Summer Happenings- Academic Happenings

In a sort of homage to the Ballad, and Nyet’s impressive ability to write several posts at once, and then lay them on the world at once, I’m going to do something similar. It only makes sense, as I look at my blog output for the summer. The last posting was about really good steaks- that seems like a lifetime ago given all the happenings of the last three months. I think rather than give a step by step account in chronological order, I’ll lay things out categorical according to happenings. Should be fun for me- and hopefully you’ll deal.

Academic Happenings

I happened to do lots of fieldwork. I am very fortunate to be fully funded in my studies for the entire year. Typically this has entailed being a Research Assistant (RA) for Bruce during the long semesters. For summer, Bruce continues the RA funding at 2.5 month pay. This means I get paid a little less during summer, but I still get all the benefits, insurance and the like. During the long semesters the RA usually translates to processing data for Bruce, as well as the occasional field outing to one of the research groups field sites (not always my dissertation site). During the summer the emphasis, mainly due to field crew availability and weather conditions, shifts to fieldwork. We do some regular survey type stuff at a couple of sites that Bruce has maintained for 10+ years, and then we work on each others’ projects as called for. Well, generally this summer has been light on the number of sites we work at, but nevertheless the work is hard. Our biggest project as of late has been the meander cutoff on the Wabash River immediately upstream of the confluence with the Ohio River. I’ve written about this before. The dynamics at this site are amazing and fascinating, but it has its drawbacks also. It’s in the middle of nowhere, 3 hours south of Champaign-Urbana, so getting there and back to do fieldwork typically takes about as long as the fieldwork itself. Also the site can be dangerous- flying carp, swift currents, and other excitement lead to interesting stories.

For instance, catching your boat motor on fire and getting stranded for several hours on an island with no access other than by boat. That’s right; I’ve officially done the real version of Lost now. We went down three weeks ago to do some resurveying/mapping, as there was a big flood which significantly changed the landscape from the last time we were there. We took a little jon boat with a 9.9 hp motor down there, and launched from the bank (a feat within itself!). Bruce and I had planned go do a little recon on the other side of the channel, then pick up the other field help and proceed to do the mapping. We loaded up and crossed the channel, which was swift flowing due to the shallow bathymetry. We got all the way across (about 200 yards), and we hear this ‘clunk’ and the motor dies. Next thing we know there is smoke. It didn’t take long to figure what happened- the battery cable was hanging over the transom of the boat as Bruce drove, and it got wrapped around the prop. This cut the wire sheathing, causing a short. We beached and got out of the boat, but first we tried to disconnect the battery, unfortunately we couldn’t because the leads had fused to the battery. I tried to break them free, and in the process created a better connection which made the battery fizzle, for a better lack of words. I got out of the way fearing it would explode, ruining my picture perfect face. Luckily it didn’t, but it did catch the wire on fire, and I had to scramble to put it out- luckily we were in a river, and water was nearby ;). Once it was out, we couldn’t get the motor started again, so we were stuck. We had the mapping equipment so we trudged on, figuring we could at least do our work and wait for help.

Eventually help did come, and the funny part was that we were able to pull start the motor sans battery and cross unassisted to the other side (the help escorted us just in case). All in all we were over on the island for about 4-5 hours- enough time to do our work for that side, get badly sun burnt (we had left the sunblock on the other side), and run out of water (luckily I had brought my gallon jug with us). Once we got back to the other side, we still had work to do there which took another couple of hours. I can honestly say that it was one of the worst fieldwork days I’ve ever had. Perhaps the only thing close was during my masters when we encountered a 300 foot long logjam in the middle of the San Antonio River and had to portage 800 lbs of equipment around it- but time fades pain and suffering, so for now the Wabash Fiasco takes the cake.

Work at my own site unfortunately wasn’t very productive. The weather just didn’t go my way. I did manage to get one good set of flow measurements, but I was hoping for 2-3, maybe even 4 sets this summer. I guess that’s life. That is perhaps the most trying part of being a field scientist. I must go through life hanging on a thread waiting for the perfect conditions to gather my data. In small rivers, which flood often, but are flashy, this can be very difficult to do. I take a crew of 5-6 people out to do my work, and the river responds very quickly. Organizing that kind of labor pool on short notice can be difficult to put it mildly. I’m seriously considering lab work for my future projects- don’t worry Bruce, I’ll do field work with the best of them still, I just want to expand my horizons once I’m in a career.

