PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — It’s an honor many seek, but only a handful achieve. Dr. Kevin McCartney is now one of the few.
A Caribou resident and professor of geology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, McCartney has been offered a U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program grant, and will spend eight months in Poland to continue his research in the field of micropaleontology.
“I’m living what I wanted to do as a child,” he said Thursday. “This is probably the most significant academic award that I, as a faculty member at a small university, could ever aspire to. A Fulbright is a very hard award to get — only one out of five who apply are awarded, and most successful applicants come from larger universities.”
The Fulbright program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department, designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.
McCartney said the feedback he’s received so far has been significant.
“I have already received letters from people, congratulating me; phone calls … the word is getting out,” he said.
The news was first announced April 15 by the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. At UMPI, President Linda Schott shared the news with the campus community during a reception for McCartney that afternoon.
“The university is incredibly proud of Kevin for receiving this Fulbright Award and this opportunity to be a part of such a prestigious scholar program,” Schott said.
“It’s a real indication of the high quality of his scientific research and the international collaborations he fosters in order to further that research,” she added. “Kevin has been a great asset to our campus, he’s been an excellent mentor and teacher to our students, and this is a wonderful international recognition of his work.”
For McCartney, the road to a Fulbright has been years in the making — six, to be exact. His studies have taken place in Szczecin (pronounced SHTEH-chin), Poland, where he helped to initiate a workshop in 2010. He returned on a sabbatical in 2012, and again in 2014 on a University of Maine Trustees Professorship, which provides funding for research and scholarly endeavors.
“The only way I was going to get back again was by a Fulbright,” he said.
McCartney’s research involves a group of organisms called silicoflagellates. He hopes by studying them, he can shed light on the history — and future — of the earth’s climate.
“Silicoflagellates are single-celled algae that have skeletons made essentially of quartz, or glass if you will, and they live in the uppermost 100 meters of the ocean waters, where there is sunlight. They exist there in enormous numbers — billions and billions and billions of them,” he explained.
“When they die, their skeletons settle to the bottom of the ocean [in] great thicknesses of sediment. And that sediment preserves the history of the oceans and of the earth’s climate,” he said.
By studying these fossils, he intends to gain a better understanding of the Eocene period, which occurred 45 million years ago.
“It was a time of rapid changes, and of course we have to be concerned that we will be seeing some of those rapid changes in the near future,” McCartney said. “My job is to better understand the changes that happened in the last greenhouse climate, so we can be better prepared for changes in the coming greenhouse climate. And it is coming.”
Colleagues from his previous work in Poland encouraged McCartney to apply for the Fulbright program. One of them assembled a distinguished group to drive the point home.
“One of the colleagues who encouraged me was a Fulbright herself and had come to the U.S. She actually got a variety of Fulbrights in Poland to come and talk to me and encourage me to apply,” he said.
The application process is not for the faint of heart.
“I spent three years working on my application,” he recalled. He was required to outline a research project, include citations (which numbered three pages) and a list of published articles.
“I had letters of support from people who had worked with me in Poland, very good letters of support, and other examples of my work. It’s a very, very rigorous application procedure, and everything has to be done exactly right,” he added.
“I knew that my Polish colleagues were pulling for me. [One] colleague and I have now co-authored 14 publications, and I had also worked with a wide range of faculty and students in a previous sabbatical there, so they knew me well. I had an idea that I had a pretty good chance of getting the Fulbright.”
Having that idea, though, doesn’t at all diminish the thrill of the real thing.
“In a sense, this fills a childhood ambition,” McCartney said. “I was a very nerdish kid who wanted to grow up and be a scientist and do some neat things paleontological, and I have been doing that to some degree, but this will allow me to achieve that childhood goal.”
While in Szczecin, McCartney will work with his University of Szczecin associate Jakub Witkowski, who is studying environmental aspects of Eocene-age sediments.
“To better understand what is happening in the North Atlantic, I will be looking at other sites of the same age from around the world. My ambition is to develop an understanding of the worldwide evolution of silicoflagellates during the 30 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
“That ambitious project will not be completed within a single eight-month period, but it will lay the groundwork for the research that will keep me busy for the rest of my career.”
No small task, to be sure, but McCartney is excited for his September departure. Though the science department in Szczecin speaks English, and the Rotary Club he will attend is an English club, he has been working on his Polish.
“I do want to speak Polish enough to let them know that I’m happy to learn about their culture and history,” he noted.
McCartney and his wife, Kate, also run the Old Iron Inn in Caribou.
“Kate will be staying here to run the inn,” he said. “She might join me for a week or so during the course of my stay there. We might explore some of Poland.”
McCartney plans to share at any forum where they’ll have him.
“I plan to talk at universities around the country and will be working with students throughout Poland, and perhaps other places as well. I will be happy to do talks at any place that wants me.”
McCartney, as director of the Northern Maine Museum of Science, also is known for his involvement in a couple of other popular projects in Aroostook. About 10 years ago he helped create Planet Head Day, an event where participants have their heads shaved and then painted to look like planets or moons, all in an effort to raise funds to support local cancer patients through Caring Area Neighbors for Cancer Education and Recovery.
A few years before that, he helped create UMPI’s Maine Solar System Model, which consists of replicas of each planet in our solar system, built on a scale of one mile equaling 93 million miles. Each model planet is appropriately spaced along U.S. Route 1 from Topsfield to Presque Isle, with the sun located inside Folsom-Pullen Hall at UMPI.
While thinking about his upcoming trip to Poland, McCartney smiled and said, “I have ambitions that we might do a Planet Head Day while we’re in Szczecin. Next year could be our first international Planet Head Day.”
“But,” he added, “I have no intentions of building a solar system model while I’m there.”