Early Career Spotlight

Elizabeth Orr

Tell us about yourself:

My name is Elizabeth Orr and I am currently a postdoctoral researcher in Taylor Schildgen’s ‘Landscape Evolution and Climate Interactions’ group at the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam. I grew up surrounded by the picturesque hills of the English Lake District, which formed the basis of my interest in landscapes and the processes that shape the Earth’s surface. I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Glasgow and Royal Holloway, University of London, respectively, before moving across the pond to complete my Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati.

What is your research about?

My research is focused on how and why climate and tectonics affects the landscape evolution of mountain environments. More specifically, I look to understand this evolution through the lens of the ‘sediment routing system’, by considering the physical processes responsible for sediment production, transfer and deposition. I use techniques from field geomorphology, sedimentology and stratigraphy, geochronology and remote sensing to understand these complex mountain systems. My master’s and Ph.D. research focused on the headwaters of Himalayan glaciated catchments and addressed questions about the controls of glaciation, paraglacial landscape change and rockwall erosion. In my current position I am investigating how major climatic perturbations have influenced the landscape evolution of the Central Andes and how climate cycles can be recorded within alluvial systems.

What excites you about your research?

Invariably we begin with a fairly simple question, for example: ‘Why is this landform here?’ The question evolves and increases in complexity as we try to tackle it through field, laboratory and/or other methods. My favourite part of this process is when the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together (or as close as they can!), and we realise that there is an important or surprising story to tell. In answering an initial question, new questions follow and we often discover more about the landscapes than we first thought possible! Being part of this creative research process and solving scientific problems with collaborators is a privilege and has largely motivated my pursuit of a career in the geosciences.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

Mountain environment sensitivity to enhanced warming due to climatic change has resulted in significant degradation to the alpine cryosphere. Changing environmental conditions and heightened glacier melt has major implications for the sustainability of global water resources and the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards including landsliding, debris flows, avalanching and flooding. To help mitigate against some of the environmental and socio-economic impacts of a warming planet, it has become integral to better understand the landscape response to perturbations in climate.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth Science?

I am very fortunate to have been able to transform a lifelong interest in the natural world into a career. My first research experience involved me assisting (waist deep) in the coring of a Scottish bog in unforgiving weather. It was this moment that I decided that an academic career would be an exciting adventure!

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

I would love to secure a permanent position at a university or research institution. Ideally the position would enable me to pursue my research interests, participate in the research efforts of others, and contribute to the teaching and mentoring of the institute’s geoscience students.

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

Oh goodness! There are many projects that I would love to pursue under these unique conditions! Subglacial dynamics are a bit of a ‘black box’ for glaciologists, glacial geologists and geomorphologists. Achieving access to the subglacial environment, whether we are thinking about alpine glaciers or continental ice sheets, is one of the biggest hurdles to opening this box. With unlimited funding, resources, and time (and importantly, some artistic licence!), I would love to install a subglacial monitoring station for an alpine glacier. The research collaboration would involve the systematic subglacial drilling of the glacier and excavation of parts of the subglacial environment. A series of multidisciplinary projects from this collaboration would help to characterise the subglacial environment over time. In terms of my own research contribution, access to this setting would enable me to investigate sediment production and rates of subglacial erosion beneath the glacier, and explore the effects this has upon catchment sediment flux.

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

I am an avid cyclist and really enjoy going on bike packing trips. Despite this year presenting many restrictions for us all, I have been able to explore more of northern Germany on two wheels! This hobby has even made its way into my fieldwork, where I have retrieved sediment samples from a valley in northern India via mountain bike. The outbound steep slopes and high elevations presented a challenge, but the views during the descent were spectacular!

Find out more about Elizabeth 's research at: https://orrelizabethn.wixsite.com/geosci


In the picture, Elizabeth is sampling a moraine boulder in the Chhota Shigri catchment, northern India, for cosmogenic exposure age dating.