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Alumnus Profile: Adam Burnett

By: Darcy Vines ‘16

Published on

Adam Burnett Headshot

Aquinas encourages students to delve deeply into what they are passionate about, creating an environment that allows students to grow and find the area in which they can excel. What often goes unnoticed, though, is the potential that one interesting class or one enthusiastic professor can have in changing a student’s focus, perhaps pulling him or her away from the previously planned track and into a whole new passion.

Such was the case for Adam Burnett, Aquinas alumnus, climatologist, and dean at Colgate University in New York. Burnett excelled in the sciences, and began his college career thinking that he’d major in biology in the hopes of going off to medical school someday. Freshman year, because of the high demand for seats in lower level science classes and the fact that freshman are allowed to register last, Burnett was unable to secure a spot in a biology class that he wanted. Dejected, he asked his advisor if there were any other classes he could take to fill the spot in his schedule, and was directed toward “introduction to physical geography.”

“It was a spectacularly interesting class,” said Burnett. “We studied climate and weather, ecosystems, landform development, and things like that. I was still interested in biology, but there was a lot of biology in geography.”

Burnett continued on the path that taking that one geography class had begun, and graduated in 1984 with a double major in geography and biology with a minor in chemistry.

“I was pretty much hanging out in Albertus Hall all day long, then all night long, then all day long again,” Burnett said with a chuckle.

All of the study hours in Albertus paid off when Burnett was accepted to Ohio University for his master’s degree in geography, then again when he received his Ph.D. in 1990 from Michigan State University.

After obtaining his doctorate, Burnett was hired by Colgate University to impart his knowledge of geography and biology.

“Colgate is a small liberal arts school, and reminded me of Aquinas quite a bit,” said Burnett. “The students were great, and the community was very welcoming. AQ set me up to be successful at Colgate because I saw in the geography department what a strong academic community can be, and how it can get students energized.”

In his time away from his responsibilities as a dean, Burnett extensively studies lake effect snow and jet streams. One of his projects includes the study of sediment from the Finger Lakes to discover more about their formation, and reconstructing what the jet streams would have looked like at that point in time.

Speaking to current college students, Burnett said, “They don’t always like the idea of exploring. You never know what you’re going to discover, though.” Burnett discovered a love that has led to a lifelong career, all because of one frustrating situation and one fascinating AQ class.