Early Career Spotlight

Emily Iskin

Tell us about yourself:

As a fluvial geomorphologist I study how rivers shape our landscapes. I am in the last year of my PhD at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado and am looking forward to what comes next. In addition to being a field scientist, I am also an artist. I am passionate about science communication, and I use illustration and graphic design to portray scientific concepts for the public and other scientists.


What is your research about?

My research looks to characterize the spatial heterogeneity of natural floodplains in the US. Floodplain heterogeneity is important because it influences inundation during high flows; attenuation of water, sediment, and organic matter including large wood; vegetation communities; and habitat. I combine field data with remote sensing to develop images of floodplains that highlight the different regions of topography and vegetation, leading to identification of different habitats. The overarching goal is to compare heterogeneity metrics, from the field of landscape ecology, between floodplains that differ in flow regime, drainage area, valley confinement, channel planform, large wood load, and biome. The results will indicate which river characteristics influence floodplain heterogeneity the most.


What excites you about your research?

I love that I get to travel to some of the last relatively undisturbed rivers in the US for my field work. My mental image of a floodplain is so different now compared to when I started my PhD, and I think this helps me communicate better the value of natural, undisturbed floodplains to river ecosystems. I also get to collaborate with the National Park Service, the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, practitioners, and other universities for this research. The river science community is interdisciplinary, engaged, and excited about protecting and restoring our rivers.


What broader importance does your research have for society?

My research could be used to improve floodplain restoration. If we know what river factors affect different types of spatial heterogeneity, restoration and adaptive management could be tailored to address those factors to increase heterogeneity. For example, if peak flow is positively associated with patch evenness, regulated flows could be adjusted to maximize peaks flows for floodplain inundation and maintenance of evenly distributed types of floodplain habitat patches.


What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth Science?

After graduating from the University of California, Davis with a BS in Biological Systems Engineering, I started my career as a water resources engineer in San Luis Obispo, California. While I enjoyed planning for recycled water treatment and infrastructure, I found that I wanted to ask bigger questions. I was really interested in freshwater ecosystems, and I found that the field of fluvial geomorphology easily combined my love of the outdoors with my interest in rivers. I could not be happier to have landed in the fluvial geomorphology lab at CSU.


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

Short term, I am looking for a postdoc where I can learn new data analysis and remote sensing skills, and continue to communicate science through art. Long term, I hope to work as a river restoration specialist, teach a field geomorphology course at a university, and partner with PIs to create figures and outreach materials.


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

Alaskan rivers are fairly untouched and present a unique research opportunity for unmanaged, natural rivers. We know that large wood is vitally important to river systems, but a history of logging and removal of wood from rivers makes it difficult to study the recruitment, transport, and storage of wood from headwaters to the coast. With unlimited resources, I would investigate wood dynamics in rivers of differing size and planform by tracking many individual pieces of wood starting from when they enter the river and ending when they sink to the ocean floor. This would require a large network of tracking technologies that span space and time – a large project indeed!


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

When I am not in the field or the office, I can usually be found hiking, mountain biking, camping, photographing, drawing, baking, or knitting.


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Emily Iskin standing in the Hoh River in Olympic National Park, Washington: "We had a beautiful day of sunshine and finally made it to the river channel after a long floodplain transect, so I am celebrating!”