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Terrence McCloskey ’03

Postdoctoral Researcher in Paleotempestology, Louisiana State University

Like many people, I took a rather convoluted path to the department I finally majored in. I began Princeton in the fall of 1972 taking mainly liberal arts type courses, but becoming bored, dropped out after the end of my sophomore year and spent six years travelling around the world supporting myself with manual labor, mainly farm and construction work. In 1980 I ended up in Belize in Central America, where I eventually obtained my own land (virgin jungle), which I turned into a farm. 

In 2000, after returning to the United States for my sons’ education and re-enrolling in Princeton, I decided to major in ecology and evolutionary biology to prepare myself for a career in wildlife/forest management and conservation biology. This required redoing my sophomore year in order to take the required introductory science/math courses. During that year I realized that I was more interested in the physical aspects of the workings of the planet than the biological ones and switched to geosciences.

Turning an eye on hurricanes

In 1998 the monstrous Category 5 Hurricane Mitch had approached Belize, headed directly toward my village. Luckily, we were spared when Mitch turned south at the last moment. Nonetheless, the helplessness I felt as we sheltered in a neighbor’s house, expecting terrible death and destruction, led to an intensely crystallizing moment. So when I switched to geosciences at Princeton two years later, I decided to learn as much as I could about hurricanes. I became particularly interested in paleotempestology, the study of ancient hurricanes. This field basically works to establish long-term (5,000–6,000 years) hurricane strike records by identifying, counting, and dating sedimentary evidence of ancient hurricanes in coastal wetlands. I had a truly wonderful adviser, Professor Gerta Keller, who did everything possible to assist me in organizing two field trips to Belize where I collected data for my junior paper and senior thesis. This involved applying for grants, buying and shipping coring equipment, and organizing and conducting the fieldwork. This was both very interesting and very time-consuming, as some of the logistics associated with shipping coring equipment after 9/11 were quite involved. The lab work was also quite eye opening, again assisted by Professor Keller’s energetic support and perceptive insights.

My undergraduate training made possible my future work, as I continue as a paleotempestologist to this day. I eventually published a modified form of my senior thesis in a peer-reviewed journal and, due to Professor Keller’s outreach to the world’s two leading experts, was able to meet and establish professional personal relationships with them. I based my choice of graduate schools on these meetings, choosing one of these experts as my graduate adviser. My Ph.D. dissertation was basically a continuation of my undergraduate work and has taken me on coring trips throughout the Caribbean, the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States. I am currently a postdoctoral researcher (doing paleotempestology) and am applying for faculty positions, where I expect that similar work will remain an integral part of my research.

I believe that the support—moral, scientific, and financial—that I received from the faculty and administration at Princeton provided me with a level of research and academic opportunities provided by very few other institutions.