Geography’s Brent Yarnal to retire from Penn State

Angela Rogers
May 20, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Brent Yarnal, professor of geography at Penn State since 1985, has announced his retirement at the end of the 2015–16 academic year. 

Yarnal's research portfolio has focused mainly on the integration of issues surrounding climate change, natural hazards, and the use of environmental information in decision-making. Some of his recent work has included community vulnerability to present and future hurricane storm surge, local greenhouse gas emissions and climate action planning, and the role of climate information and perceptions in water resource management. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Yarnal also dedicated much of his time to university and professional service. He served the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) as the director of the Center for Integrated Regional Assessment from 2002 to 2008. He also represented EMS on the University Faculty Senate for 10 years, serving as senate chair for the 2013–14 academic year. In the Department of Geography, he served as associate head and graduate program officer from 2008 to 2014. He was an active member of the Council on Engaged Scholarship and recently co-chaired the 2015 Engagement Scholarship Consortium Conference hosted by Penn State. He previously served as editor, associate editor, and board member of several journals, and is currently the North American editor of Progress in Physical Geography.

“Brent has had an impressive and highly productive research career,” said William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “Equally impressive is his strong leadership and steadfast service to both the college and University and his strong commitment to students during his more than 21 years in geography.”

Yarnal’s service was recently recognized by EMS, and the college awarded him the 2016 Wilson Award for Outstanding Service. In her nomination letter, Cynthia Brewer, head of the Department of Geography, wrote, “He is always ‘there,’ always doing things carefully and conscientiously, always helping to get things done on time. He is always selfless, not pushing himself forward but getting things done for the good of the whole. The coherent theme of all of his work has been simple: It is for the good of Penn State.”

That attitude of service is reflected in the comments from Yarnal’s advisees. 

“The most important thing I learned from Brent is persistence," said current doctoral student Chongming Wang. "When I entered the program, writing was my weakest area. Writing in a second language is challenging, but writing is an important vehicle for communication. Brent spent a semester and the following years to help me work on my writing. Still I may not always be able to clarify points in the first place but I learn by trial and error and make progress gradually. I thank Brent for years of dedication of editing my work and helping me grow. He taught and influenced me that persistence matters in writing, research, and all aspects of life.”

“Brent served as my master’s degree adviser from 2000-2002, and later as a member of my doctoral committee from 2009-2012. As a young Army officer arriving at Penn State after eight years in the operational Army, my academic skills were a bit rusty, and I had no background in geography. Brent was instrumental in introducing me to geography, geographic research, and scholarship. He patiently mentored and guided me through the research process, helped me improve my scholarly writing, and was incredibly patient and positive with me throughout,” said former advisee and 2012 graduate Col. Mark Read. “I consider Brent a role model who represents an amazing blend of scholarship, teaching excellence, faculty and student development, and governance — a true gentleman who balances these important pillars, while always maintaining a positive attitude.”

“Taking Brent’s graduate seminar on vulnerability during my first year at Penn State was the main reason I decided to focus my research on the human dimensions of global change. Brent’s research and teaching career has spanned nearly the breadth of the discipline from physical to human geography, and I really connected with his ability to synthesize both areas in his work on vulnerability,” said Peter Howe, a 2012 Penn State graduate. “I also appreciated his ability to tailor his advising style to the needs of each individual student, while at the same time making us feel like part of a small community through our regular interactions at his SOB (students of Brent) meetings. He also has a knack for picking field sites! His connections to Sarasota, Florida, have led to a number of great student papers, theses, and dissertations.”

“One of the most assuring things as a student is to be able to go to your adviser and always get positive, upbeat support and advice," said 2009 graduate Tim Frazier. "Brent is one of the few professors that I have known that always works with his door open, and in spite of being incredibly busy would always stop what he was doing and make time for his students. One of the most beneficial things for student development is 'face time' with faculty, and if Brent was your adviser, you were sure to get it. As a new assistant professor, I tried to model my interaction with students after my experiences with Brent. I continue to do so now that I have been promoted to associate professor. I am determined to give my students the same positive experience in the manner that Brent gave me.”

Yarnal discusses his decision to retire, how his scholarly interests have evolved, and what’s next:

Q: What would you say is your most gratifying project or achievement during your career?

"The thing that attracted me most to geography at Penn State was the quality of the graduate students and the financial and intellectual support the department gave to the grads. Working with my own advisees and mentoring other grads and then watching them succeed after leaving Penn State has been one of the great joys of my career."

Q: What are some of the most important changes you’ve seen in either the discipline of geography or in higher education?

"I’ve been lucky enough (or cursed enough) to have experienced the revolution in science and higher education brought about the evolution of computer systems. When I started as an undergraduate and master’s student, we worked on university mainframes and did all our own programming, inputting data on punch cards and waiting for minutes to hours to receive printouts to see if we got the programming right. By the time I completed my degree, we had moved to “canned” programs delivered on cathode ray tubes (i.e., TV screens) hooked up to the mainframe, inputting data from the terminals or computer tapes. We then saw the rise of personal computers, floppy and stiffy disks, email, the Internet, etc. All this changed our day-to-day activities (e.g., we moved from snail mail to email and from secretaries to self-service) as well as the way we conceived and carried out our research."

Q: Why is now the right time for you to retire?

"A few years ago I had to ask for my senior discount at Dunkin’ Donuts. When they started giving it to me before I asked, I knew it was time."

Q: What will you miss most?

"Daily interaction with colleagues and students."

Q: What will you not miss as all?

"Grading exams and taking mandated training courses."

Q: How have your research interests evolved or changed over your career?

"I started my Penn State career in 1985 as a dyed-in-the-wool climatologist and physical geographer. While on sabbatical in 1992, I discovered a new field called the human dimensions of global environmental change, one form of environment and society geography. From that time until about 2000, I kept up twin tracks, publishing in climate science and in human dimensions research, integrating them when I could. On a sabbatical in 2000, I took a deep dive into natural hazards, and over the next several years I started integrating human dimensions, natural hazards, and physical geography research into a holistic package. That’s pretty much where I’ve ended up, although I still consider myself primarily a physical geographer and climatologist."

Q: You were the chair of the University Faculty Senate in 2013–14, what made you interested in that role?

"Early in my senate career and by happenstance, I got involved in revising some important policies, such as HR64: Academic Freedom. I seemed to have a knack for that kind of boring detail, so I was then asked to help a small team of faculty and administrators revise all the University’s instructional intellectual property policies. From that point, I simply got sucked into more and more of that kind of work. Then, the Sandusky scandal struck Penn State and I was asked to run for senate chair a couple of months later, so I thought I might be able to give back something to the University by helping clean up the mess left in the aftermath of the scandal. Being senate chair at that time was challenging physically, emotionally, and intellectually, but it was the experience of a lifetime."

Q: What’s next for you?

"I’m heading to Sarasota, Florida, where my wife and I have a home, as well as a daughter and four grandchildren. It’s a chance to be outdoors nearly every day in a beautiful place with lots of culture — Sarasota is the arts capital of Florida. Professionally, I’ll continue editing Progress in Physical Geography. But for the first few months, I’m going to try to figure out what being retired is all about."

  • Brent Yarnal

    Brent Yarnal, professor of geography at Penn State since 1985, has announced his retirement at the end of the 2015–16 academic year. 

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated May 26, 2016