Early Career Spotlight

Julia Cisneros

Tell us about yourself

My name is Julia Cisneros and I am a PhD student in Geology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working with Professor Jim Best. My interests include sedimentology, surface processes, and bedform morphodynamics. Born and raised in Austin, TX, I pursued a B.S. at Texas A&M University, and during my time there, took the opportunity to complete an undergraduate thesis. I conducted a morphologic and computational fluid dynamic analysis of sand dune-topographic obstacle interactions on Earth and Titan, a moon of Saturn. I am also a first-generation scientist and PhD student. Fun fact – my mother and I attended Texas A&M at the same time!

What is your research about?

My research focuses on understanding the morphology and dynamics of dunes in alluvial channels. I approach this research using field data, including high-resolution bathymetric imaging of five of the world’s largest rivers - the Amazon, Mekong, Mississippi, Missouri, and Paraná. I also use high temporal and spatial resolution bathymetric data of the River Waal, Netherlands. My focus in utilizing snapshot and time series bathymetric data is to quantify and understand the shape of dunes in these rivers and how they change under different flow conditions. I am also conducting laboratory flume experiments at the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Laboratory, where my main focus is understanding the morphology of bedforms generated in very fine sands and coarse silts – where there is currently a lack of quantitative information. I do this by utilizing acoustic methods to measure three-dimensional vectors in flow velocity at a point and along depth profiles, measuring bed longitudinal profiles, and gathering suspended sediment data.

What excites you about your research?

My favorite thing about my research is that it requires multi-national teams to collaborate. River dynamics are of interest to a range of people from geologists, to engineers, to hydrologists, and I feel very fortunate to work with and learn from such a diverse group of people. I also am blown away at the sheer scale of these big rivers. When I started my research, I only really knew of these rivers through satellite images or bathymetric maps on my computer, and while I had an idea of the size (these are kilometer-scale rivers) I was completely taken aback when I saw rivers like the Amazon River, Brazil or the Yellow River, China, in person. Getting into the field gave me a whole knew understanding of the scale these rivers operate on and helped me form knew ideas and tactics towards approaching my research.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

In the modern day, big rivers are home a large part of the world’s population (a few billion) and provide a means for transportation of goods, food production, and water supply. These rivers are also being altered through a number of processes, including damming, the introduction of plastics and waste, the capturing of water for use in irrigation, and sand mining, to name a few. All these various uses change the hydraulic conditions and sediment transport of these rivers. So, in order to understand how these rivers are responding to these changes, we must understand how sediment and water flow interact to create such large dunes, how those dunes influence sediment transport and flow, and how dunes, and thus sediment, move through a fluvial system and create large-scale geomorphic change.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

For a large part of my life, I didn’t really know that I could pursue “science” for my career. Still, I found all science fascinating. In high school, my science teacher encouraged me to apply to a three-day Geosciences program at Texas A&M University, for students underrepresented in the Geosciences. Upon admittance, I attended the most pivotal weekend of my life. During that weekend, we looked at sediment cores, created circuitry for homemade ROV’s and drove a real ROV in a pool (!), visited the weather center, and went to a Geology 101 lecture. I loved every moment and activity, and realized a true interest and love for the Geosciences. Specifically, during the Geology 101 lecture, the professor spoke about aeolian dune sedimentary structures and I was HOOKED. Learning that people understood these rock features and from them, interpreted not only their paleoenvironment, but also what direction the paleowinds were flowing had me fascinated. I applied to the Department of Geology at Texas A&M University and never looked back.

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

After I receive my PhD in Spring 2020, I’d like to further develop my skillset through diverse experiences in a postdoc for a few years. Specifically, I’d like to work on a project where I can expand my abilities while pushing the abilities of the knowledge and skills obtained during my PhD. From that expansion, my intention is securing a position at a research university enabling my passions for research, outreach, and public engagement. I intend to use a tenure-track position in the professoriate to lead a team of international and interdisciplinary groups, intent on answering globally important questions.

I will also continue my efforts to recruit students into the Geosciences. I realize that without the people who actively recruit and mentor students who are underrepresented in Geosciences, I wouldn’t be where I am today. As they did for me, I work to further that mission and ensure academic spaces are spaces where all people are welcome and valued.

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

My dream project would be to create and deploy a field system in a big river allowing for high temporal and spatial resolution measurements. We still have a lot of questions – about how bedforms form, how sediment is transported, and the large-scale and small-scale fluid dynamics in rivers. We struggle to answer these questions because of the difficulty in gaining such information in these big rivers. It’s near the bed where such processes like turbulence generation and sediment suspension, are occurring. But, measuring very close to the bed is extremely difficult because survey systems are often deployed just below the water surface (attached to the side of a boat). In these places, the deeper the survey signals travel, the worse the resolution gets. Further, conducting measurements with high temporal resolution and for long enough time, is costly. That high resolution and timespan would allow us to gain insight into the dynamics these rivers undergo in real-time altogether with the effects of a spatial and temporal lag between sediment transport, flow dynamics, and morphologic change.

So to tackle these questions, I’d like to work with engineers and technical scientists to create a system that can conduct bathymetric surveys, velocity surveys, and measure suspended sediment concentration at the same time. I’d also like for this system to be remote-controlled, so that it may run automatically and along a predefined flight path and at any flow depth. In this way, it could measure a spatial patch of the river repeatedly and get as close to the bed without running into bedforms and/or influencing the river bed by enhancing erosion. Then, as an added bonus, it would be able to hook up to a charging dock – kind of like an at home automatic vacuum cleaner! Even better, it would attach to a dock where it could charge via solar power and load the data into a cloud after each survey.

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

In my free time I enjoy hiking, camping, and climbing. I also take my dog with me anywhere and everywhere I go (even the office sometimes!) and anything I do in my free time depends on if he can join.

I also love volunteering for and conducting outreach and public engagement events to connect with people from my local community. I’ve participated in school-wide and university-wide programs including the Engineering Open House and UIUC Homecoming and Open House, as well as visited local schools to talk about my career as a geoscientist. I mentor a young-middle school aged girl, and hanging out with her every Monday morning is probably the best part of my week. My colleague and I are also planning a ‘Geoscience Camp for Girls’ to take place this summer where middle school girls will learn about topics in the Geosciences, ranging from Atmospheric Sciences to Geography to Geology to Environmental Science and we are SO excited about being able to enthuse the next generation of young female scientists.

If you know of an early career EPSP researcher (PhD student or Postdoc) who deserves to have a spotlight on them, please contact Austin Chadwick (achadwick@caltech.edu).

In the first summer of my PhD, I conducted river field surveys with a large team on the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. Here, I am operating the acoustic Doppler current profiler system to gather velocimetry data while my team operates the multibeam echosounder system to gain bathymetric data as we travel by boat across the river.