my work, but it hasn’t exactly brought me fame and fortune. I guess the greatest benefit is it makes a nice ice-breaker at an event where they ask you to say something unusual or unexpected about yourself.

Q: Can you recall the first time it occurred to you that you wanted to be a scientist?
It’s funny you ask. My mother recently came across one of my class assignments from second or third grade, where I talked about wanting to travel to the South Pole. It must have been after I read a story about the Antarctic explorers. As long as I can remember, science has been a part of my life. In high school, I started working at a planetarium. That’s when I truly knew I was going to be an astronomer and a physicist.

Q: Can you describe the feeling of cold in the Antarctic to someone who has never been there?
When you go out into the field on the coastline of Antarctica, you can see the penguins and the orcas, and that’s fun. But when you start going into the interior, at 10-, 12-, 14,000 feet, on the icecap, that’s where you feel, “This is Antarctica.” It’s completely white, it’s cold, and you’re enveloped by this beautiful isolation and desolation. It’s powerful. It’s a cold you’ve never felt—a constant cold—where you understand if you’re not adequately protected, you will die, quickly.

Q: What’s the secret to surviving in an environment like that?
First, it’s good planning. I’ll begin preparing a year in advance for our team to go out and put experiments out in the field. Second, it’s knowing what your limits are. I’m very good in the field, but we always take along a mountaineer, usually someone who has climbed K2 or Everest, and who really knows what they’re doing. And third, it’s not taking chances. On a ski slope, you can go out of bounds a little bit, and you know you’re going to get there. In the Antarctic, if you cut corners, you and your team could be killed.

Q: What’s your favorite place on campus?
I enjoy sitting by Mendel Pond, on one of the Adirondack chairs, later in the afternoon and doing a little reading or catching up on email. I also love going to the (Mendel) observatory. I often take students there, but occasionally I’ll go up by myself, and it’s a very peaceful experience.

Q: Name three people, living or dead, whom you most admire.
I’ve done a lot of work on the history of polar exploration, so the first person who comes to mind is (Ernest) Shackleton. He was a great leader of men—and back then, it was all men—who survived some of the worst conditions imaginable. Another person is John Toll, the former president of Stony Brook University and former chancellor of the University of Maryland. He also was a great leader, a great physicist and someone who was a true mentor to me later in my life. Finally, I’d say Mozart. I’m a huge lover of classical music, and there’s absolutely no mistaking his genius.

Q: Three words that your friends would use to describe you.
Collegial, honest and upbeat. I’d be very content if that’s how my friends thought of me.

Q: What’s your dream vacation?
For a quiet and peaceful vacation, I love New Zealand. I’ve had a chance to visit there many times, and I never get tired of it. The other place I love is Paris. Between the food and the art, it would not be a problem to spend a couple of months there.

Q: Teach me something I don’t already know.
If you could see in the microwave spectrum, the whole world, when you looked out, would glow, all the time. This is due to the background radiation of microwaves that are remnants of the Big Bang. It’s called the cosmic microwave background, and it was discovered by (Arno) Penzias and (Robert) Wilson in the 1960s.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
As a president of a college or university. I’d be looking to lead an institution that has mission at its core, as Merrimack does. That’s what really resonates with me.