Early Career Spotlight

Arye Janoff

Tell us about yourself:
My name is Arye and I’m a coastal geomorphologist, surfer, and lover of all things ocean-related. I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science and Management at Montclair State University working with Jorge Lorenzo Trueba in the MSU Coastal Dynamics Lab. My work explores the feedbacks between natural coastal processes and policy interventions, as well as the emergent behaviors resulting from these couplings. For my undergraduate degree, I studied Environmental Science with a concentration in Earth Science at Tulane University where I worked with Nicole Gasparini on projects in both fluvial and coastal morphology. As a coastal scientist, I especially enjoy learning about my research systems through primary experiences, mainly in and around the ocean, which inspires my research, gives me space to think, and brings me immeasurable happiness. I am also involved in local government and community outreach. I am the Secretary of the Bradley Beach Environmental Commission, volunteered on my Borough’s Oceanfront Development Task Force, and am working on environmental justice initiatives with my town’s Mayor and Council, as well as fellow Environmental Commissioners to enhance public beach access and safety after Lifeguard hours. Last winter, I attended a career day at the Bradley Beach Elementary School to give students an idea of what an earth scientist does and how exciting it can be. I am passionate about the coastal and environmental sciences and see my work on the local level as a way to leave an evidence-based imprint on my community.

What is your research about?

I study how coastal communities interact with shoreline morphodynamics through management interventions such as beach nourishment and groin fields, and how the feedbacks between natural changes and human engineering affect future management decisions. Toward this broad goal, I have developed a coupled geomorphic-economic model for a multi-community domain that links the amenity value of a community’s beach to its front-line property values. I account for both cross- and alongshore sediment transport within this framework based on changes in shoreface slope and coastline gradients, and explore how beach towns make nourishment/groin construction decisions in coordination with or independent of their neighboring communities. For this project, I am particularly interested in how alongshore wealth disparities affect the differences in economic and behavioral outcome based on these management alternatives. Branching off this work, I also explore how communities value their beaches differently for recreational purposes. The interesting thing about New Jersey’s beach towns (of which my hometown is one) is that most all charge beach use fees, similar to an entry fee at a state or national park, so we have an explicit metric for each beach’s unique recreational worth. On another research branch, I explore how the underlying geophysical characteristics of coastal settings interact with these human dynamics. In particular, I am interested in how the physical efficiency (i.e., the proportion of sand pumped onto the beach that is retained through time) of beach nourishment projects ultimately controls how much and how frequently communities re-nourish their beaches. The overarching theme of my research is to disentangle the complex network of feedbacks between humans and nature in a developed coast environment toward understanding the emergent behaviors of these coupled systems.

What excites you about your research?

I think the most exciting thing about my research field is that our understanding of how humans and nature interact is really in its infancy, especially for such dynamic environments as coasts. I feel lucky that I am so passionate about my work, but the uncertainty about what we will find as we turn over different stones is what really excites me. Coming into this field, I fashioned myself as an earth scientist tangentially interested in social sciences. My research, however, requires that I have a working knowledge of economics and coastal real estate markets, which I understood only on a superficial level coming into my Ph.D. program. But the more I learned, the deeper I wanted to dig. After realizing that my work was taking on elements of game theory, or the study of how humans make decisions and their dynamical interactions with other humans’ decisions, I took this direction and ran with it, spending days on end reading one game theory paper after another. The various types of decision-making schemes, justifications for why humans behave as we do, and how these findings applied to coastal management problems on the community-scale intrigued me. So much so that I now view most person-to-person interactions through this game theoretic lens. Reflecting on my nascent career, thus far, it is clear that the research dictates my line of questioning, and not the other way around. Without a doubt, that is the most exciting aspect of my research, because I know that regardless where I might end up, I simply enjoy the learning process.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

Coastal communities face a formidable and existential challenge. How do we sustainably plan for sea-level rise? In order to make policy and management decisions with full information and foresight, we must first understand how our system of interest has changed in the past and how it might change in the future given the new and indeterminate set of conditions attributable to climate change. Compounded upon these allogenic factors, the periodic re-nourishment of beaches with increasing frequency is diminishing offshore sand resources for such management projects, resulting in increased material costs and placing an asymmetric burden on lower-wealth communities. Without proper planning, coastal regions not only face macro-scale challenges, but also potentially meso-scale environmental injustices. The “low-hanging fruit” solutions will likely lack effect; instead, a comprehensive and transdisciplinary approach is required that internalizes both the risks associated with physical hazards and the unintended consequences of socioeconomic inequities. This is where science, and my research, come in. Effective public policy requires unbiased and complete information. Science provides that. I think the reason that I am so passionate about my research is precisely because of this importance for society.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth Science?

