Humanitarian groundwater projects; notes on motivations from the academic world

Humanitarian groundwater projects; notes on motivations from the academic world

Post by Margaret Shanafield, ARC DECRA Senior Hydrogeology/Hydrology Researcher at Flinders University, in Australia. You can follow Margaret on Twitter at @shanagland.


What led me down the slippery slope into a career in hydrology and then hydrogeology, was a desire to combine my love of traveling with a desire to have a deeper relationship with the places I was going, and be able to contribute something positive while there. I figured everyone needs water, and almost everyone has either too much (flooding) or too little of it.

But, from an academic point of view, aid/humanitarian/philanthropic projects can be frustrating and offer few of the traditional paybacks that universities and academia reward.  Last week, for example, I spent much of my time working on the annual report for an unpaid project, and I am soft money funded. And what’s worse, I couldn’t even get the report finished, because most of the project partners hadn’t given me their updates on time. When I went across the hall to complain to my colleague, he admitted that he, too, was in a similar situation.

So what is the incentive?

Globally, the need for regional hydrologic humanitarian efforts is obvious. Even today, 1,000 children die due to diarrhoeal diseases on a daily basis. Water scarcity affects 40% of global population, with 1.7 billion people dependent on groundwater basins where the water extraction is higher than the recharge.  And, the lack of water availability is only going to get worse into the future.

But being a researcher with pressure to “publish or perish” and find ways to fund myself and my research, what was/is my incentive to address these problems? From an academic point of view, water aid projects are often time-consuming, with expected timelines delayed by language and cultural barriers, difficulties in obtaining background data, expectations on each side of the project not matching up, and activities and communication not happening on the timescales academics are used to. And the results are typically hard to publish.

An online search revealed numerous articles discussing the pros and cons of pursuing a career in development work, including: having a job aligned with one’s morals and values, an exciting lifestyle full of change, motivated co-workers, the opportunity to see the world and different cultures, the opportunity to make a difference, and last but not least, because it is a challenge (in a good way).

As a scientist, I get elements of all these pros in my daily work. But, while much of what academics do fits under the umbrella of “intellectually challenging”, aid projects provide applied problems with real-world implications that can sometimes be lacking in the heavily research-focused academic realm, except for the creative “broader impacts” and outreach sections of grant proposals. They are therefore an opportunity for scientists to have an impact on the world by contributing to the collective understanding of water resources and hydrologic systems. And hey, many of us enjoy travelling and get to visit interesting places for work, too.

Pulling myself out of my philosophical waxings, I focused on these highlights and the benefits of working in an interdisciplinary project to address some of those global problems I mentioned earlier – and got back to report writing.

Training project partners in Vietnam to take shallow geophysical measurements (left). Sweaty days in the field are rewarded by cheap beers, magnificent sunrises, and relaxing evenings at the coast where the river meets the sea (right). Photos by M Shanafield.


Margaret Shanafield‘s research is at the nexus between hydrology and hydrogeology. Her current research interests still focus on surface water-groundwater actions, although she work’s on a diverse set of projects from international development projects to ecohydrology. The use of multiple tracers to understand groundwater recharge patterns in streambeds and understanding the dynamics of intermittent and ephemeral streamflow are her main passions. Since 2015, she has been an ARC DECRA fellow, measuring and modelling what hydrologic factors lead to streamflow in arid regions. You can find out more about Margaret on her website.

Groundwater & Education – Part One

Groundwater & Education – Part One

Post by Viviana Re, postdoctoral researcher at the University of  Pavia (Università di Pavia), in Italy. You can follow Viviana on Twitter at @biralnas.

Part one of a two part series on groundwater and education by Viviana.


Education /ɛdjʊˈkeɪʃ(ə)n
The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.

  • from Latin educatio(n-), from the verb educare
  • Educare is a combination of the words e (out) and ducare (lead, drawing), or drawing out.

Based on this definition, I should change the title of this post to: Drawing out groundwater (from the well). This is actually the main occupation of groundwater scientists, isn’t it? Not only are we always withdrawing groundwater from a well or a borehole while sampling, but we also often have to “draw it out” when dealing with managers and policy makers, as sometimes they seem to forget about this hidden (but very important) component of the water cycle. Therefore, we are quite used to these forms of “drawing out” – but what about education? Are we really that effective in “drawing out” groundwater in explaining its peculiarities, issues, and connections within the whole water cycle and, more generally, with the environment?

Indeed, the effort of shedding light on something that is not so visible nor easily studied has the side effect of forcing us to focus solely on it, with a resulting tendency of developing sectorial approaches to water management.

In the preface of a UNESCO Technical paper, I found the following excerpt: “Water resources schemes are now increasingly considered as integrated systems and consequently, civil engineers, geologists, agricultural engineers and hydraulic engineers engaged in planning and design no longer work in isolation”. The document is dated 1974 but, still in 2017, we are somehow struggling to fitting groundwater into Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and to connecting mental and structural “silos”. Quoting Daly (2017), the latter is particularly relevant (especially when education is at stake): if on the one hand, specialization can be the driver for a sound knowledge; on the other hand, this can encourage people to get stuck in their own individual disciplines (or said in other words, their “silos”). Indeed, “silos” exist in their structures, but can also exist as a state of mind that can go hand in hand with tunnel vision (Tett, 2015).

