Twenty-one years later, Poellot steps down as Atmospheric Sciences chair

Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor’s tenure as department leader unique, but no accident, says successor

Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Mike Poellot is stepping down from his long-held position as department chair to return to a regular faculty position. Poellot has been chair since 1999.

After 21 years at the helm of UND’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences – a time in which he has played a role in not only the evolution of a College, but also that of an entire scientific pursuit – Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Mike Poellot is returning to his faculty position at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

Gretchen Mullendore

At the beginning of July, Professor Gretchen Mullendore assumed the role of chair, the fourth to do so in the department’s history.

Through two decades leading the department, Poellot’s achievements are many.

Since the late 1990s, the department has advanced its degree offerings to the graduate and doctoral levels. In that time frame, the relatively small department has brought in $31 million of external research funding.

Poellot and his fellow faculty, as well as graduate students, have conducted dozens of projects with the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other agencies and organizations. For a time, Poellot, a licensed pilot, flew second-in-command on the University’s state-of-the-art Citation research jet on a number of airborne research experiments, and he has led many others from beyond the cockpit.

Graduates of the department’s programs have gone on to careers that didn’t exist when Poellot took over as the third chair of UND Atmospheric Sciences. To provide them, as well as faculty, with the environment necessary to succeed was a terrific and rewarding challenge, the professor said.

Considerate, calm and collected

Poellot, hesitant to boast about innumerable research achievements and academic contributions to the Odegard School, called attention to a particular award in a recent interview with UND Today.

“Our students, in the past, have given out fun awards to the faculty,” Poellot recalled, smiling. “One of them I received was awarded to ‘the faculty member most likely to walk, not run, out of a burning building.’” Paul Lindseth, dean of the Odegard School, concurred as he recognized Poellot as a calm and collected leader.

Paul Lindseth

Paul Lindseth

“He’s not someone to get too excited about change, and he has always been thoughtful and considerate of the opinions of his colleagues while making decisions,” Lindseth said. “He has done a fantastic job in growing the department, both in teaching and research.”

He commended Poellot for his extensive service as chair and said the professor has been able to advance faculty and graduate research with an entrepreneurial spirit while also incorporating research into teaching. As an example, Lindseth called attention to Poellot’s role in UND receiving its first FAA Center of Excellence award in 2001.

“I’m forever indebted to Mike for answering the phone one night, years ago,” Lindseth said. “I asked him to put together a proposal for the general aviation research award that we were working on, on behalf of Atmospheric Sciences. If he hadn’t stayed up that night to meet the next day’s deadline, I don’t know if we would have received the award from the FAA.”

The University is now home to three such FAA research partnerships, in total.

“That’s what we do, though,” Poellot replied, to laughs. “There are those days, when it comes to proposal deadlines. Isn’t that right, Gretchen?”

Mullendore, smiling, nodded in agreement.

Mullendore said she is honored to take over for Poellot, who has long facilitated top-notch research and course delivery in the relatively small department. Her immediate focus is getting the department back to teaching safely this fall. UND archival image.

‘Big shoes to fill’

“Our department has been so thankful to have had Mike as such a great chair for so long,” said Mullendore, who has been a faculty member since 2007.

Mullendore said she has big shoes to fill, and that it’s an honor to continue facilitating learning and research for UND Atmospheric Sciences. Lindseth and Poellot both say the department is in good hands.

“I’m very confident that Gretchen has the abilities to continue the traditions of excellence established by Mike and past chairs,” Lindseth said. “With respect to their field, I am also confident that they will continue answering questions about our atmosphere that are critical to saving lives not only in the aviation environment, but throughout our society.

“That pursuit of understanding has been paramount in the success of the department, throughout its history.”

Given the unique challenges presented to academia through the coronavirus pandemic, Mullendore’s focus for the short term is getting back to teaching and learning in a way that’s safe for everyone. Beyond that, the professor said, she has learned a great deal from observing Poellot’s leadership style over the years.

“Part of being great in that role is continuing to learn,” Mullendore said. “Atmospheric sciences, both in research and teaching, is always changing. The job of figuring out what needs to be the next priority of what we’re teaching and learning is one that’s never finished.”

Just as Lindseth inferred, Mullendore intends to continue Poellot’s approach of thoughtful, informed leadership. However, she did note a couple of potential changes.

“I would probably at least jog out of the burning building,” laughed Mulledore, referring to Poellot’s student-designated award. “And maybe I’ll institute some sort of term limit on chairs.”

This 1979 photo shows Mike Poellot (left) conversing with John Odegard in a Miles City, Mont., research station. During this time, Poellot’s work in atmospheric research was housed in the Department of Aviation. Image courtesy of UND Aerospace.

Unique, but no accident

Associate Dean Elizabeth Bjerke remarked that Poellot’s 21 years as department chair might be a record for the College. Fellow Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Kent Lovelace, now director of aviation industry relations, held chairmanship for the Department of Aviation for 20 years, until 2014. It’s more common among academic departments to rotate faculty leadership positions every three or four years.

“The dean would select a faculty member when the time came, and I guess as long as I didn’t screw up too badly, I could continue being chair,” Poellot chuckled. “I’ve always enjoyed being part of planning for the future, for activities and helping our faculty. The position comes with an innate desire to see things grow, be successful and continue.”

“I don’t know how it ended up being 21 years,” he said. “You get up, go to work and you have another day behind you. But I figured it’s about time to get new blood in the system, as well as step back and spend more time with the research I’m doing.”

Mullendore commented that while it’s unique in atmospheric sciences departments to have a chair serve as long as Poellot, it’s no accident.

“A big part of that is that no one within the department could imagine anyone doing a better job than Mike,” the new chair said.

During their joint interview, both Poellot and Mullendore spoke highly of their colleagues, as well as the students, some of whom they interact with daily regarding graduate work and various research projects.

“They’re all terrific,” Mullendore said. “We just have such great people, and I’m excited to facilitate the learning and research that this department already does so well. It’s going to be a pleasure to continue working with everyone.”

Poellot took time to thank Lindseth and past occupants of the Dean’s Office for their consistent support over the years, as well as colleagues such as the late Leon Osborne, also a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, who passed away in 2017. Poellot remarked that Osborne was always a source of counsel and encouragement, as well as a great friend.

“I almost feel like the department has been my baby, over the years, just because I was here before it started in 1986,” Poellot said. “I’ve watched it form and grow, but to turn it over to Gretchen is a great outcome. I have every confidence that she’ll do great things, better things and new things as we strive to continually improve the department.”