I am fortunate because I have a specific moment in my life to which I can trace back my inspiration. As a child, my family and I would venture down to Cape May, a small, quaint, Victorian-style beach town often advertised as America’s first seaside resort, for a week or two each summer. Much like any kid, I would build sand castles and play at the water’s edge, but I would also observe. One of those hot August afternoons, watching the waves crumble across the sand, I recall remarking to my parents that the edge of New Jersey was always changing. They responded with some information about the tides, but I clarified that the sand beneath my feet was moving. I suppose I was as much a geomorphologist then as I am now. Fast forward to my undergraduate days at Tulane where I took Nicole Gasparini’s geomorphology class. I quickly fell in love with the subject, and since I am a beach person, I naturally gravitated toward coastal systems where I knew I could study what I love, always. Like I said, I am incredibly fortunate. Not only because, looking back on it, I have essentially known my whole life that I would be an earth scientist, but because I had the opportunity to fall in love with a research system in the first place. I recognize that there is a lack of exposure and even barriers to experiencing earth systems for economically underserved communities, which often intersects with race. The events of summer 2020 have brought these issues into much clearer focus. As geoscientists, we need to ensure that everyone has equal access to the beauty of earth surface dynamics, because early experiences in life are most formative. I would not be where I am today without the privilege of going to the beach as a child, and now living in a beach community. I think the best way to use my inspiration for a career in earth science is to facilitate that same spark for every future earth scientist. Ultimately, it is the people we bring into the conversation that will inspire our science.

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

After I complete my PhD, I will be moving to Washington D.C. as a John A. Knauss 2021 Marine Policy Fellow, where I will be placed in either the executive or the legislative branch of the federal government. Possible host offices for a legislative placement could include a Senator or House Representative’s office, or a Senate or House Committee, while host offices for an executive placement could span various federal agencies and different levels within those agencies. While my specific role and duties depend on the office in which I am placed, the all-encompassing goal is to ensure that science informs policy development and execution. Approximately half of all Knauss Fellows remain in the federal service after completing the Fellowship, so I anticipate a future working in government at the science-policy nexus in some capacity. That said, the wealth of opportunities afforded by this experience may well lead me down a path yet known, much like my research has done over the course of my academic career.

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

Growing up (academically) as a modeler, I would feel guilty appropriating unlimited funds for an exploration that might be more efficient with a computer, a good differential equation, and a few lines of code. If I stick with this reasoning, I would use the unlimited resources to stockpile an overwhelming amount of computational power. I like this “dream project” exercise, though, so let’s think bigger. I’ll admit, this is less of a research project and more of a policy project. Over the course of my research career, I often find myself searching for an adaptive solution to sea-level rise for coastal communities that is both effective and feasible. Since feasible isn’t necessarily a requirement here, I would like to formulate a state-wide coastal management plan with an advisory team of scientists, local government leaders, non-profits, stakeholders, and state/federal partners to move infrastructure and resources away from the most vulnerable areas along the coast. To accomplish this, I would implement a property buyout program, similar to the Blue Acres Program in New Jersey or New York State’s mitigation efforts post-Super Storm Sandy, which would offer above-market-value incentives for property owners to sell their homes to the State. Within the management framework, the State would convert this newly vacated space into a park, and restore the dune and maritime forest habitats to a quasi-natural setting. The project would return benefits to nearby property owners in the form of added protection during storm events, chronic erosion, and sea-level rise effects. The dune ecosystem would flourish and serve as the base of a new eco-tourism economy. Coastal processes would be uninterrupted by shoreline “hardening” via groins, seawalls, beach nourishment, or breakwaters. Users would pay an access fee to cover maintenance and protection costs, and subsidized entry programs would help economically underserved communities utilize these public resources. The ultimate result would be a statewide natural/recreational resource with more space to accommodate tourists, a reduced financial burden on local communities, dampened risks associated with coastal erosion, lower flood insurance costs for homeowners, avoided federal disaster relief expenditures, and equitable access for all. That said, as sea level continues to rise and shorelines creep ever further landward, we would need to start the process all over again. Good thing funding is unlimited!

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

I am a surfer. It is more than just a hobby, as most any surfer will tell you. Surfing drives everything in my life from my world travels to surf destinations, to my annual purchases (new wetsuits and boards), to my career motivations and goals, to my daily well-being. It centers me. But beyond surfing, I relish each and every opportunity to be in the ocean or ocean-adjacent, whether on a kayak, swimming/body surfing, road biking or running along the ocean, exploring new coastal vistas, photographing seascapes and patterns in sand and sea, paragliding, stand up paddleboarding, and every other activity I have yet to try. I enjoy being active, not only for my physical health but also for my mental health. Aside from my athletic pursuits, I really enjoy cooking, singing, and singing while cooking. I used to play the trumpet, piano, classical guitar, and ukulele, and always enjoy listening to live music. I love watching docudramas and learning about history, reading the newspaper on my porch with a full cup of coffee and the vibrant symphony of the neighborhood birds, and listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast. In sum, I think the fundamental hobby that strings all the rest together is my love of a good challenge and stepping outside of my comfort zone. After all, discomfort is the greatest condition for growth.

Here is the link for Arye Janoff’s personal website: https://aryejanoff.wixsite.com/personalwebsite


Arye Janoff (right) operating "Bruce" the Geoprobe during a sediment coring expedition on Parramore Island, VA to explore the historical evolution of Virginia Eastern Shore barrier island environments. Also pictured are colleagues Justin Shawler (center), a Ph.D. Candidate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Dan Ciarletta (left), a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellow at the United States Geological Survey St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center and a former Ph.D. student at Montclair State University.