44-year teaching and research career draws to a close for EMS associate dean

Hampton Nelson 'Nels' Shirer says he first got the weather bug growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, watching his father design and build weather monitoring equipment that they installed in their backyard.

“My dad was a physiology and cell biology and electrical engineering professor at the University of Kansas, and in his free time he liked to build instruments. He could build almost anything,” he said. “We had a shelter in our yard with instrumentation to measure daily temperatures, rainfall, the dew point, and more variables. As I got older I helped him collect data and improve upon his equipment.”

Shirer kept that interest in weather and discovered a passion for numbers in his teenage years. He majored in mathematics at the University of Kansas, and by participating in a research project, he realized that meteorology would allow him to apply his love of numbers to solve real-world problems.

Nels Shirer in Lawrence Weather Observatory

As an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, Nels Shirer got involved in undergraduate research and also helped create forecasts at the Lawrence weather observatory. Here, he is at the observatory next to weather instrumentation.

Image: Nels Shirer

“My father always encouraged me to do more than just take classes and he knew I liked meteorology. He asked me to connect with an atmospheric sciences researcher at the university, Joe Eagleman, to discuss research opportunities. Through this, I was able to get involved in research as an undergraduate, investigating safe areas of houses that were hit by tornadoes,” he said.

With his sights set on a meteorology research career, Shirer applied to meteorology graduate programs at different universities, including Penn State. A chance conversation made Penn State more than just a distant blip on his radar.

“I was speaking with a visiting scholar, Donald Perkey, who had taken graduate courses at Penn State and said the meteorology program was the best in the world. He said the faculty were supportive and always had their doors open,” he said. “He spoke so highly that I thought, even though I had received offers from other universities, Penn State seemed right for me.”

Taking a leap of faith by accepting his offer of admission without visiting campus, Shirer and his wife, Becky, drove more than 1,000 miles to University Park in 1972, where they would stay for the next 44 years.

Nels Shirer stands with his father

Hampton "Tony" Shirer (R), had a profound impact on the career of his son, Nels Shirer. Here, they stand for a photo in 2004 after building lightning monitoring weather equipment.

Image: Nels Shirer

From graduate researcher to instructor

Shirer’s graduate research focused on nonlinear dynamics, a method of investigating weather patterns and events, such as cloud streets, using complex mathematical equations. His graduate adviser was John Dutton, a meteorology professor at the time who would later become dean of EMS, from 1986 to 2002.

Through his work as a graduate student, Shirer demonstrated his potential as a future researcher and instructor.

“I thought he would be a very good teacher, and obviously my colleagues in the department agreed because we broke the rule of not hiring your own graduates. We hired him,” said Dutton.

Nels Shirer and John Dutton at Commencement, 1974

Nels Shirer stands with John Dutton at the 1974 Penn State Graduate School commencement ceremony.

Image: Nels Shirer

Shirer joined the department’s faculty as a researcher after receiving his doctorate in meteorology in 1978. He also began instructing classes. One of Shirer’s crowning achievements at Penn State happened in a graduate seminar he co-taught with Dutton. Shirer brought the class together to collectively write an academic book, “Nonlinear Hydrodynamic Modeling: A Mathematical Introduction,” which was published in 1987 by Springer-Verlag.

“Everyone in the class wrote a chapter. That’s a unique opportunity for students to have, and Nels offered it to everyone in the class. It was very uncommon to have a class go to this length,” said David Stensrud, one of Shirer’s students in the class and current head of Penn State’s Department of Meteorology.

Innovation in the classroom

In all classes he taught, Shirer tried to create innovative learning experiences, such as holding forecasting competitions in introductory undergraduate meteorology classes. This innovation and dedication in the classroom did not go unnoticed. He received the EMS Matthew J. and Anne C. Wilson Award for Excellence in Teaching in EMS in 1987 in honor of his dedication to students.

Shirer also had a knack for understanding course sequencing and student rules and regulations, which helped distinguish him among his colleagues as a reliable source of student and faculty policy information. In 1993, department head Dennis Thomson sought a faculty member to fill a new role of associate head of academic affairs, and he selected Shirer.

