Early Career Spotlight

Jeffrey Kwang

Tell us about yourself

My name is Jeffrey Kwang, and I am a Geomorphologist focusing on landscape evolution modeling. I’m a 4th generation Chinese-American, and my family is from New York City. I have B.S. from Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (DoGEE) and am currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with Gary Parker.

What is your research about?

My research focuses on understanding how landscapes change over geologic timescales by conducting physically-scaled experiments and developing reduced-complexity landscape evolution models. My main goal is to answer 1 of the 6 questions on Gary Parker’s bucket list: Why are river networks dendritic (tree-like)? River networks act as the passageways for both sediment and water, and we want to understand why landscapes organize themselves in such a way to create dendritic drainage networks.

What excites you about your research?

I have always liked making models, whether it was out of cardboard and glue or some type of numerical formulation of a natural process. To me, it is fun to see how many details you can remove from something, except for its essential elements, and still be able to recognize it. As Gary always tells me, how do we know Hello Kitty is still a cat even though she does not have a mouth?

What broader importance does your research have for society?

I went to the Loess Plateau in China during the Summer of 2017, and the rates of erosion and landscape evolution in this region were astonishing. I believe that landscape evolution models can prove themselves useful in these types of regions by helping form better land management practices in the uplands, helping predict sediment yields to the Yellow River, etc. I hope that my research in understanding the fundamental behavior of landscape evolution modeling will make these models’ predictions better.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

I first became interested in Earth sciences after taking a geomorphology course at Johns Hopkins. Gordon “Reds” Wolman originally taught the course, but he passed away the year I arrived at Johns Hopkins. Still, his legacy lived on within the course. Like others before me, we drove around in the creaky, old, and bouncy DoGEE van around Baltimore visiting various streams and rivers. I have fun memories of digging soils pits, conducting pebble counts, and wading around in cold streams all while complaining, joking, and learning with some new friends. That course changed the way I looked at landscapes, and from then on, anytime I saw a landform, I would wonder what types of processes were responsible for shaping them.

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

After I complete my PhD this Summer, I will be going to the University of Massachusetts for a Postdoc working with Isaac Larsen.

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

In the landscape evolution community, researchers have used physically-scaled experiments to model how real landscapes behave. One paper by Hasbargen and Paola (2000) has really captivated me. In their paper, they created an experimental facility that was able to run long-term evolution of landscapes that were subjected to constant forcing. That is, there was a base-level that dropped at a constant speed and a precipitation generator that created mist in a steady manner. The landscapes in these experiments persistently reorganized themselves even though they had reached an equilibrium. Numerical models do not exhibit this behavior, and they typically reach a more static equilibrium. My dream project is to further explore this discrepancy, which involves making my own facility that could run a very long-term experiment. There would be many things I’d buy with unlimited resources/funding, such as more computing power, LiDAR requests, etc., but these experiments would be the first thing I would pursue.

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

When I am not researching, I spend a lot of time with my cat/colleague/daughter, Pillsbury. She usually sits on my lap to help me come up with new research ideas, but she also sits on my laptop to type her own research ideas (usually looks something like this: “vffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff” for 20 pages). Other than my spending time with my cat, I like collecting old stuff and dissembling, refinishing, and fixing things.

Learn more about Jeffrey’s work here: https://github.com/jeffskwang

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).


During my geomorphology course, we visited a stream named Baisman Run in Baltimore. In the 1960s, Reds Wolman released many yellow marble tracers in the stream and collected them afterward. They did not recover every tracer, and the tracer marbles were still being found many years later. From what I was told, Reds Wolman would buy a six pack for any student who found one.

After graduating from Hopkins, my girlfriend and I went wading through the stream to look for one. You would not believe how many natural sediments look very similar to a ~1.5 cm yellow marble. The image shows me when I finally found one after a few hours as well as me smoking my first and most likely last cigar.