Early Career Spotlight

Alicia Sendrowski

Tell us about yourself

I grew up in Massachusetts and Florida, and developed an interest in water resources in the natural and human environment. I studied environmental engineering at the University of Florida, where I assisted in research in forest ecology while completing my thesis project on the removal of phosphorus from source separated urine to recover and reuse as fertilizer. Before starting my PhD, I worked in Alaska as a field assistant looking at climate change effects on the succession of boreal forests. Wanting to combine my interests in hydrology and mathematics, I pursued my PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, working with Paola Passalacqua. My research focused on using information theory to quantify the influence of hydrological drivers such as river discharge, tides, and wind on fluxes in river deltas. My work measured the connectivity among processes that lead to temporal and spatial heterogeneities in water, sediment, and nutrient transport in these systems. I am now a postdoc at Colorado State University working with Ellen Wohl in Geosciences.

What is your research about?

My research focuses on understanding the dynamics of wood and carbon transport in the Mackenzie River Delta, a large delta in Northwest Canada that has seen little human interference. Wood is an important geomorphic agent, and a source of carbon to the Arctic, yet there is still a lack of knowledge on the processes controlling wood. I use remote sensing and field work to analyze wood dynamics and river processes influencing wood transport. I aim to quantify the distribution of large wood that enters and deposits on the delta. I also aim to make estimates of carbon transport in the delta and identify important sites of carbon processing.

What excites you about your research?

My project takes place in very dynamic environment where I get to track relatively small features such as wood jams and see how big an impact they have on the hydrology, biochemistry, and geomorphology of a system. I am excited by the opportunities to approach my research in multiple ways such as applying different remote sensing tools to observe phenomena. I also really look forward to getting into the field to see all of the things I missed/didn’t miss/didn’t even know about after looking at pictures of the delta for a year.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

My research will provide insights into carbon cycling, wood transport, and river processes that could be used by climate and landscape modelers and land use managers. Carbon is an important constituent in the global climate cycle yet we do not have a complete understanding of carbon dynamics in terrestrial, riverine, or oceanic environments. Deltas can serve as the final centers for carbon processing and storage before export into the open ocean. One major transport pathway of carbon is in the form of large wood. Human practices have altered the amount, source, and timing of large wood transport in many rivers, which greatly influenced river morphology and carbon cycling. With only a few rivers maintaining natural wood dynamics around the world, an open question is the fate of large wood once it enters rivers and the impact of that wood on the carbon budget.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, exploring creeks behind my house, and hiking in places such as Cape Cod, Vermont, and New Hampshire. I knew I wanted to have a career in science in some capacity, and as an undergraduate, I split my time between performing lab experiments in wastewater treatment and working in an ecology lab processing plant and soil samples. The ecology work led me to Alaska for a summer to work as a field assistant, where I became interested in understanding the forces that shaped the different environments I visited. These experiences helped solidify my desire to pursue a career in Earth Science.

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

I hope to become a faculty member at a research university, where I can pursue research and teach students.

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

I am ultimately interested in understanding processes over multiple scales and capturing the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of those processes. I would first set out to gauge all rivers to measure multiple variables including discharge, water level, and sediment and nutrient concentrations. At the same time, I would deploy airborne imaging systems to get high resolution images of the whole planet, with repeat surveys at least once a week. With these resources available, I would track fluxes in real time across all river systems to help fill in gaps in understanding on different ecogeomorphic processes.

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

I really enjoy reading science fiction and watching movies. I’m an avid drawer and sometimes painter. I also really enjoy hiking, yoga, and running, or being outside in some capacity.

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 -at- caltech.edu).

This is a photo from a trip to Northern California in 2017 where I went hiking on a trail that transitioned from the densely forested area you see behind me to large beaches with only some shrubs, a very interesting transition.