Early Career Spotlight

Sebastian Schwindt

 Tell us about yourself:

More than a decade ago I began to study environmental engineering at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. During my studies, I got more and more enthusiastic about rivers, morphodynamics and hydraulic engineering. In the beginning I was excited about the simplicity of mathematical models in river engineering. With a passion for computer-aided methods I soon became interested in more complex computational methods and fluid dynamics. However, computer-aided modelling of fluvial morphodynamics and flow-structure interactions poses major challenges, which still involve considerable uncertainties. That is why I did my dissertation on sediment transport processes on a physical model at the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Back to numerical modeling, as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, I streamline 2D models for the development of ecohydraulic and morphodynamic optimizations of river engineering features.

 What is your research about?

Conceptually, we face the challenge of simultaneously using rivers, preserving (or restoring) their ecosystem, and protecting ourselves from their floods. It does not make sense to consider the three issues separately, as is unfortunately often the case in practice. This is why my research addresses all three challenges using classical experimental and modern numerical methods. Together with colleagues from France, Switzerland and the USA we have developed concepts for ecomorphologically sustainable flood protection measures and an integral approach for physical-ecological sustainable river engineering using lifespan mapping. At present, I am establishing algorithms for intelligent, objective, and data-based assessment and virtual implementation of river engineering features.

 What excites you about your research?

Water itself is simply fascinating: its refreshing effect on a hot summer day, its forces that unfold during extreme weather, but also the calming effect of a splashing natural river! Used in the right way, we can benefit greatly from the forces of water. My research serves the "right" use of water, which is economically productive and ecologically valuable. With this goal in mind, I cycle every morning motivated to my place of work.

 What broader importance does your research have for society?

Rivers are more than just water arteries for leisure activities. We use them for hydropower, food and agriculture and transport. At the same time, rivers are also sensitive elements of the ecosystem, and for reasons of pure instinct for self-preservation we must engage in the conservation of river ecosystems because preserving river ecosystems means preserving humanity.

 What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

I am a citizen of the earth and as such I have a natural interest in understanding Earth Systems. I was incredibly lucky to meet passionate scientists and professionals that inspired me, sparked my curiosity and gave me the opportunity to do research on rivers. I was truly fascinated by their ability to create and invent solutions to environmental problems which otherwise negatively affect people. And I thought: “I want to do that too, I want to bring solutions!” So my inspiration is the product of personal interest and professional opportunities.

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

I definitely want to continue to find sustainable solutions that preserve the ecosystem, protect river landscapes and aid flood protection. I am also looking forward to the prospect of meeting new people and contributing to the education of the next generation.

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

An open-access digital globe in which users can modify rivers, place structures, test the impact of structures and optimize their ecological, social and economic functionality. However, we are still far away from that: Artificial intelligence is not yet intelligent enough to consider all relevant factors and we can be confident that we do not yet know many of them. With my work I hope to be able to make at least a substantial contribution to the improvement of river systems and water management.

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

Move and meet people. My work is very computer intensive. That's why I like to meet up with friends, in the best case to hike or cycle (along rivers) or play volleyball. When I have longer time (i.e. holidays), I find it exciting to get to know the cuisine of other cultures.

Learn more about Sebastian here: https://sebastian-schwindt.org

 If you know of an early career EPSP researcher (PhD student or Postdoc) who deserves to have a spotlight on them, you can nominate them here.


The nice part of fieldwork: Kayaking California's Yuba river to collect flow velocity data.