Among the many interesting people that I met during a recent trip to Minnesota was Erik Brown, the Acting Director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at UMD, a PhD in oceanography from MIT- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a father, an inveterate traveller, and a Fulbright Scholar. For Erik, life has always been about water and about Fulbright.
Fulbright has played a consistent, perhaps even formative, role in Erik’s life. “I have been involved with Fulbright in one way or another since I was seven.” In addition to his own Fulbright experience, his father was a three-time Fulbright award recipient. When Erik was a child, a teenager, and young adult, he travelled with his father to Finland, to Turkey, and to Trinidad. The first grant, which allowed Erik’s father to engage in research in Finland when Erik was still a child, led to a trip across the Atlantic for three generations of the Brown family. “My whole family went over there at that point. My grandmother actually came over with us.” He was in the third grade when his family embarked on a sixteen-month adventure in Finland. As he recalls, “travelling at that age was fun, it was exciting.” Erik continued to travel with his father as a young adult. During his senior year in high school his father received a Fulbright grant to teach in Turkey. And, when Erik was in graduate school, he visited his father, who had received his third Fulbright award and was teaching in Trinidad.
Erik received his undergraduate degree in chemistry and his graduate degree in oceanography. One of the reasons for choosing his field of study was that he “wanted do something outdoors that had more travel opportunities.” He later traveled to Paris to conduct post-doctoral research that looked at climate history. In 2002, Erik became a Fulbright Scholar himself and set out with his own family to Aix-en Provence, France. He had wanted to work with the French Institute, and had already made connections through his post-doctoral research in Paris. “[Fulbright] is something I always knew was there, and it is one of the ways that makes these things happen” says Erik. His research involved examining records of the earth’s climate history preserved on the continent. He analysed sediments that had accumulated over time. The chemical composition of these sediments and how it changed reflects the changing environment.
Erik, whose life has been defined by travel, by opportunity, and by all things aquatic, is now involved in field programs in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and Australia. He travels around the world studying samples of lake sediment and piecing together the history of the region. Erik explains that these samples unveil secrets of climate change, “if there was a volcanic eruption, there is evidence of that preserved in the sediment.” Erik is currently working on a project in East Africa. Headed by the University of Arizona and in partnership with Universities in Kenya and Ethiopia, Erik and other scientists are drilling sediments from ancient lakes that no longer exist. They are collecting samples of sediment that were deposited in key moments of hominid evolution. “Early humans were living in that part of the world, and we are trying to get information on the climate they lived in. Was it stable and were there lots of shifts from decade to decade?” This information is not currently available, and there is a need to look at the planet as a whole. “Abrupt changes in climate in one area, that may have happened over 10 years or a century, are reflected all over the planet – there is a real interconnectedness,” he explains. Understanding how the planet behaved in the past, sheds light on what is happening today.
Erik’s pursuit of knowledge, his commitment to excellence, and his taste for adventure will undoubtedly affect the lives of his children. Like his father, Erik has trekked his children across the globe. In fact, his third child was born in France when Erik was on his Fulbright. “All my kids like to travel” he says. A few years ago Erik and his family spent a semester in Birmingham, England, and last year they travelled to the University of Tasmania in Australia. “Some kids are intimidated by travel, but when I come home and say there is a possibility we will be spending 3 month in Tasmania next year – they scream YAY!”
In the end, we are defined by who we are, what we believe in, and what we accomplish. Fulbright has had the privilege, in this case and in others, to play some role in helping to shape the life and the career of a scholar, a researcher, a father, and a man of the world.