We’ve still got a couple of weeks until the semester gets underway, and we have one more summer fieldwork outing to do- mapping of the West Branch of the North Fork of the Chicago river in Northbrook, IL (Northern Chicago Suburb). That’s an okay day, the work isn’t hard, but it’s a long day’s work once you’ve included the rush hour drive to Chicago. Hopefully we can get that knocked out ASAP and I can forget about this summer, because Lord knows I’m ready to.

I happened to submit my first research article. News on the academic front isn’t all dour. I submitted my first research article to Geomorphology- which is basically the top, most cited journal in my field. Better yet, I submitted to a special issue coming out on Meandering Rivers, which will include papers by most of the world’s leader meandering rivers research. This is especially cool for me to have my paper in this issue alongside these other ‘heavy hitters’. I’m proud of the article, and the science context and story we provide. It truly is new insight, and I am pretty sure we are telling a story that has never been effectively told with field research. I’m excited and anxious to get the reviewer comments back- I’m honestly expecting the worst, as it’s my first article, so we shall see. Also, yesterday I was asked to review an article in the issue- another new experience for me. I’m looking forward to it immensely, as it’s sort of a rite of passage. Overall I’m really excited to have my work put out there for the scientific community, and hopeful that because it’s good work, and it’s nestled in a heavy hitting special issue, that my article will become moderately well cited. Even if it doesn’t, I’ll still be really stoked to have done it.

I happened to sieve a lot of sediment. Other than fieldwork, and data processing, I’ve also been sieving sediment up to my eyeballs. It’s too bad most of you guys don’t know the true joy of this experience. In March I collected almost 2 metric tons of rock from the creek where I’m doing my dissertation work. Sieving is an analysis method where I spend inordinate amounts of time studying this rock 1 kilogram at a time, by shaking and banging said rock in brass buckets with holes in it. Imagine if you can the cacophony that would ensue, and you have an idea of what I wake up in the middle of the night hearing. Really, it’s not that bad, but it is tedious, mostly mind numbing stuff all just to get a couple of cool looking graphs (and for you in the know, don’t give me hell about the histogram- excel doesn’t know what a real histogram is, and this is the best I can do. Publication figures will be done in MATLAB):

I happen to be excited about teaching. Thus far in my tenure at UIUC, I’ve been supported by a RA or Fellowship. This has been really wonderful, especially when I was blowing my brains out in graduate level engineering coursework. It let me focus directly on my work, classes, and research. This upcoming year however, I’m supported as a Teaching Assistant (TA). You might think I’m disappointed, but you’d be wrong. I love to teach, and I’m really looking forward to it. This first semester I’m TAing “Geography of Developing Countries” which is a huge class because it is fulfills a gen. ed. requirement. I think I’ll end up with 3 discussion sections- I’ve already been warned to not get saddled with the Friday sections (sage advice from a fellow grad student- I owe you a beer Matt). This is a course I’ve never taken, and I’m also looking forward to learning something myself. Should be fun. It’s a 100 level course, so I’m not sure I’ll get lovely essay tidbits for entertaining the masses, but I’m sure I’ll have more than one good story to tell.

The Spring semester holds even more fun. I’ll be the instructor for “Intro to Physical Geography.” This is good, as I can guarantee that this will be a course I’ll be teaching in my first job- it’s a given to teach this, and typically a GIS course. I’m also stoked about this course, but admittedly a little nervous about it. I’ll be in the heat of trying to pound out dissertation chapters, whilst also trying to do course prep and the like. I guess I shouldn’t complain, I’m going to enjoy it I already know, and I’m certainly not the first to be in this boat. Overall I’m looking forward to this year more than usual.

Stay tuned for other Summer Happenings very soon.


2 responses to “Summer Happenings- Academic Happenings

  1. Facinating! I just love to listen to you spout! Sorry about the “Lost” episode, but sounds like you made the best of it. VERY glad you didn’t damage that gorgeous mug too! Keep writing… your style is mezmerizing me. 😀

  2. “I got out of the way fearing it would explode, ruining my picture perfect face.”

    Don’t worry, the coffee did not scald my nose-hairs that badly.

    Thanks for the life updates, Frank. Congrats on the academic successes / trials / times.

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