BOONE — Baker Perry, professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Geography and Planning, is recognized as one of the world’s top experts in high altitude precipitation and climate change.
Over the years, Perry has led undergraduate and graduate students on a number of climate research trips, where principles taught in the classroom come to life through hands-on experience. He sets a high bar for students who wish to participate in his programs.
Mountaineering skills, analytical experience, programming ability, a basic proficiency in Spanish and excellent physical conditioning are a few of the qualifications he looks for when seeking research assistants.
“Climate science careers often involve work in harsh and rigorous conditions,” Perry said. “Fieldwork in high mountain environments is physically challenging, with strenuous hiking, camping and gathering data at high elevations in extreme cold.”
Johnathan Sugg, assistant professor in App State’s Department of Geography and Planning, served as Perry’s research assistant as both an undergraduate and a graduate student at App State.
As an undergraduate, Sugg worked on a Western North Carolina snowfall mapping project with Perry. In 2013, as a graduate student, Sugg accompanied Perry on a trip to Peru to study climate and glacier interaction in the tropical Andes.
Sugg said, “Anytime we can involve students in our research process, they get some valuable experience just like I did. Even if they aren’t involved in research in their future careers, they learn new skills that enable them to produce value wherever they go — and these skills make the students marketable in the industry.”
Whether in class or in the field, many students say Perry has piqued their interest in studying geography and climate science.
Some of those inspired by Perry and their experiences with him went on to continue their studies, pursue climate-related careers or teach. App State alumni who have served on Perry’s research teams share their experiences and their current work.
Heather Guy, of the United Kingdom, worked as a graduate research assistant for Perry, studying precipitation patterns in the high tropical Andes. She is now pursuing her Ph.D. from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.
Last winter, as part of a joint-funded project by the United Kingdom National Environment Research Council and the United States National Science Foundation, Guy worked as a science technician at the ICECAPS Observatory at Summit Station in Greenland.
“At App State, I had the opportunity to do research in a remote field setting for the first time. The experience of living and working in a cold, high-altitude environment played a key role in securing me the position to work in Greenland,” Guy said.
“Dr. Perry went above and beyond to create opportunities for me, from attending international conferences to publishing my first academic paper. His enthusiasm, work ethic and inclusive attitude inspired me and formed the model of who I would like to become,” she added.
Guy said she aspires to be a polar field scientist, leading studies in the Arctic and Antarctic to understand how climate change is impacting the most remote regions of the planet.
Eric Burton was an undergraduate member of Perry’s research team studying the climate of the Andes in Peru and Bolivia. Back in the lab at App State, Burton analyzed data coming in from meteorological stations installed in the region. During summer breaks, he traveled with the team to the Andes to service the stations and conduct field research.
“It was a great opportunity to apply the things I was learning about in class, and a real privilege to be part of the team doing important work,” Burton said. “The extra time and effort Dr. Perry spent to help me become a contributing member of the team and the opportunities I received were invaluable.”
Burton currently works in solar energy development for Pine Gate Renewables in Asheville. He said he applies skills and tools learned during his time at App State, as well as “the interdisciplinary background that a geography degree provides is a great fit for the renewables industry.”
Camila Moreno took a geography course to satisfy her general education science requirement at App State — and it changed the direction of her life.
“I was captivated by Dr. Perry’s teaching on climate change, and when I heard about a trip he was leading to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, I knew I wanted to go,” said Moreno, who majored in languages, literatures and cultures with a concentration in Spanish and Hispanic studies.
Perry said, “Camila came into the field with us and really had the ability to understand pretty complex material. She was outstanding. Being out in the cold and altitude, away from the comforts of home, really tests people. Camila stayed super positive and was a great team member on the expedition.”
Moreno, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Columbia, is fluent in Spanish, and Perry said she conversed with the guides and members of the community during the trip, becoming very engaged with the work.
“The assignments during the trip were very challenging; the climate was definitely the harshest I’ve ever experienced,” Moreno said. “But challenging yourself is the way you grow.”
Moreno ended up minoring in geography as an undergraduate and continued her education at App State, where she graduated with her Master of Arts in geography this spring.
As a graduate student, Moreno worked with Maggie Sugg, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, to study drought patterns in the U.S.
This fall, Moreno will begin teaching as an adjunct instructor at App State.
Tania Ita Vargas, from Lima, Peru, who earned a Master of Arts in geography at App State, served as one of Perry’s research assistants during a trip to the summit of Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru in 2018. Prior to her work with Perry, she had worked as a meteorologist for five years at the National Weather Service of Peru.
“Dr. Perry always showed great passion for his work and was always excited to talk about climate change, mountains, his expeditions and experiences. During the expedition to Quelccaya, I saw how dedicated he is to the Andean communities,” Ita Vargas said.
She continued, “I think it is important for a climate scientist to get involved with the people who are experiencing the effects of climate change. What better way to help them than through science and education? We, as scientists, also have much to learn from them, which can greatly contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.”
After graduating from App State, Ita Vargas returned to work at the National Weather Service of Peru, where she serves on the seasonal prediction team and in the scientific technical group studying El Niño and La Niña — two climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean that can affect weather worldwide.
Ita Vargas said her education at App state prepared her to assume the challenges of her work, providing perspective and technical skills she uses every day.