Faces of Frank Flocke, A Career in Atmospheric Chemistry

Frank Flocke, Atmospheric Chemist

What influenced you to pursue a career in science?

Many Faces of Frank FlockeCoincidence. I studied chemistry at the university with the intention of working in the industry - making fertilizer or pharmaceuticals or maybe a better plastic bottle. I was all ready to go (if a little unsure about my choice) expecting to start my thesis work with a group that was doing research on poly-sugar molecules. However, I noticed the announcement of an Atmospheric Chemistry class for the coming semester, which I found intriguing as I knew next to nothing about chemistry in the atmosphere. I had gone through my four years quickly and felt I had time to try something different before deciding how to go on. 

We ended up being just three students in this new class, taught by Professor Dieter Kley, who had just returned to Germany after working in Boulder at NOAA for 12 years. He led the newly formed "Institute for Chemistry of the Polluted Atmosphere" at the Jülich Research Center in Germany. Instead of driving 60 miles each way once a week to teach us at the university, he offered to take us on a three-week field mission to measure atmospheric pollutants in the Jülich area with theory classes every afternoon.

This was my first field campaign in Atmospheric Chemistry, back in 1986. It was a very exciting and new field back then and I never looked back. After six years in Jülich, I had completed my Master's and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Chemistry and was ready to venture out into the world. Professor Kley had contacts in Boulder and I applied for a postdoc with Brian Ridley at NCAR. I moved to Boulder in 1992 to start that postdoc position and - with the exception of a short interruption to finish up work I had started in Germany, I've worked in ACD ever since.

Who are you at work and what does a typical workday look like?

There is no such thing as a "typical work day" for me. I work with instrumentation, typically modifying instruments for use on aircraft, calibration, and testing under the harsh conditions encountered on board our research aircraft or airplanes used by partner agencies. I go on field missions, typically twice a year or so (sometimes more often), where I deal with keeping instruments running at their best performance, evaluate preliminary data, sometimes help plan or conduct research flights, and help make sure mission goals are met.

In preparation for field campaigns, I sometimes help university groups or researchers from partner agencies to ready their instrumentation for flight, help design probes and inlets, and advise investigators about how to get their instruments working on an aircraft. Sometimes I lead campaigns as in the upcoming FRAPPÉ experiment, or I serve as chief scientist on the aircraft or on the ground.I am also involved in post-campaign data analysis, data preparation, modeling, and publication of results.

Who are you outside of work? 

I try to leave the scientist hat at work when I leave in the evening but of course that's pretty much impossible. I quite enjoy sharing scientific facts with the public and explaining the scientific process to help make non-scientists appreciate what we do rather than doubting us or imagining us doing obscure things that don't benefit society.

I am an avid cross country skier and love to mountain bike or hike in the summer. Boulder is a perfect place to do all this without traveling far. However, I enjoy riding my motorcycle to remote places with my wife and camping gear on the back and get lost in the vast and beautiful backcountry of the Western United States. We are truly lucky to be able to live here.

What has been your favorite work-related experience?

I most enjoy being out in the field during an exciting campaign and making sure it runs smoothly, all scientific goals are met, and the resources are used in the most efficient way. It is an immensely satisfying experience to come home from such a mission with a complete and scientifically relevant data set. 

The Power of One: If you could thank only one person for academic or career support, who would it be?

Brian Ridley. While I must credit Dieter Kley and Andreas Volz in Jülich for getting me on track in the atmospheric sciences, there is no question that in the almost 15 years we worked together I have learned more from Brian than from anyone else.

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

Follow your heart.

You will only do well in science when you enjoy it and when your job continues to make you excited about going to work every morning. That's it!

Frank Flocke, Atmospheric Chemist

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