Environment: Dream Teaming on Water Systems

A river cuts across a landscape, meandering past cities and farms, collecting rainfall and runoff, and supporting all manner of life. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have depended on this fundamental movement of water—but they haven’t always understood what was happening beneath the surface.

Martin Doyle, Jim Heffernan, Marco Marani, and Brian McGlynn would like to change that. The four—all of whom joined the Nicholas School of the Environment as professors last year—are part of an emerging branch of environmental science called ecohydrology, which studies the complex interactions between water and the ecosystems it touches. By its nature, the interdisciplinary field has implications for water conservation and management, commercial land use, and environmental policy.

Because ecohydrology cuts across all three of the Nicholas School’s research divisions, the school elected to hire the four as a team, recruiting scientists with complementary skills who could collaborate on wide-ranging problems. The result is what the school’s magazine dubbed the “Dream Team” of ecohydrology: Doyle specializes in river science and policy in the southeastern U.S.; Heffernan is an ecologist who has developed innovative new sensors for measuring environmental change; Marani is an expert in mathematical modeling who has studied the dynamics of Venice’s famous lagoon; and McGlynn is a hydrologist known for his field research on mountain stream systems in the American West.

Rather than set up individual labs, the four moved into a shared space to facilitate the exchange of ideas. “Almost within a matter of weeks, there was this immediate, easy synergy,” says Doyle, who spent the past ten years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Doyle says the team approach is expanding the scale of each professor’s individual research. On one end, Heffernan’s advances in sensing technology are giving his new colleagues more detailed data on factors such as contamination levels, making it far easier to examine how water quality changes in a specific creek over the course of a day. But the team members hope to use their combined expertise to look more expansively at systems as well. Doyle and Marani, for example, have cowritten a grant proposal to examine the effect of multi-year droughts on water systems in the entire southeastern U.S.

But it’s not just the professors who are seeing the benefits of the cluster approach. “We’ve been able to get stunningly good applicants to grad-student and postdoc positions,” says Doyle. It seems one lasting effect of the Dream Team may be a deep bench.

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