Early Career Spotlight

Emma Harrison (Scripps Institute of Oceanography)

Tell us about yourself

My name is Emma Harrison. I grew up in Arizona and went to Arizona State University. I started doing field work early on with Ron Dorn, a geomorphologist in the Department of Geography. He put me on a project designing an online lab about rock weathering that looked at the features developing on petroglyph panels. I loved spending time with these human imprints in the desert. I got hooked.

What is your research about?

Tectonic uplift – or baselevel fall – triggers progressive waves of erosion upstream through river networks and, eventually, to hillslopes. In a landscape that is adjusting to rock uplift, knickpoints migrating upstream often separate slowly eroding “relict” topography from rapidly eroding, steep topography that is adjusting to a new baselevel. My research tries to understand how soil – a critical natural resource – responds to state change and environmental or tectonic perturbations.

What excites you about your research?

There are so many ways in which this work is interdisciplinary – and this is what I love about working with the Critical Zone Observatories (CZOs). In the Luquillo CZO, where my dissertation work is, landscape evolution in response to uplift seems to control the spatial distribution of plant-available soil nutrients and the height of the tree canopy. The thickness and permeability of soils influence infiltration rate and subsurface flow paths in the critical zone, so the timing of soil production and loss is important to the spatial context of anoxia, redox-chemistry reactions, and carbon sequestration, especially in tropical soils. When your view encompasses the whole landscape, there is always so much more to learn – and new, surprising connections to draw.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

This research is important in a fundamental way because soil is rich in carbon, water, and plant-available nutrients. It takes a long time to produce, and our natural soil reservoirs are being rapidly depleted and altered all over the world. Additionally, I want to be an advocate for the tropics. The forests are metastable today – and increasing temperatures could cause a total collapse. It’s a pretty stark message that I think a lot of people have missed in the conversation about climate change outcomes.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

Hiking, of course! And some pretty special mentors – shout out Dr. Jane Willenbring! Every project I’ve gotten involved in, and every new instrument or technique I’ve learned, has made me more excited and motivated to keep going.

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

I’m looking for post-doc opportunities now, in fact. I’m really looking forward to that career stage! But ultimately, I love teaching as well as research. I’ve been especially lucky during my PhD to mentor undergraduate students directly through their thesis projects, and I’ve found this very rewarding. Academia seems like a great track to me.

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

Environmental degradation, pollution, and climate change all have human dimensions at their crux. I think the solution to our biggest, scariest challenges is to restructure power and efficacy in our social networks. Given unlimited resources, I’d start a network of indigenous-run environmental research institutions all over the world. Earth scientists, and western scientists in general, have a lot to gain by respectfully synthesizing our research with the aims and knowledge of these communities whose ties to place are the deepest and the longest. Today, our best efforts always seem to have unconsidered and unintended consequences. The green technology revolution in the United States is fueling demand for Li batteries to replace gas-powered engines, but where does that Li come from and how destructive is that mining to fragile, desert ecosystems? Who bares the burdens of that transition? Our current system doesn’t have a good way of centering those questions, and I’d like to contribute to creating a new system that does.

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

Rock climbing is my favorite thing in the world. Here in San Diego I have access to incredible multi-pitch climbs in all types of beautiful rocks – sandstone in Red Rocks, perfect granite at Tahquitz and Joshua Tree. I also love running, rafting, swimming, paddle boarding, biking, frisbees, poetry and books.

Learn more about Emma here: www.ejharrison.wordpress.com

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).