Instructor Joins Engineering Faculty after Time Abroad

Julie Retrum studied climate change in Abu Dhabi

Julie Retrum

Abu Dhabi isn’t exactly Willmar, Minnesota. Neither is Oxford for that matter. But for Julie Retrum, it’s similar enough.

The instructor in geology and geological engineering, who hails from the small, south central Minnesota town of Willmar, lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates for three-and-a-half years before accepting her position at the University of Mississippi in spring 2017. She expressed her appreciation for her time abroad but also for being back in the United States and at the university.

“I loved learning about the history and culture of the region, and the Emirati people are some of the nicest, friendliest people you will ever meet,” Retrum said. “While I loved my job, research and living overseas, it was very tough to be so far away from family and friends. I decided to apply for the position at Ole Miss because I was ready to move back to the U.S. to be closer to my family.”

Retrum moved to Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE, in 2014 to work at a university there with a good friend and colleague. They had written a research grant proposal that received funding to study climate change using corals.

“Professionally, the Middle East lacks high-resolution climate records and affects our ability to understand how climate change affected the region in the past and also our ability to model future climate change,” she said. “Working in the region not only aided my research on tropical/subtropical climate change but also provided the scientific community with more data from a lesser-studied area to understand fully global climate change.”

A carbonate geochemist, Retrum is studying how tropical systems contribute to, adapt to and facilitate global climate change. Her current research projects focus on reconstructing paleoclimate (a past climate of an area during a given period of time in its history) and paleoenvironmental (a past environment of an area during a given period of time in its history) records from stalagmites and corals in the Middle East. That work is important, she said, because so few paleoclimate records are from this region.

The Arabian Desert in the UAE today, for example, is semi-arid to arid (climate) and mostly a desert environment. In the Late Miocene (6-8 million years ago), the area still would have been semi-arid but would have received more precipitation to sustain rivers, grasslands and trees in a savanna environment.

“My research in the Middle East has also intersected with archaeology, as many of the early settlements were constructed with corals harvested from the Persian Gulf or Gulf of Oman,” she said. “I have been working with some archaeologists to date these architectural corals from archaeological sites to help determine the time of settlement and history of the region.”

Retrum’s research interests include tropical Quaternary (a historic period spanning from 2.6 million years ago to the present) paleoclimate reconstructions, low-temperature geochemistry and geochronology.

“In the modern climate system, the role of the tropics is extremely significant,” she said. “Primary input of solar energy into the climate system is greatest in the tropical region, and the surplus of energy results in energy transporting via atmospheric and oceanic circulations towards the poles to maintain a global energy balance.”

Until the end of the 20th century, the tropics were thought to be relatively static during small climatic change events. Recent tropical paleoclimate records exhibited both large- and small-scale climatic events, but the dearth of studies and data in the tropics hinders understanding of atmospheric and oceanic interactions among low, mid and high latitudes.

“This makes it very difficult to assess and determine the cause and global extent of a climatic event,” Retrum said. “With the current trend of global warming, the role the tropics will contribute requires additional study for accurate modeling. My research focuses primarily on reconstructing high-resolution and high-precision tropical and subtropical Quaternary paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental records using stable isotope, trace element and uranium series dating geochemistry of carbonate proxies.”

Retrum is a welcome and valuable asset to the GE department, said Gregg Davidson, chair and professor of geology and geological engineering.

“We were pleased to bring Dr. Retrum back to the U.S. from her adventures in the United Arab Emirates,” Davidson said. “She brings a unique set of expertise and background to our program, including insights into the culture of our Middle Eastern students, and experience with exploring paleoclimates through studies of ancient corals.”

Retrum said she has found her colleagues in the department and the School of Engineering have been very welcoming and helpful during her first few semesters.

“They have even taken me in to the field so I can start seeing and learning the local geology,” she said. “My students have shown me the true meaning of ‘Southern nice,’ and it has been a joy to teach the students of Ole Miss.”

Retrum is working on short- and long-term goals for herself, both as an instructor and as a researcher.

“As an instructor, many of my teaching goals are to keep my nonmajor and major students engaged and interested during class,” she said. “I always have one goal for each class that I want each student to be able to accomplish by the end of the semester.”

For example, Retrum said she wants her Environmental Geology Hazards students to leave her class knowing what to ask when buying their first house to avoid any potential hazards that could affect the house.

“And, of course, I want to get some of the nonmajor students to switch majors to geology and geological engineering,” she added.

As a researcher, Retrum’s goals are to continue working on Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman corals to reconstruct climate records from the Middle East.

“I currently have over 200 archaeological coral samples sitting in my office awaiting radiometric dating and geochemical analyses,” she said. “There is much to do in the coming years with these corals to determine not only the timing of the settlements from which these archaeological coral(s) come, but also what they can tell us about climate change in the region through time.”

Retrum earned her bachelor’s degrees in geology, biology and statistics from the University of Minnesota-Morris. She also earned master‘s and doctoral degrees in geology from the University of Kansas.

She said receiving a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2010 is her most fulfilling professional achievement to date.

“This prestigious award is only given to a few people a year and allowed me to choose my postdoctoral research project and work with one of the top paleoclimate geochemists and laboratories in the country,” she said.

Willmar, home to Jennie-O Turkey, and Oxford are similar in size and population, Retrum said. However, Willmar is mostly a farming community and has many lakes. As for her family, Retrum’s retired parents and a brother still live hundreds of miles away in Minnesota.

“My family are close, and we talk multiple times a week,” she said. “I don’t make it back to Minnesota frequently (only for Christmas), but my parents come to visit me a few times a year.”

In Oxford, Retrum said she enjoys gardening, reading, hiking, traveling and spending time with Fireball and Cricket, her two cats.