Laura around the world: A report from sabbatical Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by

Greetings Geology people and friends!

I am on sabbatical this year and I thought you might be interested to know what, exactly, I’ve been doing.  I’ve had some adventures, some deadlines, and overall a very productive and reflective year so far.  Things I have learned (or re-learned):

1.  A LOT of scientists are interested in our neighborhood right now!  Specifically, lots of people are studying the Seven Mile Creek watershed, a few miles south of St. Peter, to learn about how farming practices and landscape processes impact water quality in streams and rivers.  In the fall, I spent many days meeting with researchers and policy makers from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Nicollet County, University of Minnesota and other agencies and nonprofits to figure out “who’s doing what” already.  Then, I spent a lot of time building a framework through which Gustavus can take a leading role in conducting more scientific inquiry and synthesizing knowledge to answer some of the pressing environmental questions in our state. 

2.  Magellan was right, the world is round.  In December, I took my family on a 52-day around-the-world extravaganza.  First, we spent 2 weeks in southern France visiting with friends who are professors at other universities (American and French) and their families.  Then, we spent 3 weeks in Aix-en-Provence, near Marseilles, where I worked with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Michal Tal at the University of Aix-Marseilles.  Some of you have seen or met her: she’s the geomorphologist famous for her alfalfa-in-mini-rivers work at the University of Minnesota, and has for the last few years been involved in my Platte River research.  I am grateful to have had Gustavus support some of that travel, through my Platte River research grant.  Then, we flew to Thailand for a week of exploring and vacationing, and then to Australia for 10 days before flying home.  12 planes, 4 overnight flights, 27,283 miles.  Bam!

3.  I can do ArcGIS in French.  Tres bien!  Here’s a pic of Michal and I overlooking the braided river she studies, a tributary of the Rhone River.  It’s a mere one-hour drive from her university.  Are you kidding me?

Bureche River








4. Karst in the tropics is crazy awesome.  This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, I had just never seen it in person!  We visited the Railay beaches in southern Thailand, famous for the tremendous limestone cliffs and “tower karst” formations.  [As you will recall, if you ever had a class with me!, rainwater is naturally acidic and becomes even more so as it percolates through soil and picks up organic acid.  Then, in this case, it dissolves some of the limestone bedrock.  That carbonate-saturated water drips down through pores and fractures in the rock, in fact become super-saturated if it’s under pressure at all.  Then, at the base of these cliffs (or in caves), when the water drips into the atmosphere, carbonate re-precipitates out to form new rock, like stalactites, flowstone and other formations.]  The mountain itself is slowly dripping downward!  So strange.  Here’s a pic of Tanner (age 7) standing under a cliff with monkeys sneaking up on the fence behind him.


Thailand flowstone

Pranang Beach

5.  The Great Barrier Reef is just as incredibly wonderful as you imagine.  I don’t know what else to say.  I only had a couple hours to snorkel there, but it was a dream come true.  Make it a priority to go someday.  [Before you do, take swimming lessons if necessary to become a decent swimmer, and practice using a snorkel and mask in a pool or lake.  It’s no good trying to learn that in the ocean itself!  I saw too many tourists who were unable to really enjoy the reef because they were afraid or unable to swim in the waves…]

6.  Being a good writer is incredibly important for doing science.  In the 4 weeks after I returned to the U.S., I was swamped because I had to submit:

  1. A Final Project Report to the National Science Foundation (NSF) about my Platte and Utah River work.  I needed to clearly state our work and findings, so that they might consider funding me for a future project.
  2. A Project Outcomes Report to NSF about the Platte and Utah work.  This report is available to the public, and I wanted to make sure I clearly communicated why the project was important and interesting.
  3. A grant proposal to the McKnight Foundation to fund water quality monitoring at Seven Mile Creek this year.  I wanted to clearly explain how my proposed project will meet the Foundation’s overarching goals.
  4. A grant proposal to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to fund a further three years of environmental monitoring and conservation improvement at Seven Mile starting in 2017.  I needed to clearly explain that we at Gustavus have the expertise to conduct the monitoring, and that it is important work.
  5. Three grant proposals to different Gustavus programs, again for funding students to work on Seven Mile this summer.  (I hope to get 2-3 funded students this summer; if I were to get more than that, I would decline one or two of the awards so that other faculty could benefit.)  While it might seem like I could just re-use language from one proposal in the next, that was rarely the case.  Each Gustavus program, state agency and nonprofit has unique program goals, context and questions on their grant applications.  I needed to make clear and compelling cases to each separate audience that this project is worthy and appropriate for them to fund.  Not trivial!
  6. A manuscript to a journal for publication.  This manuscript is something I’ve been working on with a previous student, Zach Wagner ’14, for several years.  We need to get this methods paper published, because it establishes the validity of the ICPMS method we developed for measuring silica in Platte and Utah river samples.  So, we had to write an article that fit into the context and goals of our chosen journal, and make sure it sounded compelling, novel and robust enough for them to agree to publish it.

7.  I can fix things.  Elizabeth Froden ’16, Connor Smith ’15 and I have installed flow monitoring equipment in two tributaries of Seven Mile and have begun monitoring this year’s flow.  I consider myself to be completely ignorant of electrical systems.  But, through my years of lab work, I have at least become a good troubleshooter!  So, yesterday, I fixed two admittedly minor wiring and software errors at our sites, and am now inordinately proud of myself.  If you were in Nobel in the last few weeks you may have caught fleeting glimpses of me, and that’s what I’ve been up to.

8.  Lunch breaks are good!  Sabbaticals are good for faculty and their students because of how much work can be accomplished, as I’ve described above.  They’re also good, though, for reminding us usually-crazy-busy faculty of how important it is to do things like take regular lunch breaks and see the world!  I hope and plan to come back to campus next fall (well, this summer) full of renewed energy and ideas.


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