Semester Recap

Wow, what a whirlwind the last six months have been! I know that it is supposed to be like this, but this semester (and accompanied summer) were the hardest I have ever had. Welcome to a PhD program I guess. It seems appropriate then that I try and recap the last few months in an entirely inadequate way (i.e., in one blog post). Here I go…

My summer consisted of lots and lots of travel along with lots more field work. My friend and office mate Shane is wrapping up his dissertation this year. Actually, as I type this, he is close to giving he gave a presentation in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union Fall International Meeting (His Abstract) on Thursday about his work. I haven’t talked to him, but I am sure he had a blast. AGU is one of the most amazing conferences out there…its BIG (~16k people, all scientists…you guess the group dynamic). Anyway, we spent many an hour this summer making his dataset come together, and in doing so I went all over the state mapping river bed morphology behind dams. My two favorite moments: Once, while we were in Freeport, IL, mapping on Yellow Creek, we went past a bridge in our loaded boat (see pic), and a woman working for the park we were in screams (in a thick Midwestern/Wisconsin accent), “Hey, you can’t do that, THERE’S A DAM DOWN THERE [don’tcha you know]!!” (comedic gold added). Mind you the entire point was to map behind (upstream) of said dam. So, grudgingly we stopped all the equipment and went back to the dock, only to be met by the police! Yup, she called the cops. Of course, we had permission, but this very compassionate and aware teenager apparently didn’t get the memo. Priceless. My second favorite moment was mapping behind the dam in Danville, IL. It was the most ‘dangerous’ of Shane’s sites and Bruce (our advisor) came out to gawk, catching this priceless photo, as we approached the dam front (I wonder if Bruce would have come to our aid or just kept taking pictures if we befell harm?):dsc_0013

The other significant work this summer was that I managed to collect my first dataset toward my own dissertation research. As alluded to in previous posts, I collected flow measurements at a meander bend in the Embarras River south of town here. The data looks very good, and depending on how the rest of the processing goes, I may (hopefully) be able to get a decent publication out of the work. If not, I will most definitely be able to produce a rocking proposal for future funding, and a conference presentation in April, so either way I am set. The work this summer, certain happenings this semester, and my general all-consuming thinking about the data for the entire semester, have lead to a few ideas for more focused research questions. I’ll discuss them at some point, but for the sake of my readers, I’ll hold off for now.

I only took two classes this semester, but I was also a research assistant, so I had other duties to attend to. And about those classes…

The first was easy: Fluvial Geomorphology, taught by my advisor. It was an undergrad/grad stacked course and wasn’t too difficult. More of a formality actually. Bruce views the content in this class as sort of the least I should know about my field of study. And the good news: not too much new there. It was a great review course, and I was happy for that, but I didn’t necessarily learn any new content. Actually that was nice in a couple of ways. This semester I ceam to the conclusion that I actually do to a large part know what I’m doing. Maybe it is hard to understand this, but in grad school I am constantly battling a little voice in my head that whispers so loud, “What are you doing here, you don’t know anything, and everybody else is smarter than you.” I know, I know, it seems so unlikely from someone as er..confident as me, but it is true. I struggle with self-confidence w/r/t my capabilities as a researcher, and in my knowledge of my field. Well, this class (and actually my other) combined with my research work this semester kind of settled that problem. I do know what I am talking about. I think it came to a head when a couple different times this semester, classmates came to see me looking for an article. In one case I had it, and in the other the classmate walked out with a book, and three or four associated references. So, I am getting there, if slowly.

