Fresh Faculty: Nick Holschuh

Nick Holschuh is an assistant professor of geology. He received a bachelor’s degree in geology and economics from Carleton College and a doctorate in geological sciences at Pennsylvania State University. 

Q: What led you to pursue your field of study?

A: I study the dynamics of the Antarctic ice sheet. As an undergraduate student, I knew I was excited about the earth system. I wanted to do something that was STEM-related [and] felt like it had a connection to human systems, to our health and well-being going forward. I knew I liked math and physics, so I wanted to find some intersection between earth system dynamics, math and physics that [would] let me tackle a problem that felt societally relevant. [That] drove me towards climate and thinking about the climate from the perspective of a geophysicist, [which] led me to study our earth’s ice sheets — these very remote, very exotic aspects of the climate system that happen to be our number one source of uncertainty for future sea levels. [Pursuing this path] gave me the opportunity to go to amazing [and] beautiful places that I would never have gone [to] otherwise, [while] still using math to study the earth, which was, in my eyes, the combination of all the things I was looking for.

Q: What brought you to Amherst?

A: I [earned] my undergraduate degree at Carleton College, a liberal arts school in Minnesota. When I got my Ph.D., I was excited about both paths — either the path that goes towards the large, research-focused university academics, or the small liberal arts, undergraduate-focused path. I was applying to jobs in both, and Amherst happened to put up a solicitation for a job that was looking for either a geophysicist or someone who studies the climate. When I saw that, I was like, “I do both of those things!” So there was a kind of serendipity in the job ad that made me feel like I had to apply. And the rest is history.

Q: What courses are you currently teaching?

A: Right now, I am teaching a climate dynamics class [called “Climate Dynamics: Past, Present, and Future”]. It’s an upper level class [covering the] physics of climate. [It] focuses on how the climate system works, and then uses geologic archives of earth’s history over the last four and a half billion years to describe how the climate has changed, how perturbations to that system have affected the dynamics of climate through time. I’m also teaching one of our introductory series classes in the geology department, “Surficial Earth Dynamics,” which looks at the surface layer of the earth and all the processes that govern behavior at earth’s surface. In the fall, I got the chance to teach the broad, interdisciplinary [course, “Climate Change: Science and Rhetoric,” on] modern climate change [and] anthropogenic global warming. It brought students from humanities, social sciences[and] STEM together to talk about global warming. That was a really fun class to teach.

Q: What has been your favorite teaching experience so far at Amherst?

A: That’s a hard question. I’ve had lots of really fun teaching experiences, but I’ve only been here for eight months. Geology 109 — “Climate Change: Science and Rhetoric” — was fun because it brought non-STEM students together with STEM students to think about climate change from a very interdisciplinary perspective. I really enjoyed engaging with students who had expertise in fields way beyond my own, who could bring their knowledge to the classroom. 

The climate dynamics class I’m teaching [now] is, for many students, their first exposure to big data in the geosciences, so I get to give them a gentle introduction to Python, computer science and data science in the earth system. It’s been really great to see them feel empowered to dive into these huge datasets. As soon as we went to space and we could look back at the earth from satellites, the volume of data that we have about the earth system went up exponentially. Now I’m giving students the tools they need to dig into that data on their own. I think it’s a fun experience for me and a fun experience for the students.

Q: When I was shopping for courses this past semester, I noticed a Python course in astronomy! Are there intersections between statistics and data in the hard sciences?

A: [Assistant Professor of Astronomy] Kate Follette — Kate is the one who teaches that astronomy course — and I represent a few of the many faculty who sit outside of math, computer science and statistics, [but] who view ourselves as data scientists, — people who use these large datasets and try and to reduce them to interpretable, human-visualizable results. She and I have been thinking very deeply about how we can expand the use of Python (we both use Python, although I know in statistics they use R) to demonstrate the power to every discipline in using some of these computer science techniques.

Q: What are your research interests?

A: My research interests are — I was about to say ‘diverse,’ but depending on your perspective, studying the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets does not feel that diverse. A lot of people think of earth’s ice sheets as very passive components of the climate system, where you turn up the thermostat by warming the atmosphere, and the ice sheets melt passively, like an ice cube you left out on your counter. But it turns out, they are very dynamic systems in their own right, and their dynamics are critical to their response to anthropogenic warming.

When we [think about] global warming occurring over the next century — the long term behavior of the ice sheets and their ultimate contribution to sea level— predicting that requires really understanding how the ice sheets themselves work. I use both direct, on-the-ground observations that I’ve collected in Antarctica [and] satellite remote sensing data [in my research]. I’m part of a NASA mission focused on one of our most recent earth-observing satellites called ICESat-2. It’s a green laser that orbits the planet and measures with high precision the surface elevation of the planet on three-month timescales. Linking together those in-situ observations of the ice, spaceport observations of the ice[and] our understanding of what the climate is doing to force the system, leads to these really rich [and] interesting questions about how ice sheets behave — how they respond to a warmer ocean or atmosphere.

Q:  How has the pandemic affected your teaching and your research?

A: I’ve been developing my classes from scratch since I arrived. My work is pretty computational to begin with, and because now we’re all stuck [on] our computers, I’ve leaned pretty heavily into the computational side of my science, giving students an opportunity to really leverage this virtual digital environment and use that as a platform to think about the earth system. 

But arriving at a new place, not knowing anyone and teaching remotely definitely comes with its own challenges. All of the fun, organic social interactions that I [could] have [had] with other faculty [and] with students,  [are] kind of lost, because Zoom meetings are very focused — you go to one because you have to, not because you want to. There have definitely been challenges associated with trying to develop those close relationships that I think really benefit from the in-person, informal, non-class-related interactions. But I think that my classes, all in all, have gone better than expected because the students have been really willing to engage in the Zoom learning environment. Even though I’m teaching hybrid this semester — my lab for my climate dynamics class brings all the on-campus students together into a room,  [which] has been great — regardless of if I were teaching hybrid or [fully remote], I’ve been impressed with students’ willingness to engage with computational methods from afar. That’s been very rewarding.

One of the challenges of Covid is the things in our life that give  [it] structure are a little bit gone. I walk ten steps from my bed to my computer, and my mental state doesn’t change very much, whereas before, I would get up, I’d go into the office, and the change of location, the effort it takes to get there, all of those things would help you re-situate your mind into the day. The Zoom classroom does still provide a little bit of structure, which is nice. I think it makes it easier.

Q: What is your favorite book?

A: Oh, that’s a good question. I think my favorite book is “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. I love science fiction and I love fantasy, but I read a lot of pulpy science fiction and fantasy that I can’t recommend in good company. “The Sparrow” is one of those books that combines all of the things that keep me engaged with fiction, while also addressing extremely deep, extremely personal, philosophical questions about life, religion and the nature of the human experience. There is no book I[’ve] found that can make you so happy and feel so devastated in the span of a few pages as “The Sparrow” [can]. It’s a great book. It’s very depressing at times, so if you’re feeling like you need something uplifting, “The Sparrow” may not be the right choice for you. But once we reopen, and you’re interested in engaging in some science fiction that makes you think very deeply about the state of the world, I cannot recommend “The Sparrow” more highly.