Therefore, in my opinion, the new generation of groundwater scientists (and teachers) should have a new mission: to work (and therefore, to teach) coherently with the integrated and complex nature of the water cycle. In fact, the role of hydrogeologists and groundwater scientists in times of increasing freshwater demand, exacerbated by population growth and climate change effects, requires a serious shift towards a more holistic approach targeting sound groundwater assessment and long-term management.

Arguably, if we are still discussing possible ways of practically implementing this integration, we should definitely start asking ourselves if the the “business as usual” way of working and teaching is effective.  If it is not, we must begin investigating how we can go beyond classical approaches to draw groundwater out of the well.

Playing with kids while sampling … can we call it capacity building?!


To be continued …

[Read More]

One hell of a great groundwater textbook now available free

One hell of a great groundwater textbook now available free

‘Groundwater’ the seminar text book from Freeze and Cheery (1979) is free in pdf now…just follow the links here. This text book is almost as old as I am and important parts of modern hydrogeology are rusty or non-existent (like hydroecology amongst other topics) but it is still lucidly written and useful.  I routinely send students to read chapters so I am happy that it is now available free.

Kudos to Pearson Publishing, Alan Freeze and John Cherry and Hydrogeologists without Borders! I look forward to Groundwater2.0 which is in the works!



How to peer review: skill-building in a grad classes

How to peer review: skill-building in a grad classes

I teach how to peer-review in graduate class because I think it is a core skill for any professional.  I first demystify peer-reviewing and academic journals, and answer questions that all students have about these topics that they have heard about but rarely learn about using this:

peer review

Nicholos and Gordon EOS, 2011

I describe my personal experience as a manuscript submitter, reviewer and associate editor. And then I outline the structure and types of questions to ask during a peer review (both listed below), and challenge them with three, increasingly difficult steps to learn how to peer review:

  • first, peer review already published papers (which is surprisingly hard since it is already well edited but this is useful as practice and since it is impersonal).
  • Second, peer review an open access manuscript that is currently in review (i.e. HESSD  or other open access journal). These can be actually submitted to the journal or not.
  • Third, they peer-review eachother`s term papers before final submission of paper to me as part of the grade.

At each step myself or a TA gives them feedback and evaluates their peer reviews.

Good structure for a peer-review

  • Short summary (1-2 sentences) and general assessment of novelty/contribution. Give the author(s) a few compliments here….everyone likes to eat the good-bad-good sandwich rather than just the bad sandwich.
  • Discuss major concerns or suggestions for authors. Aim for positive criticism here.
  • Recommend course of action: reject, accept with major revisions or accept with minor revisions.
  • Document minor concerns with explicit page and line numbers.

Good questions to ponder:
Contributions and Audience:
What are the important contributions of this paper?
Does the paper make a significant, new contribution to this research area?
Who is the intended audience?

Technical soundness:
Are the methods fully described?
Is the mathematical/theoretical development (if any) complete and accurate?
Is the approach, experimental design, review or statistical analysis appropriate?

Organization and Style:
Is the paper a description of an experiment or concept or a synthesis of previous work?
Is the paper well written and organized?
What is the hypothesis, objectives or goals put forth?Are all the tables and figures necessary?
Can the paper be shortened?

Are the interpretations of data and results justified?
What are the major conclusions? Are they significant? Are they interesting? What remains answered?

Your reactions:
Did you gain something from the paper (be specific)?
How does the paper relate to other topics discussed in class?Are such questions and/or methods relevant to your own research?

What is the best journal to submit groundwater research this year?

What is the best journal to submit groundwater research this year?

We all know about the flaws of impact factors, including how they lead to citing recent research, self-citing etc. But I thought it would be handy to compile a list of journals where well-cited groundwater articles are most often published. Like it or not, I sometimes look up this information and I assume other people do to. The impact factor  is certainly not the only factor I use to decide where to submit but I thought it might be useful to list these journals all in one place.


impact factor??? from www.myrkothum.com

I made the list by searching ‘groundwater’ on google scholar and listing articles published in the last ten years than have >100 citations. Then I compiled the impact factors from the 2014  Thomson Reuters journal citation reports. This list reminded me of the diversity of journals were well-cited groundwater papers appear and to shoot high. Here is the list, first alphabetically…

