Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Changnon, Powell and Smith named
as 2010 Board of Trustees Professors

March 22, 2010

by Tom Parisi and Joe King

NIU is recognizing three faculty members who are standouts in, well, just about everything.

David ChangnonRoss Powell and Pamela Smith have been named as the 2010 Board of Trustees Professors. Established in 2007, the professorships recognize faculty members who have achieved a consistent record of excellence in teaching, academic leadership, scholarship or artistry, and service and outreach.

Special emphasis is placed on the recognition of those who have earned widespread acclaim for their scholarship or artistry and continue to engage students in their research and professional activities.

“David Changnon, Ross Powell and Pamela Smith – these are well-known names, both within our campus community and within their respective fields of expertise,” NIU President John Peters says.

“They are truly standout members of our faculty who excel in every aspect of teaching, research and service,” he adds. “They challenge their students, ask probing questions of the world around them, inspire their colleagues and make all of us at NIU extremely proud.”

Each BOT Professorship is accompanied by a $10,000 stipend, renewable annually during a 5-year term. The BOT Professorship awards will be presented during the annual Faculty Awards Ceremony and Reception beginning at 3 p.m. Monday, April 19, in the Altgeld Hall Auditorium.

Here’s a closer look at the 2010 BOT Professors.

Creating a learning climate

David Changnon

Any student interested in meteorology would covet an opportunity to intern with the weather guru of gurus, Tom Skilling.

Fortunately for NIU meteorology undergraduates, Professor David Changnon has an in. Over the past decade, he has supplied WGN-TV’s famous weatherman with more than 50 interns who have assisted Skilling with his broadcasts and Chicago Tribune weather page.

“It’s hard to put into words what it means to work with Tom Skilling,” says senior Robert Clavey II, who was encouraged by Changnon to apply for the internship. “I’m learning so much in my time at WGN that I cannot thank Dr. Changnon enough for the opportunities he offered me.”

When it comes to experts in weather and climate, Changnon has used his many contacts nationwide to make hands-on experience a hallmark of the NIU meteorology program, for which he serves as undergraduate adviser.

In the mid-1990s, Changnon won a grant to develop an applied climatology course that has resulted in students working alongside professionals, winning internships and landing jobs. During the course, students conduct research that helps businesses such as Allstate Insurance, Del Monte Foods and United Airlines make better-informed, weather-sensitive decisions.

And, yes, they help with daily weather forecasts, too, not only on WGN-TV but also at TV stations in Rockford and downstate Illinois.

“Professor Changnon is the leading advocate for including hands-on applied climatological work experience as part of an undergraduate degree program in atmospheric science,” says Julie Winkler, a professor of geography at Michigan State University. “He has developed perhaps the only truly applied climatology course offered at a U.S. academic institution.

“What a remarkable learning experience for these undergraduate students,” she adds.

Changnon himself is one of the nation’s leading scholars in applied climatology, focusing on the human and societal impacts of climate and climate change. He has researched trends in snowstorms, flooding, droughts, cyclone frequency and heat waves. He also has shown how businesses can benefit from long-term seasonal forecasts and documented the impact of climate change on agriculture, as well as the impact of changing agricultural practices on climate.

Amazingly, nearly 40 percent of his published articles, some of which have gained widespread media attention, were co-authored by students. They credit him with connecting textbooks to their life experiences and inspiring their meteorology careers.

“Without his guidance, patience and encouragement, I know I would not be where I am today in my own career,” says Tamara Houston, who as a student co-authored research with Changnon. She now works as a physical scientist for NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Changnon also is known for service to his profession and to NIU. He has participated as a reviewer for the International Panel for Climate Change and served on the American Meteorology Society’s undergraduate degree-experience committee. Active in many faculty teams at NIU, he recently led a task force on curricular innovation, exploring ways to improve teaching.

“David Changnon represents the epitome of a fully engaged professor,” says Andrew Krmenec, chair of the Department of Geography, which oversees the meteorology program.

Adds colleague Lesley Rigg, “Every time I look in his office, he is with students. Every time I am amazed by the passion of a lecturer in a classroom, it is Dave’s voice I hear. And every time a professor is rallying the cause of student research and mentored learning in a faculty meeting, it is Dave. He is by far one of the most inspirational, demanding and creative teachers and researchers on campus.”

Pre-eminent polar explorer

Ross Powell

In 1974, Ross Powell, then a graduate student in his native New Zealand, boarded a military aircraft bound for Antarctica. Dressed in a survival suit, he traveled eight hours before the plane glided to a landing on a gleaming runway made of ice.

Powell remembers that day as clearly as a blue-skied Antarctic morning. In a sense, his first research expedition “on the ice” provided a glimpse into his future as a polar scientist. It was also his initial exposure to NIU students, who were participating in the continent’s first geologic drilling effort.

Today Powell is a veteran NIU professor and world-renowned geologist. Whereas most people read books to learn about history, Powell reads rocks. He has gone to great lengths – from Arctic fjords to the bottom of the Antarctic sea – to recover sediments that he and other scientists use to interpret how ice sheets behaved millions of years ago and how they will react to global climate change in the future.

