Tell us about yourself:
I’m originally from Santa Cruz, California. I received my bachelor’s from UC Berkeley in biology after which I worked for five years in environmental consulting and restoration in the Bay Area. I returned to graduate school for a M.S. in geography from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Nevada at Reno. In October I started a postdoc at ETH in the Earth Surface Dynamics Group led by Sean Willett.
What is your research about?
I’m interested in the physical processes that shape Earth’s surface over million-year timescales and how Earth’s dynamic landscape influences life. In my postdoc, I’m working on a multidisciplinary collaborative project investigating the processes that have contributed to generating the high biodiversity observed in the Hengduan Mountains on the south-east border of the Tibetan Plateau. Specifically, I’m using numerical modeling of landscape and biological evolution to elucidate how surface processes influence biogeography.
What excites you about your research?
I’m very excited to finally be merging my backgrounds in biology and geomorphology. I find the idea that we can read tectonic and climatic histories from landscape form so magical. Even more exciting is the idea that landscape dynamics over million-year timescales might be recorded in what we see living on Earth’s surface today and that we might be able to reconstruct landscape histories from biogeography and genetics.
What broader importance does your research have for society?
I think one of the most important aspects of my current research is working across disciplines. Learning and improving methods for interdisciplinary research is likely to produce more meaningful research – both interdisciplinary and within individual disciplines. More specifically, an improved understanding of the processes that influence biodiversity might contribute to conservation planning or advocacy.
What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?
After spending many field seasons surveying both natural and engineered creeks and rivers while working in environmental consulting and restoration, I realized I wanted to study the physical processes that shape rivers. I originally thought I would get a master’s in fluvial geomorphology and return to consulting, but then I took all of Josh Roering’s geomorphology courses and I knew I had to continue learning and thinking about landscape evolution.
What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD or postdoc?
I would like to become a faculty member at a university such that I can continue to do research and also contribute to mentoring the next generation of Earth scientists.
Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?
At the risk of sounding boring, I think my dream project is actually the one I just started working on at ETH. I am part of a team of biologists, climate scientists, geodynamicists, geochronologists, and geomorphologists collaborating to understand the processes that have shaped the biodiversity of the Hengduan Mountains with the broader goal of contributing to our understanding of why mountainous regions tend to host high biodiversity. A lot of interesting questions fall at the intersection of traditional disciplines, and I’m excited to learn from this opportunity and continue to pursue interdisciplinary projects throughout my career.
What else do you do? Any hobbies or interests outside of work?
I’m a mom to a toddler so I spend most of my creative energy making up songs and games. We have also been enjoying biking around our new city (Zürich) and hiking and skiing in the Alps. I also love camping, surfing, and whitewater kayaking, though these activities are sort of on pause right now.
You can follow Helen’s research here: https://hwbeeson.wixsite.com/geomorphology
If you know of an early career EPSP researcher (PhD student or Postdoc) who deserves to have a spotlight on them, you can nominate them here.