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Getting to know: 'Fraka' Harmsen, Sac State's provost

10-07-2014

Fourteen-year-old “Fraka” Harmsen was a passenger on the TWA jetliner that crashed and caught fire on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport in 1974. She and her mother were on their way home to New Zealand from the Netherlands. Eight of their fellow passengers were injured in the emergency evacuation, and Harmsen’s mother was forever after fearful of flying.

Undaunted, young Fraka earned her private pilot’s license the following year and, while a professor of geology at Fresno State, applied to NASA’s astronaut candidate program but lost out to a geologist with military experience.

She discovered her budding sense of adventure as a child watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on TV. “I knew I wanted to be a geologist, and I knew I wanted to explore the world,” she says.

Research projects have taken her to Iceland, Australia, Africa, South America, various islands in the Pacific Ocean and twice to Antarctica. In his 2001 book Mountains of Madness, John A. Long of the Western Australian Museum chronicles the 1991-92 season in Antarctica when he, Harmsen and two other scientists collected fossil fish material in southern Victoria Land. Three fossil sharks known only for their teeth are found in Middle-Late Devonian Aztec siltstone, and one of them is now dubbed Aztecodus harmsenae.

“It is true that I have a shark named for me, and it was bigger than a great white,” Harmsen says.

Frederika “Fraka” Harmsen, who came to Sacramento State as provost and vice president for Academic Affairs in February 2014, spent 26 years at Fresno State, serving as a professor of geology, department chair and associate dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. In 2011, she left Fresno for Chico State, where she was the dean of the College of Natural Sciences and a professor of geology.

She specializes in marine and non-marine sedimentology, depositional environments and basin analysis. Her interests include climate change and sustainability, paleoclimate analysis using marine proxies, paleotsunamis and benthic marine habitat mapping for ecosystem-based management. She was San Jose State’s visiting scientist at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in 1989-90.

Before coming to Sacramento State, Harmsen brought in more than $3 million in federally funded research grants. Among her projects were an investigation of paleontological resource mitigation in Madera County, a climate-change study for the city of Fresno and benthic habitat mapping of Channel Islands National Park for the National Park Service. Harmsen serves on the executive committee of the California State University’s Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology (COAST).

She brings to Sacramento State more than 30 years’ experience in the CSU, where her work has included initiatives to promote student diversity in science and engineering, and outreach to K-12 schools for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

Among her goals for Sacramento State are:

  • An unrelenting focus on student success.
  • Employee success.
  • Planning for a future that is less dependent on state funding.
  • Improving diversity and international opportunities for students.
  • Increasing research grants for students and faculty.
  • Expanding the University’s water-related programs.
  • Improving Sacramento State’s visibility and reputation. “We’re a best-kept secret,” she says.

Harmsen was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and English is her second language. Her grandfather hid Jews from Nazi troops in Amsterdam during World War II, keeping them safe not far from where Anne Frank and her family were hidden.

“We were a part of the underground network,” Harmsen says. “My mother, Ria, was older, about 19, and she was a nurse. She would visit patients on horseback, and she sometimes hid documents to protect some of them from capture by German soldiers.”

Even in the early 1960s, the Netherlands was still suffering from the war’s aftermath. Harmsen’s parents both had siblings who had relocated to Australia and New Zealand and who wrote home to tell of their “wonderful new life.” The Harmsen family moved to New Zealand when Fraka was 3. Her father, Fred, was the proprietor of a fancy restaurant.

 “Men had to wear a tie to get in. I met Jose Feliciano, the Hollies and the Seekers. They would all eat there. It was kind of exciting,” says Harmsen.

She left home at 16 to attend Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where she earned her degrees in geology: a B.Sc. (Hons) 1st Class in 1979 and a doctorate, which included a mixed tenure at the University of Miami, in 1984. She moved to the United States later that year to take a position as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of Montana, working on ancient coral reefs in the Peruvian Andes and Alaska.

She began her long tenure with the CSU in 1985 as an assistant professor at Fresno State, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses, and researching temperate water carbonates.

Harmsen’s husband, Tom Mallory, was a professor of botany at Fresno State, where they met. He’s now retired and spends his free time fly-fishing in the Klamath and Trinity rivers of Northern California. They have a Labradoodle named Iwi, which is the Maori (New Zealand) word for “leader of the pack.”

“And she is,” Harmsen says with a laugh.

Someone who knows the provost well said of her: “She isn’t at all stuffy.” And her life isn’t all about academics.

Before moving to Sacramento, Harmsen was the lead singer and keyboard player in a rock/blues band called Cool Reflection. She studied classical guitar as a girl and learned to play the saxophone not long ago. She is a photographer, a film editor, a screenwriter and a singer-actress who has performed in dramatic plays and musicals. She dances, too. And she appeared in an episode of Modern Marvels, on the History Channel, to talk about the Earth’s last Ice Age.

She kayaks and skis, and plays tennis, badminton and squash. She’s an avid cyclist and has ridden the 100 miles around Lake Tahoe.

She gave up flying small planes in her 20s because it had become expensive. “And I moved here to California and got into scuba diving.”

For media assistance, contact Sacramento State’s Office of Public Affairs at (916) 278-6156. – Dixie Reid