Early Career Spotlight

Sarah Schanz

Tell us about yourself

My name is Sarah Schanz and I study, broadly, fluvial geomorphology. I grew up in rural Washington State, right along the Chehalis River. I spent most of my childhood playing at the river or in the forest beside it, which led me to initially major in environmental science and ecology as a freshman at Western Washington University. In order to get accepted to the major, I had to take a geology class – the first one I ever took. I think I knew the three major rock classes before, but this was the first time I was introduced to the storytelling aspect of geology, and to geomorphology. I ended up majoring in geology, working at the USGS for a summer as a geomorphology intern, then going on to get a graduate degree in geomorphology. I initially wanted a masters, but loved research and teaching so much that I switched to a PhD track. I finished that in June 2018 and am now a postdoc at Indiana University in Bloomington.

What is your research about?

I study how rivers react to climate, tectonics, humans, lithology, and much more by investigating the timing and style of bedrock terrace formation. These terraces record switches in erosional styles, often triggered by large environmental or tectonic changes, and the story of their formation tells us how landscapes have changed over the past, and also how sensitive fluvial systems may be in the future.

What excites you about your research?

I love that geomorphology is essentially pointing to a feature and asking “why?” My research lets me wander through the woods and the rivers of amazing places, and to tell the story of how the valleys came to look the way they do. And while that starting question seems simple, the answers can be complex and unexpected – for instance, just two decades of intense land use can change the riverine landscape for the foreseeable future. The field work is great, but in the off-season, there is numerical and analog modeling that can be done too! Of course, there have been times when I’m not excited about my research (for instance, in the nth revisions of a paper), but with mountains and rivers everywhere, especially in the Pacific Northwest, that excitement is pretty quick to come back. Even the drive from the Indy airport to Bloomington has deep gullies, roadcuts exposing the soil layers, and debris-laden channels that gets me thinking about channel formation.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

My research has an immediate importance – understanding the rate and style at which rivers change, the degree of forcing that can drive a river to erode, and how much our current rivers diverge from pre-European settlement rivers are all key components of infrastructure and hazard planning. A bedrock river may look stable, but the terrace record can tell us how quickly that river can change its form and what factors drive it to do so. In another sense, I think it’s really important to keep the childhood wonder about the natural world intact. Geomorphology and geology broadly bring this to society through the story-telling of the world around us, and I think my research definitely contributes some stories. A sustained interest in the landforms and geology around us will bring a respect for those features, and for other environmental systems, that hopefully helps preserve the future world (stepping off the soapbox now).

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

My first geology class with Dr. Liz Schermer at WWU. The class structure contrasted so much with the biology class I was also taking; geology let me explore the lab materials with a loose structure, such that I felt I was actually doing some original research, while biology seems much more structured. At the time, I was basically making a choice between more biology or more geology, so I chose the geology option. I also liked the camaraderie in geology. The TAs and instructors got to know the students and I felt immediately like part of the community.

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

I would like to be a professor at a university with masters and undergraduate students. I love teaching and research, and want to work somewhere where I can prioritize both.

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

That a tough one. I’d want to look at extreme bedrock rivers, I think. How do rivers cut into rock in high alpine places that are eroding and uplifting rapidly, and shedding their hillslopes into the channels? What is the competition or hand-off between hillslope and fluvial erosion when both are at their maxima? This is mostly a dream project because of the amazing locations I could visit – Himalaya, New Zealand, Taiwan.

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

I’m a pretty typical geologist outside of work – I hike, bike, camp, climb, play frisbee. I keep trying to find an art & craft that I’m good at, which means I have lots of unfinished watercolors, knitting projects, etc. I’m part of the leadership team for the 500 Women Scientists in Bloomington, which is an extremely new role for me, so soon more of my non-work time is going to be spent meeting amazing scientists in the area and setting up outreach events.

Learn more about Sarah here: http://sarahschanz.wixsite.com/home

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).


Hiking up the Middle Fork Teanaway River with field assistant Oliver, to do some geomorphic mapping and collect tree cores and charcoal for surface dating.