“Ross has put NIU on the map and has kept it there,” NIU colleague Reed Scherer says. “He recognized the importance of studying polar records of climate change long before climate change took its place at the forefront of critical research.”

Powell’s groundbreaking work early in his career on Arctic and Alaskan glacial marine environments is now cited in textbooks on the topic. He currently serves as co-chief scientist of the $30 million international Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) Program, which involves more than 100 researchers.

In recent years, ANDRILL scientists drilled into the Antarctic seabed, retrieving sediment cores that hold a wealth of information about past ice sheet behavior during periods of warmer world climate. The information is vital to predicting how ice sheets and sea levels will respond to projected warmer temperatures in the future, and the project’s results have attracted worldwide media attention, from the Chicago Tribune’s front page to an upcoming NOVA special.

“The drill core record is regarded as the most important scientific discovery from Antarctica in 30 years,” says Tim Naish, director of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Naish serves with Powell as an ANDRILL co-chief scientist.

“Ross’s passion has always been in understanding how ice sheets and glaciers are influenced by global climate, and he has a strong commitment to communicating to the public and policymakers the likely impacts. Without doubt, he is pre-eminent in his field.”

Powell’s work attracts millions of dollars in research funding. Just this past fall, the National Science Foundation awarded NIU $2.5 million for his lead role in a new project that will investigate ice sheet melting using a 24-foot-long robotic submarine.

Powell has made nearly 250 presentations at scientific meetings and published more than a hundred major research articles in premier journals, including one of Nature’s top-cited geosciences papers in the last two years. He serves on a dizzying array of national and international scientific steering committees.

Equally important is his mentoring of students, from undergraduates to post-docs. Many have accompanied their professor on research expeditions.

“The opportunity to work one-on-one with someone at the top of his field completely changed my whole educational experience,” says geology alumnus Ryan Cumpston, who as an undergraduate traveled with Powell on a 2005 research expedition to arctic Norway.

“You learn about something in a classroom, but to see and learn from someone who can do it so fluidly in the field takes it to a new level. It was inspiring.”

‘An interactive journey to understand accounting’

Pam Smith

When Enron defense attorneys needed someone who could get a layman to understand derivatives, the complex financial tools at the heart of their dealings, they called Pam Smith.

Smith, who is internationally acclaimed for her ability to strip the topic to its essence, was as good as advertised. Ultimately, however, they chose not to put her on the stand. Her expertise in another area got in the way. That topic? Ethics. She refused to compromise her ethics in order to “spin” their story.

Smith, who holds the title of KPMG Professor of Accountancy in the NIU College of Business, continues to excel in both arenas.

Today she is an almost unchallenged expert in the teaching of derivatives and hedge accounting. She draws rave reviews from students, whether they are undergraduates, MBA students or working professionals.

According to at least one former student, her courses are more than just a class. “Dr. Smith’s classroom environment is more than just an accounting class, it’s an interactive journey to understand accountancy in a way that challenges students to ask questions, research and seek out answers regarding complex issues,” said Eric Manus, who also worked for Smith as a graduate assistant.

Her approach to teaching the topic received last year’s American Accounting Association Innovation in Accounting Education Award, the most prestigious accolade of its kind.

That prize was one of the most prestigious in a long line of teaching honors for Smith. She was the Department of Accountancy’s outstanding educator for four straight years (1999-2002); in 2008 she was named the Outstanding Educator of the Year by the Illinois CPA Society; and students of the NIU Executive MBA Program have named her the outstanding instructor in that program four years running.

Her expertise and accessible teaching style put her in great demand with companies such as Abbot Labs, Accenture and some of the top international accounting firms each year.

Smith is nearly as well known for her work as a champion of ethics education and delivers ethics training to organizations such as the Illinois Government Finance Officers Association.

After helping to create a certificate in ethics for NIU students in the 1990s, she jumped at the chance to serve on a College of Business task force that created the BELIEF (Building Ethical Leaders using an Integrated Ethics Framework) initiative. The program incorporates ethics training into nearly every business course, teaching students to apply simple benchmarks to all sorts of ethical dilemmas. The program has been held up as a Best Practice by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. After years as the informal champion of the program Smith officially assumed the title of BELIEF coordinator for 2008 and 2009.

Smith is the senior faculty member in the NIU Department of Accountancy, bridging two generations of outstanding accountancy educators who have brought acclaim and high rankings to the department. She has authored more than 30 articles for refereed journals, is an active participant in all facets of university service, and finds time to a volunteer to provide comfort at hospitals, nursing homes and children’s programs in the community with her certified therapy dogs.

Her success has made her an attractive prize for other programs looking to enhance their own faculty, but she has steadfastly remained a Huskie.

“Pam has remained committed to NIU because she believes in its mission and values,” College of Business Dean Denise Schoenbachler wrote in her letter of support. “It is not about money or recognition for Pam or she would have left NIU years ago; it is about teaching great students and pushing forward the importance of ethics education and contributing to her discipline and the practice of accounting … I cannot think of another faculty member I have encountered across the university who so perfectly exemplifies the criteria for the Board of Trustees Professorship.”