Montana State retired Regents Professor elected a fellow of American Geophysical Union

Thursday Sep. 14th, 2023

– Montana State University Regents Professor Emerita of Earth Sciences Cathy Whitlock is one of 54 individuals recently elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest Earth and space sciences association. It is the highest honor bestowed by the organization.  

Whitlock was selected for her outstanding scientific achievements and exemplary leadership, according to a statement from AGU. Fellows are also selected for exemplifying integrity, respect and collaboration while creating deep engagement in education, diversity and outreach.

Whitlock has produced groundbreaking research for more than 40 years in the field of past climate and environmental change. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Joint Fire Sciences Program, National Park Service, Department of Energy, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Upon joining the faculty in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences in 2004, Whitlock established the MSU Paleoecology Lab, which supports postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students and visiting scientists from around the world. The lab focuses on reconstructing vegetation, fire and climate histories to understand how past ecosystems responded to climate change and how ecosystems may respond to ongoing and future changes. She also co-founded the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and served as its first MSU director from 2011-2017.

Whitlock’s scientific discoveries on past ecosystem dynamics during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park have informed resource management decisions and conservation efforts and led to new methods for reconstructing long-term fire histories – techniques that are now used worldwide.

“MSU has been very supportive of my research, and Yellowstone provides a world-class laboratory for educating students,” Whitlock said. “I couldn’t ask for a better combination.”

The AGU award is the most recent in a long line of high honors for Whitlock, who retired from MSU in 2021 but contracts with the university to conduct research in Yellowstone National Park and co-advise students. In 2018, she was named a Montana University System Regents Professor and in 2019 became the first Montanan inducted as a fellow into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a scientist can achieve. NAS members are elected by their peer scholars in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, and membership is widely accepted as a mark of excellence in science. Two other MSU professors have since been elected as fellows to the NAS – Joan Broderick, head of MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Dana Longcope, head of the Department of Physics, both in the College of Letters and Science.

Yves Idzerda, dean of the College of Letters and Science, said the recognitions that Whitlock continues to receive from her peers are impressive.

“We are privileged to have faculty members with prestigious international reputations, like professor Whitlock, working with students here at MSU and within the College of Letters and Science,” he said. “Cathy continues to do research and contribute to our understanding of the complex ecosystems of areas like Yellowstone, serving as an example for students and fellow faculty alike.”

AGU will formally recognize this year’s recipients at its conference in San Francisco in December.

“It is truly an honor to be elected as an AGU fellow and gratifying to have contributed to our understanding of climate change and its impacts on ecosystems,” Whitlock said.