Early Career Spotlight

Brandee Carlson

Tell us about yourself

My name is Brandee Carlson and I am a geomorphologist with a focus on fluvial and deltaic systems. I grew up outside of Austin, Texas and graduated with a BSc in Hydrogeology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013. I’m currently a PhD candidate at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I intend to retire from my career as a Texan when I graduate in 2019.

What is your research about?

The lower Yellow River, China, avulses once every 7-10 years, abandoning a distributary channel with each avulsion. I study how sediment fills these abandoned distributary channels following an avulsion, where sediment can be delivered through both fluvial processes (overbank sedimentation or surface water connection to the active channel) and through processes within the receiving basin (tides). My results show that abandoned channels that lack a surface water connection to the active channel are barren mudflats that are devoid of vegetation, while abandoned reaches with a connection to the active channel rapidly fill with sediment, host diverse vegetation, and promote coastlines that retreat much more slowly than abandoned channels that lack a freshwater connection.

What excites you about your research?

Field epiphanies! Every field season I reach the Yellow River with a list of hypotheses that I develop at my office desk from looking at satellite images or my field data, but taking a walk through my field site often reforms my ideas while shedding light on the processes that do matter.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

My research has direct implications for coastline stability. Each avulsion cycle on the Yellow River delta provides an opportunity to observe dynamic interaction between land building and retreating. We can dissect how sediment delivery, freshwater input, and vegetation each impact coastal land development at the system scale. A unique component of this project is that we provide our data and outcomes directly to the engineers in charge of Yellow River diversions.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

Entering college, my dream was to be a science writer, so I took journalism classes along with introductory geology and chemistry. I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for my Earth science courses, which led me to switch majors. I got involved in undergraduate research by running delta-building flume experiments. As with any good science project, I left my undergraduate research with more questions than answers, so I started a PhD.

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

Following my PhD, I intend to pursue a career in academia. I’ll start applying to postdoc and faculty positions in Fall 2018. I hope to lead large, international and collaborative research projects that further our understanding of sedimentary processes along our coastlines.

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

I would take a team to Mars to study fan deltas, where I would link past hydrological conditions to delta-building processes. I would collect an assemblage of cores that puncture the deposit thickness of the deltas to assess lobe-switching behavior, and I would analyze the structure of sedimentary fill within distributary channels. Ideally, we could use these data to understand if these deltas were built episodically or continuously, which would directly correspond to the nature of past hydrologic conditions on Mars.

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

Outside of work, I run with my dog and attend hardcore aerobics classes. Both of these activities make me very hungry, so in my remaining time I eat my way through Houston’s restaurants.

If you know of an Early Career EPSP researcher (PhD student or Postdoc) that you feel deserves to have a spotlight on them, please contact Hima Hassenruck-Gudipati (himahg@utexas.edu).


Brandee Carlson is standing within a distributary channel that was abandoned by the Yellow River in 1996. Following abandonment, tides draped the abandoned channel bed with fine sediment, creating a tidal mudflat. The mudflat is routinely inundated with 0.5 m of water during high tide.

Here, an Acoustic Doppler Velocimeter is mounted to a tripod to measure current speed and direction of water moving across the flats.