Most of the time, nothing much interesting happens to a river. It flows between its banks, carrying water and solutes, providing habitat and ecosystem services. If you look at a river, most of the time it looks roughly the same – water levels go up and down, and the riparian vegetation goes through seasonal cycles, but your view of the river is still substantially the same scene.
Sometimes, a few days or weeks per year, the river floods. Water escapes the channel confines and inundates the floodplain. Sediments and wood move in the channel, sand and gravel bars rearrange, and banks erode. Viewing the river during a flood can be exciting, even dangerous, and it can look wildly different than its normal, low-water conditions. But, when the flood recedes, the channel geometry may look a bit different, but you can still tell that you are looking at the same spot, on the same river, that you viewed before the flood.
Academic careers are a bit like rivers. Most of the time, we spend our days
carrying water and solutes, teaching students, collecting and analyzing data, writing grants and papers. If you looked in my office door on almost any day, you’d see me working at a computer, surrounded by stacks of papers and a cup of tea. Sometimes, though, things get a bit more exciting. I get to enjoy floods a paper being accepted, a new grant being funded, or a student graduating. On those days, you might find me joyfully chatting with a colleague or partaking in a celebratory lunch. Those flood days give me opportunities to explore new research directions or share new data and ideas, but they quickly recede back to baseflow, the enjoyable tedium of day-to-day work.
Every once in a while, however, something comes along that knocks a river off its old course, into an entirely new channel that strikes off across a previously undissected piece of the landscape. When this happens, geomorphologists call the event an avulsion. After an avulsion, you would see an entirely different scene from your favorite viewing spot. The old channel would be dry or filled with stagnant pools, and a new channel would be carrying the river’s water, sediment, and solutes across the landscape. Over time, a riparian community would grow up along this new channel, your favorite viewing spot would shift, and you might start to forget that the river didn’t always flow in the same spot.
So too, the academic career can have avulsions. And I am in the midst of one right now. After five years at UNC Charlotte, I have packed my office and lab, said goodbye to dear colleagues and students, and set off on a new adventure. There wasn’t anything wrong with my old
channel position, but the opportunity arose for a new course through the academic landscape, and I am tremendously excited by the change of scenery.
Beginning in August, I’ll be on the faculty of the Department of Geology at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio. I’m joining a group of 18 welcoming colleagues, ~30 dedicated graduate students in our MS and PhD programs, and over 100 enthusiastic undergraduate geology majors. I’m also part of a cluster hire established around the idea of urban ecosystems, so I’m looking forward to working with collaborators around the Kent campus and at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. It’s an exciting time to be an urban hydrologist moving to northeastern Ohio, as the Cleveland area sewer district is in the midst of $3 billion of work to the sewer and storm water infrastructure, and is paying quite a bit of attention to green design and possibilities for neighborhood revitalization. I’m planning to focus on developing projects around increasing process-based, interdisciplinary understanding of streams and groundwater in urban environments, but I’ll also keep finding interesting questions beyond the city limits. I’m going to be developing some new classes and revitalizing some old ones, and I’ll stay active with professional service. So basically, after the avulsion, I’ll go back to carrying water and solutes, just in different scenery. But I’m looking forward to sharing the new views with all of you.