Earth System Science Center and Department of Atmospheric Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville

New science dean drove to his ‘airport interview’

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (June 2, 2014) — Having an office on campus and a house in town didn’t exempt Sundar Christopher from an “airport interview” at Huntsville International Airport when he was a candidate for dean of UAH’s College of Science.

Just like the other top candidates for the job, Christopher had to meet members of the search committee at the airport for an intensive interview — a routine part of the university administration search process.

Unlike the other top candidates, Christopher didn’t earn frequent flyer miles getting to the meeting.

“It was one of the most interesting experiences of my life,” said Christopher, who takes over as dean today. “You’re all alone at a table with a pitcher of water and some tissues, with the search committee members all around you, and they rapid fire questions at you for an hour and a half.

“I felt like I was on the TV show, The Weakest Link. It was a very intense experience.”

Christopher joined the UAH faculty as an assistant professor 17 years ago, and rose through the ranks. He was named chairman of the Atmospheric Science Department in May 2010. As a faculty member responsible for teaching, service, advising and research, he was accustomed to being pulled in many directions. At least, he thought he was. Then he was named department chair.

“I wasn’t prepared for how my days would be fragmented,” he said. “One minute you’re working on one thing and then suddenly you have to deal with a personnel issue or something with the budget. The constant changing of hats was my biggest challenge when I came on board.”

During his tenure as chair, the department added a Master’s degree program in Earth system science, and expanded its student recruiting activities.

“I’m proud of the students for taking ownership of recruiting, and of the students for working really hard at creating and maintaining a family environment in the department,” he said. “And I am also proud of the way this department has reached out to and integrated with all of the other occupants of this building, including the National Weather Service and NASA. They help teach our classes, work with our students and provide internships and fellowships.

“We have made really great strides in making those relationships vibrant in practical ways and in meaningful ways.”

Deciding to leave the department where he has spent most of his professional career wasn’t easy, Christopher said.

“I love the department where I work,” he said. “I grew up through the entire process here. I thought about this decision long and hard. I talked to my mentor and I talked to my family. This is a great opportunity to serve as dean of the College of Science in a leadership role. I counted the costs and asked myself if I am ready for this kind of scrutiny.

“At the end of all of this, the answer was yes.”
Christopher will stay on as interim chairman for a brief time, until a long-term interim chairman can be named. The university will conduct a national search for a full-time chairman.

Before coming to UAH, Christopher held positions at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where he earned an M.S. in meteorology. He earned his Ph.D. in atmospheric science at Colorado State University, an M.A. in industrial organizational psychology at UAH, and a bachelor’s in engineering from the P.S.G. College of Technology.

Christopher also is an author. His latest book is “Navigating Graduate School and Beyond,” published by the American Geophysical Union. In it, he outlines the steps and skills needed to succeed in graduate school and in a research or academic career.

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