“I am probably considered an individual success story”

31 August 2016

American born tree-ring specialist David Frank came to Switzerland to do a PhD. He stayed for almost 15 years and ended up as the Principal Investigator of the OCCR’s Dendroclimatology group at the WSL (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research). Now, as he explains in this interview, he will move on to direct the oldest and largest lab for tree-ring research in the world, the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. This is a big achievement not only for David Frank, but for the Oeschger Centre as well.

David, what exactly will be your role at the Tree-Ring Lab in Tucson?

I have accepted a position as the director of the lab and as a professor. This is a very exciting transition for me, it will be a change in terms of responsibilities and in terms of goals. The WSL is more of a research institution, at the University of Arizona I’ll have a more mixed set of responsibilities from research, to outreach and teaching, as well as representing and promoting the lab itself.

Have you applied for this job?

Yes, this is the first position I applied for in many, many years. The announcement for this job opening came across my desk a few times. It seemed like it might be a good match, so I applied.

Many climate research institutions in the US are confronted with political pressure these days. Has the Tucson Tree-Ring Lab been in the focus off such attacks as well?

Climate research in general – and not only in the US or the UK – has increasingly become part of a political debate. The lab in Tucson has experienced some of this as well. But on the other hand, there are researchers in Tucson that have shown extremely well the value of long term data, for example, to manage water resources. They’ve reconstructed precipitation and streamflow with tree rings to provide water resource managers with long term records of variability in river flow. That’s the flipside to the political debate. People are actually using these data, and rely upon them, to develop better management plans.

Does this translate into a stronger position for climate research in the community?

Yes, this interaction between researchers and decision makers is an important aspect of the work in Tucson. Water resource managers understand enough about the reconstructions to rely upon them, and the tree-ring folks learn what type of data the managers need. I think this is really a very successful example for how long term data are important for decision making.

Let’s go back to Switzerland. You came here in 2002 to do a PhD. Why did you choose the WSL and the University of Bern?

I completed my Masters Degree at the State University of New York in Buffalo. I then worked a couple of years as a technician at the Lamont Earth Observatory – another hub of tree-ring research – where I stared out with measuring tree rings. Over the years my responsibilities increased to the point where I thought, OK I need to go on for a PhD. I wanted to see tree-ring research from a different angle, and I wanted to be in a larger institution. I considered the lab in Tucson, the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia in the UK, and the WSL. I remember thinking that living in Switzerland would also be valuable cultural experience for me as an American as well.

You were part of the NCCR Climate as a PhD student, and as a senior researcher you have been a member of the Oeschger Centre. What’s your view of these structures and institutions?

I found the Oeschger Center and the NCCR to be absolutely wonderful network. NCCR was an excellent community where you could exchange your experiences with many other PhD students, but also gain exposure to some of the different PIs. The decision to fund this program was an excellent move – the Swiss climate community definitely gained international visibility. The Oeschger Centre kept much of this network going and keeps it strong. For people at the University of Bern, or associated to it, this is a fantastic network. As a PhD student I appreciated some of the sessions for younger researchers, and now I encourage people in my own group to attend. The Summer Schools are really an excellent platform for people in earlier career stages. I don’t know how to put it exactly, but the Oeschger Centre is a very well tuned machine.

You have written different research papers with colleagues from the Oeschger Centre, is this a consequence off these closely-knit ties?

To some extent, yes. The joint publications were also related to the broad range of expertise within the Oeschger Centre. I started out with developing long-term climate reconstruction, and then became more involved in instrumental climate data. Later on, I moved towards investigating how we could use tree ring data to answer some questions of terrestrial carbon cycle. And in all these fields I had wonderful collaborations with colleagues from the OCCR. Plus, we were lucky that larger Swiss and EU funded projects involved groups from the WSL and Bern.

Would you recommend foreign students to do their PhD in Switzerland as you did?

Yes, absolutely, I am probably considered an individual success story myself…

…you definitely are!

For me it has been a great experience to come here for my PhD. This turned into a long-term career opportunity. In my time in Switzerland, I’ve also supervised a few PhD students. This made me realize that the number of positions with longer term career perspectives is rather limited. That’s why, in my own group, I didn’t want to only have as many PhD students as possible. I’ve looked for a somehow healthier balance, a more diverse constellation of people and career stages.

Will you be able to do research yourself at the Tucson Tree Ring Lab?

Yes, being active in research is important to me. However, I know that my new position will entail new sets of responsibilities, and take away from personal research time. In terms of the general research directions, I would like to continue along many of the same lines of research that I developed in Switzerland. I also find it very exciting to identify new types of scientific questions where we can apply tree-ring data and methods. I hope the new environment and collaborators in Tucson will contribute to new opportunities for this as well.

(This interview was conducted on 27 July 2016 at the WSL.)