Niels just came back home from his last week of field work (part of his PhD studies). I was always happy to join his field crew, not just because I am his wife, but because I actually fell in love with his field site, located near the small but picturesque town of Dubois (Wyoming). On many occasions I have shared pictures or impressions from my visits there. For example, look at the last photo report from 2016 or browse through the rest of the blog-posts about Bear Creek in the field work section. My affection with this place culminated in preparing a video about last year’s field season (see below).
So, to commemorate this special moment marking the end of field work and the beginning of the end :), I decided to ask Niels few questions. He agreed reluctantly, since this was just another task on his to-do list… and, I’ve heard from a trusted source that his to-do list has two compartments: one for the things that he really cares about, and one for all the rest. This interview was in the category “all the rest”, until one of the last intercontinental flights (+ final revisions last week). Niels’ responses are given in block-quotes throughout the text. Enjoy!
instead of bio
One of the first questions we answer when meeting new people or old friends we haven’t seen in a while is “What do you do”. Normally our answers are tailored to the person/people we are talking to. So, I decided to start my interview by finding out what are the different answers Niels gives and how different are they really…
> What would you tell your grandma or high-school friend you haven’t seen in years, if they asked you “What do you do?”
I study how water moves through the subsurface after being applied for irrigation.
> What would the answer be, if a colleague from university or someone you meet at a conference asked the same question?
I study different flow paths in the subsurface that contribute to return flow from flood irrigation by merging hydrological and geophysical tools.
> If you had to describe your PhD project in a single tweet, what would that be (140 symbols max):
How, when and where does water flow back to streams after application of flood irrigation #hydrology #hydrogeophysics
Last year, while we were setting up his field experiment, we also spent some time shooting ‘Quantifying return flow from flood irrigation’, where Niels explained in a little bit more detail what exactly is he doing at Bear Creek, in the middle of nowhere, as he describes it. This was our first attempt at video communication, so ignore the sound level issues…
Personally, I think the most interesting conversations in academia are not about our successes stories (e.g. published papers, awards, grants etc.), but about all the challenges we face, the decisions we take, and how we formulate our priorities. For some people grad school is the best time of their life, for others — the worst. Niels seems to be handling it quite well, so far, but I wanted to hear what’s his take on grad school.
> What is the grand challenge of grad. school?
There are a lot of interesting phenomena to be studied, but choosing one and coming up with a research question that really stands out, is sometimes difficult. Research for the sake of research or because it just is interesting, doesn’t get you funding.
> About that grad. degree… name something you love and something you absolutely hate and would change, if you had the power.
I like that I can do whatever I want, as long as it is more or less related to my studies. I have a lot of inspiring people around me and I hope that I can learn from them and pass this on in turn to other students. I would like, however, next time when I am doing a project that contains fieldwork, a project site that is closer by the office (in case I forget something).
> How does your standard working day look like (during and out of field season) hour by hour?
> As part of your project you do a lot of field work. How about that?
It is nice to sit in the comfort of your office. Fieldwork makes you appreciate this even more. Processing only data without knowing how the data is collected and might be affected by the collection method, is dangerous.
> What’s new, what’s old, what’s funny… what failed and what didn’t go as initially planned?
Everything breaks in the field. The most expensive equipment, seems to break the most, strangely enough. Last year I got to fly to Seattle to get my borehole NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) cable fixed. This turned out to be faster than Fedex and almost the same price. This year the MPT (timelapse resistivity) equipment malfunctioned and we almost burned down the camper while the electrical wiring was melting behind our fridge. These things make life in the field more interesting. It also makes you appreciate things that do work more and you take things less for granted.
> What is it like to do field work in Wyoming?
My site is in the middle of nowhere, so if something goes wrong, you’re in some trouble. The upside is that the nature is nice. Before I did fieldwork, I had never seen so much wildlife in my life.
> Tell us a bit more about the importance of your work? About all the different things you are involved in…
My study has the potential to increase irrigation efficiency by improving our understanding of return flow pathways and how each and every one of them contributes during different stages of the irrigation season and after the irrigation season to return flow to the streams. Irrigation efficiency in this case does not mean efficiency with regards to crop-growth, but efficiency with regards to maintaining a healthy ecological status of the stream and surrounding riparian zone and wetlands. Return flow (potentially) leads to increase in late-season streamflow. I am currently on my field site in the third week of October (2 months after the irrigation season has finished) and the level of the groundwater table in the stream banks is still 2 meters above the stream level.
Next to my studies, I am also involved in student representation in the American Geophysical Union (H3S at AGU). I am the chair of the Hydrology Student Subcommittee and hydrology student representative. I think it is important that we care and invest in the scientific community we are part of. It is a two-way relationship: not only taking, also giving.
> What’s in the near future? Any plans?
My near future plans are trying to graduate and move to Singapore, to move in together with my wife who took up the job as lecturer in hydrology related courses at the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore.
> What do you do in your free time? Do you get weekends, summer and Christmas vacations?
In my free time… I spend some time to prepare for and deal with administration related to graduate student representation at AGU. Next to that I like to spend time driving around, visiting restaurants and (window)shopping. I like visiting large cities, especially if they have a transport system that works well.
I am reading the “Windup Bird” of Haruki Murakami.
> Any series or movies that deserve our attention?
I liked the new Blade Runner. In my free time, I like to watch NCIS, Elementary and recently the series Longmire, which is about a detective in Wyoming.
> What labels would you use to describe yourself? 5 keywords or hashtags?
observing, analytical, kind, caring, curious
To add to this, here is what Niels’ Instagram and twitter bios show:
@niels_c: culinary obsessed hydrology, soil and critical zone aficionado
@n88c: “Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, now in Laramie, WY, USA and Singapore / Water, wine, whisky, beer and coffee / Green, blue, red and brown”
> Is there something I didn’t ask about and you wanted to share with us?
Commuting between Singapore and Laramie keeps the PhD interesting.
Niels may feel relieved finishing successfully field work, but I have bittersweet feelings about it. I loved being there. The landscape is stunning and like nowhere else I’ve been, the wildlife encounters are magical (and scary, when it is moose mama), the people are unbelievable characters, and we have so many memories there. I do hope I’ll have the chance to visit again! This is my top 3 Instagram memories: