Early Career Spotlight

Risa Madoff

Tell us about yourself

My name is Risa Madoff. I am a Geomorphologist, and I study and model the effects of climate on Earth surface processes. I had a meandering academic path. I have always been interested in the natural environment and science and was immensely intrigued by the contrast between New York City where I was born and New Mexico, where I moved to when I was 8, as well as by the national parks I visited as a child. As a first generation college student, I had to navigate my own way through academic jungles and still do largely. I was at first a Philosophy major, but I stumbled into the world of geomorphology, soils, and geology, where I was first introduced to the Desert Soils Project in southern New Mexico by Drs. Dan Dugas, Curtis Monger, and Greg Mack. I found the synthesis of scientific studies used to reconstruct a past fluvial environment of the Rio Grande in a dynamic geologic framework of rifting absolutely fascinating. I took a B.S. in Geography, but decided to delve more deeply into the longer timescales of landscape processes and took a M.S. Geology, both at New Mexico State University. After that, I did more navigating through academia and landed in Grand Forks, ND at the University of North Dakota to work on a PhD with Dr. Jaakko Putkonen, who introduced me to glacial geology, modeling with MATLAB, and the Sierra Nevada, CA legacy of glacial chronologies, as well as terrestrial LiDAR and geomorphic field methods. Since completing my PhD in Geology in 2015, I have been a temporary part time instructor at UND and trying to pursue research independently without funding – very difficult.

What is your research about?

I am interested in the effects of the climate system on Earth’s surface. I have been using erosion rate and sediment transport records for modeling hillslope degradation and coupling them with climate data and models. In light of this, I want to study key benchmark and transitional environments, such as permafrost and subarctic regions and deserts – regions highly sensitive to climate change, collect more detailed climate data at such locations, and apply paleoclimate data and Community Climate System Models (CCSM) to understand better how the magnitudes and frequencies of climate change affect surface processes and thresholds.

What excites you about your research?

Finding and then fitting the vast array of pieces together to make logical sense of the interconnected processes making up a landscape. What has always captured me about the geosciences is the undeniable connectedness of the physical environment at all scales and the complexity in finding the mathematical expressions to best describe and model the processes through time. The increasing acceptance of data integration excites me about the future of model development and advancing some longstanding questions.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

It is the connectedness of natural physical processes that matters most for predicting natural hazards, but which is the most difficult to teach and explain to most of the public who ends up shaping policy and the landscape. We need to understand processes through experimentation, theory, and observations in natural environments to arrive at parameters unique to different environments. For this we need funding, but then we need to find better ways of influencing the educational system to promote Earth Science Literacy so that the public understands the urgency generated from models and the risks of potential outcomes.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

What seem like disparate things that are revealed to be integrated through the unity of Earth processes by the workings of physics and chemistry led me to pursue a career in Geoscience. On the human side, encounters with folks genuinely passionate about geoscience and also humble, generous, and helpful in spirit have really kept me going. I remember being on a New Mexico Geological Society Field Conference – A Trip through the Phanerozoic – that the late Bill Dickinson attended. I was amazed at how he talked about geology every waking moment – on the bus, hiking in the field, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, after-dinner and then when a faculty member, Tim Lawton, took him over to see my poster at my first GSA meeting. There was the Colorado Plateau field trip Tim Lawton took the MS students at NMSU on. The group of graduate students I was with shared collectively the excitement of learning about the tectonics and sedimentation of the western US. And then there was the time being in the field with my PhD advisor and his PhD advisor, Bernard Hallet, meeting up with Missy Eppes and her PhD advisor Les McFadden, to discuss the project on the effects of heat stress on rock fracturing in the desert. It was an incredible feeling to see a scientific legacy play out. Things had come around full circle from when I started looking into the soils, geomorphology, and geology connections.

What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD or postdoc?

I am seeking a full time permanent position that will allow for time to do research and teach my own courses. Since completing my PhD, I have been seeking collaborators and trying to get more publications out to help prepare to write proposals. My current temporary position does not provide the funding or time away from teaching or online facilitating to do much of that.

Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?

I would like to generate coupled climate and hillslope degradation and landscape evolution models. I would identify key benchmark locations globally to collect erosion and sediment transport rates of hillslopes in a natural environment, paleoclimate data in the form of temperatures and precipitation when possible for space-for-time substitution, substrate properties, hydrological conditions of the substrate, and current weather station data, together with point cloud data. I would also have a hillslope erosion lab where I could adjust slope and calibrate a rainfall simulator to adjust for rainfall velocity and raindrop size to compare and model field data with experimental erosion and transport data. I would also have computing capabilities for modeling Big Data from climate and land surface models, surface and surface-difference models from point cloud data, and parameters from paleoclimate models through various time scales.

What else do you do? Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

I enjoy learning new things and trying to master them to the best of my abilities. Recently, I ventured into ice skating, weight training, and doing short sponsored runs. Longtime favorites are bicycling without snow and ice on the ground and hiking and camping without carrying extra heavy bulky equipment. However, next up I should be learning Python programming in my spare time.

Learn more about Risa here: https://sites.google.com/site/risamadoff/

If you know of an early career EPSP researcher (PhD student or Postdoc) who deserves to have a spotlight on them, please contact Hima Hassenruck-Gudipati (himahg@utexas.edu).


In the field, I am hovering over point clouds as they appear in the LiDAR software. The picture did not capture the painstaking efforts of balancing the shortest LiDAR scan range with mm-point cloud spacing and square meter scan area to acquire the highest resolution scan of a hillslope surface under the limits of battery power time for the LiDAR and laptop, not to mention hiking in all the equipment to scan sites and fearing the set-up would crash and force us to start over the next day.

Multiple scans of “bare earth patches” were acquired at five different sites. After completing the repeat LiDAR scan campaign, point clouds were processed and imported into MATLAB to model and analyze topographic differences.