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By Erin Philipson
  • Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Biology
  • Environment
  • Water
  • Climate
Jack Elstner '21 has always been interested in science, particularly anything that has to do with water. He grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay — spending every possible second on the Wye River, fishing, mucking, and exploring coves and creeks until his skiff’s tiny gas tank ran dry.

These experiences had a lasting impact on him — imparting both the beauty and value of marine ecosystems and the ways in which these resources are exploited. 

“Even from a young age, I saw how we currently live in a world undergoing massive social and environmental shifts, which will impact the world’s oceans in complex and unpredictable ways,” Elstner said. “These realizations pivotally shaped my environmental consciousness and instilled in me a desire to more fully understand the problems I was witnessing so that I could become an integral part of their solutions.”

After transferring to Cornell University as a sophomore, Elstner decided to follow his passion by majoring in earth and atmospheric sciences with minors in both marine biology and climate change.

A male student smiles from a boat on the ocean
Jack Elstner '21 majored in earth and atmospheric sciences, with minors in marine biology and climate change. Photo provided.

During his junior year, Elstner was named an Ernest F. Hollings Scholar by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which included the chance to complete a summer research internship with NOAA’s Earth System’s Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado.

“I had the opportunity to work alongside a group of NOAA scientists who were trying to understand the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on urban CO2 emissions in New York City during the first half of 2020,” Elstner said. “During my internship, I got to conduct my own independent research and use some pretty cool analytical tools, including atmospheric transport model simulations and aerial survey data.” 

At the end of the summer Elstner presented his findings to broader audiences, focusing on communicating information about COVID-19 and climate change. The experience helped him understand that he eventually would like to work for a similar organization.

In March 2021, Elstner was selected for the SUNY Chancellor’s Award, which acknowledges outstanding student achievements that demonstrate excellence in academics, leadership, campus involvement, community service and the arts. He also received a 2021 CALS Academic Excellence Award, which honors outstanding students’ scholastic achievements.

Recently, Elstner was selected for Cornell’s Merrill Presidential Scholar Program. This prestigious award honors graduating seniors who are in the top 1% of their class. In turn, the Merrill Presidential Scholars each nominate a teacher who has inspired them and contributed to their academic development — for which, Elstner chose Charles H. Greene, professor emeritus of earth and atmospheric sciences.

"Jack’s outstanding performance in the classroom, combined with his willingness to serve others in making the world a better place, exemplify the kinds of values we want to see in our students,” Greene said.

“I have no doubt that Jack will be highly successful in his academic pursuits. However, equally important, I believe that he will make important contributions to society that transcend his academic accomplishments," Greene said.

Greene served as an influential mentor — offering guidance from applying to graduate programs, to career advice and the occasional pep talk. Elstner spent a semester with him in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, completing the Cornell Ocean Research Apprenticeship for Lynch Scholars (CORALS) program, which provides the opportunity for students to engage in research-intensive marine science fieldwork.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted his time in the CORALS program, the experience enhanced his resilience and adaptability during challenging and uncertain times.

“Inspired by the sudden need for remotely accessible teaching materials in online classrooms, my peers and I produced a series of educational videos showcasing the diversity of marine invertebrates living along the rocky shores of Friday Harbor, Washington,” Elstner said. “These videos, which can be viewed on Cornell’s Ocean Invertebrate YouTube Channel, have since been used in college-level marine science courses at both Cornell and other universities across the country."

He noted that Bruce Monger, Stephen H. Weiss Provost’s Teaching Fellow and senior lecturer of earth and atmospheric sciences, also made a large impact on his Cornell experience. Monger was one of the first people Elstner met after transferring to Cornell, and he gave him sage research advice: apply the tools you like to work with to the questions you like to ask. 

“Jack has been a pure joy to have in class and to advise over the past two years. He possesses a great combination of remarkable intelligence and a personality that is at once humble, honest and exceedingly kindhearted,” Monger said. “Jack certainly deserves all the awards that have been bestowed upon him, and it has been a true honor to get to know Jack during his time at Cornell. I look forward to seeing Jack take his next big academic leap into graduate school at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.” 

At Scripps, Elstner will be pursuing his Ph.D. in biological oceanography.

A version of this article also appears on the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences’ website.

Erin Philipson is a communication specialist for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Header image: Lime Kiln Lighthouse in Friday Harbor, Washington. Photo by Jasper Gronewold via Unsplash.

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