Early Career Spotlight

Joanmarie Del Vecchio (Penn State)

Tell us about yourself

My name is Joanmarie Del Vecchio, and I grew up outside of Philadelphia and attended college at Pomona College in southern California. Now, I’m a Ph.D. student at Penn State University in the Geoscience department after receiving my MS from Penn State May 2017.

What is your research about?

I am interested in how Quaternary climate fluctuations have affected the pace and pattern of erosion in upland landscapes. Specifically, I study how bedrock erosion and sediment transport was altered at times of permafrost degradation in central Appalachia. I use a variety of tools to learn about this problem, including cosmogenic nuclides, shallow geophysics and (hopefully) paleoclimate/paleoecology indicators like pollen and leaf waxes.

What excites you about your research?

One aspect of my work at Penn State is that I have conducted most of my work through the Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, which means I not only interact with a diverse group of Earth and environmental scientists at Penn State, but also with other geomorphologists across the nation through the national CZO network. I’ve also been fascinated by the ways in which shallow geophysical imaging, when paired with a geomorphic story, lets us learn so much about landscape evolution by “seeing” things we don’t normally get to see. Finally, I love that I’m studying a landscape that provides the best hiking and cliff jumping in the area! (My hiking mates don’t mind acting as scale bars whenever we encounter a sweet waterfall or cross-bedded outcrop).

What broader importance does your research have for society?

Ideally, the more we learn about how landscapes responded to rapid warming and permafrost degradation in the past, the better we can predict what will happen in modern upland permafrost landscapes as the climate continues to change. Soon, historical data from permafrost environments won’t cut it when it comes to predicting things like slope stability because the warming we expect to see will be unprecedented; we’ll need process-based models for the interactions between permafrost hydrology and sediment flux. My work in central Appalachia is unique in that slow erosion rates, combined with structural traps from folded sedimentary units, means that we can tap a record of the sedimentary response multiple glacial cycles.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

I didn’t expect to study science when I first went to college – I spent my first summer at an archaeology field school surveying the northern Arizona expanse and figured out I really adored the desert. I went back to school in the fall and enrolled in a geology course, and they took me to the Mojave Desert, so I kept taking classes and kept going on outside adventures, and at some point, I also realized that research was enjoyable as well. I really love how the Earth sciences are all around us, part of our landscape, and so I never stop learning and never get tired of learning.

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

I have a real appreciation for the work done by my professors at Pomona College – these folks could deliver engaging lectures and take us on wild field trips while also boasting productive research labs. I recognize the chances of landing a position like that are slim, but I’ve really come to value my experiences as a mentor through TAing and working with undergraduate researchers. I have also enjoyed my role as a science communicator and I try to keep up with science and environmental policy news (how can you not in 2018?). Maybe if academia doesn’t work out I’ll find myself in an advisory or policy role. I always tell people my dream job is to be Secretary of the Interior (totally unrelated note that I spent my career-formative years in the Obama administration…).

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

I would do LIDAR surveys up and down the entire East and Gulf coasts, and I would repeat them annually so that local governments would have data on coastal erosion. I would fund citizen science hubs in coastal communities, so locals and tourists can collect data about beach erosion, maybe through ground-based or drone-based photogrammetry, and ideally before and after tropical or winter storms. If people have access to high-quality data showing how their resort towns would respond to erosion and sea-level change, maybe conversations would change from “is climate change real?” to “how can we build resilience in our communities?”

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

The Geoscience department’s intramural soccer team Feldsparcenola keeps me pretty busy, as does pickup volleyball and the spin classes at Penn State. My plan this year is to sew a lot of my own gear for field camp (goals: http://sandiegomitch.com/backpacking.html). I enjoy finding new places to hike in Pennsylvania (which often double for waterfall and boulder field scouting) and replicating all the taco recipes I miss from southern California.

Learn more about Joanmarie here: http://sites.psu.edu/joanmarie/

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).


A) Joanmarie mapping the surface regolith of a boulder field in central Pennsylvania to study regolith patterns and their relationship to periglacial erosion mechanisms in the landscape. Boulder fields are interpreted to be the scars of mass wasting when the permafrost thawed.

B) Joanmarie staging some MATLAB figures used in her forward Modelling of the 26Al/10Be burial ages from her cores.