HATTIESBURG - As
a geography professor, Dr. Carl "Andy" Reese has scaled
ice-covered mountains, dangled over gaping crevasses hundreds of
feet in the air, faced bone-numbing, limb-deadening cold. He's suffered
altitude sickness, watched his face swell to twice its normal size
and spent a week in Peru fighting a life-threatening infection.
So much for living in an ivory tower.
That is, unless, you count the three snow-capped mountains
in South America that Reese has risked his life traversing to gather
research for his award-winning dissertation, considered the best
in the nation by fellow geographers.
At the 100th annual meeting of the Association of
American Geographers this spring, the Missouri native won the prestigious
Nystrom Award, given to the most outstanding recent Ph.D. dissertation.
Reese's research chronicled his travels to the Andes, where he climbed
high atop these ice caps to collect surface and ice-core pollen
samples. From these samples, Reese has reconstructed the vegetation
and climate history of the central Andes over the last 25,000 years.
What makes Reese's dissertation so novel is not how,
but where he conducted his studies. Other researchers have studied
pollen in Arctic areas, like Greenland, but because the Polar Regions
are so far removed from significant amounts of vegetation, those
results have been called into question. Quite simply, before Reese
came along, very few scientists had traveled to the arduous Andes
for fear of risking their lives.
"Until now, no one's really looked at pollen
in the tropics because no one has been stupid enough to climb the
ice caps and do the research," Reese says with a self-deprecating
grin that frames his youthfulness. At 28 and fresh out of Louisiana
State University's Ph.D. program, Reese is one of the youngest professors
on campus. However, his research is already blazing trails through
the academic world - both literally and figuratively.
Pollen found in ice cores is an important indicator
of past environmental condition. But Reese's dissertation, "Pollen
Dispersal and Deposition in the High-Central Andes, South America,"
also noted the importance of understanding the physical factors
that deliver and deposit the pollen on the ice caps .
Dr. Jerry Griffith, assistant professor in the Department
of Geography, said that The University of Southern Mississippi scored
a "coup" by landing Reese as a faculty member. "Basically,
we've just hired a new professor whose dissertation was considered
to be the best in the country," Griffith said, cutting to the
chase. "Usually, winners of the Nystrom Award are at a big
program that offers a Ph.D. in geography, like Penn State, Arizona
State or Wisconsin. Andy's research is very thorough, and it's adventurous
To say the least. Over the last five years, Reese
has at least five trips to three different mountains in the Andes.
He also recently received a grant from National Geographic to return
to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Southern Peru, a place Reese calls "about
as remote as anyone would want to get."
At an altitude of 18,600 feet, the mountain is so
tall, Reese says, it's like "being at the top of the Continental
Divide in the Rockies and looking up another mile into the air."
The highest peak Reese has researched was Mt. Sajama in western
Bolivia, which reaches an altitude of 22,000 feet. He has also done
research on Bolivia's Mount Parincota (20,833 ft.), which lies on
the Chilean border.
Along with his colleague, Dr. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio
State -- "the only guy in the world who drills tropical ice
caps" - Reese and a team of researchers lug tons of equipment
up the mountainside while battling everything from snowstorms to
It's a Herculean task - one Reese approaches with
caution, preparation and respect. Still, regardless of the time
spent planning, it's the unexpected that makes the Andes so dangerous.
Like the first time Reese ever ascended a summit.
Halfway up the mountain, Reese noticed his vision starting to blur.
Shaking it off, Reese continued his climb, but the problem kept
getting worse. Soon, he discovered the culprit - his face had swollen
so badly from the altitude change he couldn't see straight.
"At altitude, some people retain water in their
arms and legs. For me, it's my face," Reese says.
But the dangers don't stop with the cosmetic. Reese
says the lack of oxygen at extreme altitudes can cause all sorts
of problems. At extreme elevations, he says, the body is in a "constant
state of dying." "Altitude sickness is one of the great
unknowns right now, mostly because there aren't that many people
who spend a great deal of time at that height for doctors to study."
All of these challenges must be overcome while enduring
a grueling trek across miles of broken, treacherous ground. Reese
collects samples from all over the ice cap, making the trip much
tougher than one a recreational mountain climber might take.
"We don't put our feet on the summit and say,
'I'm done, let's go home.' We have to stay until we get the job
done," he says.
Trim and well-built from cross-training, Reese gets
his physical and mental toughness from his father, a college football
coach who's had stops at Texas and LSU. Still, as fit as Reese must
stay to "hop across caps," he has succumbed to the elements.
"I've passed out up there before."
He's also escaped more than his share of tragedy,
like the time - June 24, 2001 to be exact - that he was on the south
dome of Quelccaya and an 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit 180 kilometers
away in Peru.
"People from the U.S. were freaking out because
we were up there at 18,000 feet and no one could reach us. But we
didn't even feel the ground move," Reese says. Regardless,
threats of aftershocks canceled the rest of the trip.
Reese admits he "loves the adventure" his
research permits, but he's no thrill-seeker. "Those people
who climb mountains for fun are insane," he jests. "To
me, mountain climbing is something fun to talk about in the comfort
of an air conditioned building, but when you're up on the mountain,
it's pure hell."
Reese returned to the Andes in July, and he hopes
future trips will reveal more data about the past. "The good
thing about (studying) pollen is that it takes a lot of the guess
work out of reconstructing past vegetation change. Fossil pollen
provides us with a direct link to past vegetation; giving us concrete
evidence about the past, the finding from which may have implications
for the future.
"Ultimately, that's what we're trying to do.
We want to get a handle on the past so we can predict what may befall
us climate-wise in the future," Reese says.