Everyone likes to gripe about the weather forecasters. Even historians.

But when Robert Canning ’12 addressed the history symposium of the American Meteorological Society’s 2012 annual meeting in New Orleans in January, he took a contrarian stance. Where historians have painted the period between World Wars as “a scientific backwater within the United States Weather Bureau” in Canning’s words, he told his audience, “I disagree.”

And with some of the very historians who wrote the book(s) on that old, inept Weather Bureau in the audience, Canning respectfully challenged the conventional view. He spoke for 20 minutes and fielded questions for 10 more, suggesting that archival documents from the Library of Congress show a different story: innovative directors of research who were introducing cutting-edge meteorological science despite the severe budget constraints of the Great Depression and a very skeptical public.

It’s remarkable for an undergraduate to participate in the annual AMS convention and the first time in memory that an undergraduate has earned a speaking role in the history symposium, according to Roger Turner, adjunct professor of history at Dickinson and chair of the AMS history session.

Senior presents to weather historians
Robbie Canning ’12 and his senior honors thesis advisor, Professor James Rodger Fleming.

Canning submitted an abstract and was invited to speak at international symposium’s program by studying original sources—primarily the papers of the Weather Bureau’s scientific services chief Harry Wexler—and challenging conventional interpretations. Then he had to find funding for the New Orleans trip. First he got a travel grant from the dean of faculty’s office, then he got himself hired by AMS to support audio-visual technology for other people’s talks. “So they would pay for my hotel,” he explained.

As he made his rounds helping scientists with projectors and PowerPoints, he got questions like, “What? You’re giving a lecture? You’re not just doing a poster?” he said. “And a number of individuals would come up to me and ask me how my Ph.D. was going and how far into the book I was.”

“He definitely earned the slot on his own,” said Professor James Rodger Fleming (science, technology, and society), Canning’s honors thesis advisor and the keynote speaker at the symposium. “He came up with a challenge to the received message that the Weather Bureau was a backwater agency, so he had an original thesis.” The only other undergraduates at the AMS conference this year were meteorology majors invited to an afternoon acculturation session, Fleming said. Not presenters.

And the talk was well received. “He was very polished, and he attracted a good audience,” said Turner, who organized the symposium as history chair. “Robbie gave a very sophisticated rendering of the history of American meteorology in the middle third of the twentieth century. … I was very impressed.”

Canning, a science, technology, and society (STS) major from Massachusetts, worked as Fleming’s research assistant last summer reading archival materials—papers from the Library of Congress about the Weather Bureau between World War I and World War II, that will inform Fleming’s next book, on the emergence of atmospheric science.

Canning is writing an honors thesis on his research that will be catalogued in the Colby libraries, and he will present at the Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium in April. But he’s also interested in getting a version published—not an unrealistic hope, Fleming said. “I really think very highly of his work. It’s absolutely original.”

He said Canning is probably one year away from a master’s degree if he wants it. And, after his experience in New Orleans, Canning can more clearly picture graduate school as part of his future. “The conference showed me that there is so much more to do in academia moving forward than I really was aware of,” he said.

Fleming said the college senior mingled comfortably with senior scientists, including several past presidents of the AMS, and confidently discussed his research. “He kind of breathes this stuff.”

But graduate school will have to wait a couple of years, Canning says. He’s ready for a break from studying and needs to earn some money, so he’s headed for Madison, Wis., where he has a job as a project manager and consultant implementing a computer-based medical records system—a job he got through a Colby Career Center posting. And since it combines helping people get well and streamlining medical care, “It seems like something I can really feel good about doing,” he said.

The job will draw on technical, analytical, and communications skills, and Canning points to the ways Colby taught and refined those abilities. He describes the STS major as THE liberal arts degree within a liberal arts curriculum. “Being an interdisciplinary major, it’s all about finding connections between a number of different things and communicating the technical and the scientific … really bridging that gap,” he said.

“Colby, without a doubt, gave me the platform—everything that Colby allows, with the small student body and the small classes,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of discussion courses, and that’s really helped my ability.”

And Canning has a huge fan in his thesis advisor and mentor. “He’s my colleague I guess,” Fleming said. “I’m able to discuss my research questions intelligently with him, and he’s able to come to me with some shorthand questions because we’ve both read much of the same stuff.”

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