"It seems as though I have had one piece of good luck after another. To some extent, I think that’s because we are so supportive of one another here."
—Nels Shirer, associate dean for education, EMS

“I put together the first graduate handbook for the department, and as the program grew I began to focus on undergraduate programs, which I really enjoyed. There’s something satisfying about making sure that details fall into place for students,” Shirer said.

While rising through the department’s faculty ranks — from assistant to associate professor to associate head for academic affairs — Shirer looked for ways to get more students involved in research. That led him to a project that hearkened back to his early days of creating meteorology instruments from scratch. In 2005, he and his father, along with others in the department, installed a ‘lightning locator’ on the roof of the Walker Building. Shirer’s father had previously installed the same device on his house in Lawrence.

Tony Shirer standing next to completed lightning monitor

Tony Shirer, Nels' Shirer's father, stands next to one of the lightning monitors that the two, along with faculty in the Department of Meteorology, built. 

Image: Nels Shirer

“The lightning locator shows the direction of lightning by detecting electrical impulses discharged by lightning, which we call spherics. We were able to get undergraduate and graduate students involved in statistical analysis of data collected by the locator,” he says. “A few years before my dad passed, we also installed one on the roof of my house. It was a great project and a sort of unusual bonding you can have with your dad.”

Shirer continued focusing his attention on improving the student experience, which would ultimately help him advance within the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences administration to become associate dean for education.

Infectious enthusiasm

As associate dean, Shirer works in the Ryan Family Student Center, the college's advising, tutoring and social hub where EMS students frequently spend time.

“I enjoy being co-located with students and seeing them on a daily basis. EMS Student Council has an office right down the hall from mine,” he said. “There’s an infectious enthusiasm that comes with being so close to energetic students, whether it’s in the Ryan Family Student Center or at one of our student events.”

Nels Shirer stands with Stacy Davidson and James Guyton

L-R: Stacy Davidson, recruiter and academic adviser; James Guyton, coordinator of multicultural affairs; and Nels Shirer, associate dean for education, pose for a photo at the Earth and Mineral Sciences Exposition (EMEX), the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' annual student-run open house.

Image: Cheryl Nelson

Around the Ryan Family Student Center, he’s known among students as “Dean Nels” due to his “welcoming, friendly nature,” said Lydia Scheel, vice president of EMS Student Council and energy business and finance major.

“He has been such a big help to our college, especially with encouraging student activities. He’ll always say 'hi' to you and smile, and he sends us emails congratulating us on our successes, like EMS THON,” she said. “He’s just a really good, positive leader within our college, and we appreciate what he does for us.”

Shirer focused not only on students down the hall from his office, but also EMS students studying online via Penn State World Campus. Shirer and Annie Taylor, director of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, collaborated to make the unique EMS student programming available to students studying at a distance, including the EMS Undergraduate Poster Competition, the Earth and Mineral Sciences Academy for Global Experience (EMSAGE) and the Grundy Haven Paper Competition.

“Nels has a commitment to ensuring that all the college’s resources were accessible to our students who study online. More than that, he has such a wonderful approach. He is always open to new ideas, he has a wealth of information and he’s open to working with so many people,” she says.

In 2015, Shirer received the Penn State Commission for Adult Learners’ Shirley Hendrick Award, which recognizes an administrator whose visionary accomplishments have contributed significantly to foster and increase Penn State’s efforts to serve the adult learner.

Feeling fortunate

Looking back at his years spent developing research and working for students, Shirer says he feels lucky.

“It seems as though I have had one piece of good luck after another. To some extent, I think that’s because we are so supportive of one another here,” he said. “That support made me feel welcome and it has made my career really special. I feel fortunate that I fell into Penn State and never left.”

Shirer and his wife are both retiring in June 2016, and they plan to spend time traveling and visiting with their two grandchildren.

And, with more free time, Shirer also plans to continue working with the lightning locator on the roof of his house and on Walker Building—a lasting memory of his father and his time at Penn State.

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Last Updated April 21, 2016