My second class…oh where do I start? I took a class called Sediment Transport in the Civil  & Environmental Engineering Dept. I know I have waxed on about CEE before, but this class just proved me right. First a tad of background. Sediment Transport is the study of how rivers (or really any moving fluid) mobilizes sediment (particles, sand, gravel, marbles…) and thus change their morphology (or shape). So, obviously it should be right down my alley. This was an extremely hard class. I have never had one like it ever. I spent on average 40 hours a week on this course alone. Wow. Having said that, it was also the most amazing course I think I have ever taken. And better still…I think…I hope, I got an A! You would be amazed at the amount of math used to describe sediment movement. Not only that, but it is messy math (ie., we don’t actually know why sediment moves, and thus the math is full of ‘patched’ closures and empirically derived constants) . A famous anecdote (well, among my circles) comes to mind about Hans Albert Einstein (AE’s son), a main contributor to the field of Sed. Trans., and a well known hydraulic engineer/fluvial geomorphologist. AE was noted to have once said to HAE (I paraphrase), “Why do you choose such a difficult subject to study, pick something easier like math and physics.” AE is right, this field is rough. However it is also supremely facisnating, and it only confirms that I am in the right spot. This is especially true here at U of I, I mean I took the class from prof. Marcello Garcia, the guy who literally wrote the book†‡. I must include here a hearty thanks to my friend and classmate Mauricio. Without his help, I am sure I would have failed the course big time. His skill at math, and MATLAB helped me get so much more out of this class than I would have otherwise. What more, he helped me wrap the hard concepts around my head. He is a smart cookie, and I know he will go far, and I am not just saying that to get him to let me play with his flume (he ‘inherited’ the giant U-tube oscillatory flume in the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Lab).

Finally, for the research assistantship, I have been working on the Stream Naturalization design for the Copper Slough Ditch here in Champaign. I have blogged about this project in the past, but in brief, we are trying to design a stable channel configuration to modify one of the ditches around here in a way that will promote greater physical habitat diversity. The project may or may not actually get implemented while I am at U of I, but it will at some point, and I definitely have my name in there if it happens. In the meantime, Bruce, a post-doc named Jorge, and I are writing a book chapter on this project, and the larger context of habitat improvement through Stream Naturalization principles. I am stoked, as obviously it will be my first book chapter (even if I’m 3rd author), and will be another good mark on the CV. It has been a lot of work, we are basically modeling the flow through the design, and so I’ve been having to figure out how to implement that. Unfortunately, these sorts of things are far from Star Trek. We can’t just go on a ‘holo-deck’ and simulate the problem. it takes a whole lot of preparation, math, coding, ingenuity, and patience to get any results at all. However, those results are coming, and we should have a good chapter soon. Exciting.

I am also involved in doing research for several other projects, including looking at shear layers in confluences (shear layers are the ‘boundary’ where the flow from two rivers run into each other), studying the morphodynamics of a large river cutoff (blogged about previously), and studying changes in river planform from the installation of bendway-weirs (google them, and ‘river groins’ if your truly interested, or let me know). Somehow in addition, I am also the VP of the Geography Graduate Student Association (GGSA), trying to train for a half marathon (I’m running ~10-15 miles a week currently…er…not counting the last two Hell weeks), and somehow becoming more involved with the inner workings of my church. We are now part of the Fellowship Committee there, and thus have had a hand in every church social event this semester. It is busy times indeed up here. I have found new levels of time management I could only dream of 3 years ago.

Now that I am done with the recap, I am off to finish packing for our trip to Texas. I am uber excited as I haven’t seen the great Lone Star State or any of its inhabitants in over a year now. We drive to Springfield, MO tonight, and then on to my hometown Jacksboro, TX. We’ll stay for a spell, and then head to SAtown for the rest of the week. Can’t wait to see you guys!

† By literally, I mean he did write a couple of chapters, and he was the editor of the revised edition of the ASCE Sedimentation Engineering Handbook, the de facto text for the field.

‡ This is more significant that the typical, “professor writes book, therefore you must buy it” scenario. This book actually is the ‘book’ that was idomatically written

§ Credit admitably goes to Nyet for the clever use of eggregious footmarks in a blog. Typically in my writing I would use parenthetical notation, but for this post, it just seemed to flow better with footmarking. Thanks Nyet, IA of the Grammar Police force.

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One response to “Semester Recap

  1. Excellent, Frank, thanks for the semester catch-up. Drop me a line when you are ready to achieve egregious nerdy transcendence and start footnoting your footnotes. I jest, infinitely.

    Drive safe down to SA. Sorry we’re missing you this year.

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