Advances in Water Resources 2.8
Chemosphere 3.5
Ecohydrology 2.6
Environmental Earth Science 1.6
Environmental Management 1.6
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 1.7
Environmental Science & Technology 5.5
Geophysical Research Letters 4.5
Groundwater 2.0
Hydrogeology Journal 1.7
Hydrological Processes 2.7
Hydrology and Earth Systems Science 3.6
Journal of Hydrology 2.7
Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 1.8
Nature 42.4
Nature Climate Change 15.3
Nature Geoscience 11.7
PNAS 9.8
Science 31.5
Science of the Total Environment 3.2
Water Research 5.3
Water Resources Research 3.7

and now for the real number geeks, sorted by impact factor…

Nature 42.4
Science 31.5
Nature Climate Change 15.3
Nature Geoscience 11.7
PNAS 9.8
Environmental Science & Technology 5.5
Water Research 5.3
Geophysical Research Letters 4.5
Water Resources Research 3.7
Hydrology and Earth Systems Science 3.6
Chemosphere 3.5
Science of the Total Environment 3.2
Advances in Water Resources 2.8
Hydrological Processes 2.7
Journal of Hydrology 2.7
Ecohydrology 2.6
Groundwater 2.0
Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 1.8
Hydrogeology Journal 1.7
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 1.7
Environmental Management 1.6
Environmental Earth Science 1.6

For such a new journal, I am amazed that HESS has such a high impact factor. Is it because of the open access?

Did I miss any important journals? Please let me know with your comments…

1200 words to make sense of chaos: The Selker Scheme

1200 words to make sense of chaos: The Selker Scheme

This is an inspiring article by John Selker (Oregon State University) that was first published in the latest AGU Hydrology Section Newsletter (July 2014). John graciously offered to re-post it here… make sure you make it to his rules and a secret at the bottom.

Being elected a fellow of the AGU was an amazing honor, and I thank  those who so kindly nominated me, somehow crafting a silk purse from the assorted bits and pieces I have left behind over 25
years. I take this opportunity to address nontechnical aspects of my experience. After all, the science is easily found on-line, whereas the ins and outs of personal scientific strategy rarely see the light of day.

My research is the outcome of local optimization scheme with the objective of identifying the next approach when faced with calls for proposals which I saw I could address, thus seemed opportune, but did not deeply stimulate my curiosity. I was lured into that trap a few times. But in time, putting greater weight on “the likelihood that I will be excited by the work” than “the chances that the ideas will be successful” and putting “the chances that I would be funded” last,
my research program took a turn for the better (right around the time I got tenure – funny how that works). Behind this all lurks the fact that I am more fascinated by challenges than questions. I do
not see this as an advantage: great scientists seek answers to great questions, not just engaging puzzles. I tend to be hooked on a question, which sometimes take decades to unravel.

This “strategy” (more accurately a propensity) is best understood by an example of a question and its resolution. Here’s one which can be explained compactly, which we could call “the steam water
quality sampling conundrum:” design an ultra cheap sampler of 1-month time-averaged stream chemistry. What a neat problem! So we started with the fact that a sampler must have a vessel to
hold the material collected. Next, if it is to sample from a stream, it would be good if it sank. So at a minimum we must have a weighted brown glass bottle. At this point a little context is needed. David Rupp had just found significant pesticide in runoff and wondered how many stream might have this problem (Rupp et al., 2006), so we needed to sample at hundreds of points for the little money I
could gather: about $1,000 – the cost of the bottles. So we stared at a bottle: the answer must be here. “Fine, let’s just drill one tiny hole in the bottle cap and call it done.” When the stream water warms the
bottles air expands sending out 2% of the air from the hole (PV=nRT and T changes about 6 oK out of 300 oK). Cooling contracts the air, drawing in water. It fills half-way in a month. David and I had a great time making and testing these bottles. By the time we were confident in the design, the project was by over, but we got enough data to publish (Selker and Rupp, 2005). How important
was this work? The paper has been cited twice (and those only citing our work to justify that weird sampling strategies are publishable. A wonderful puzzle solved, but that interested fewer people than
would be invited to a dinner party.

So should we follow the branching Fibonaccian web of passion or a single path? Eternally seduced by the next “cool problem” means that I do not tend to follow otherwise discernible “lines of investigation” and is likely to lead to lost papers such as the sinking bubble bottle. I have been told that this is not the best route to “success,” and that staying focused on a single theme brings greater
recognition of your work. Yes, I agree, in the abstract. But this theory is trumped, in my opinion, by the absolute requirement that a researcher’s spirit be engaged in their work if they are to have a
hope of accomplishing anything truly original and important. If you don’t find yourself dreaming about it, you just aren’t fully engaged: you are just using a tiny fraction of your brain, missing out on
the chance to excel.

How do we balance these factors? Don Nielsen’s question needs to be added to the criteria for selecting a research project: is the problem important to humanity? And he means REALLY important!

Stumbling in the dark you are sometimes lucky enough to bump into a lump of gold. Marc Parlange is uniquely expert at helping people stumble productively. Preparing to come to Switzerland on sabbatical to work with Marc he suggested I work on glacier melting. The problem is that glaciers melt largely due to shortwave
radiation absorption, and if you stick anything in the glacier to measure the radiation or temperature, it gets hot in the sun, and melts the ice. “What if I had an entirely transparent thermometer?” I recalled hearing about fiber optic temperature measurements, so I started to check on that approach. We tried hard to measure the glaciers melt with fiber optic distributed temperature sensing (DTS), but the bottom line is that I never got any important publishable data. I tip my hat to all those studying snow! But the DTS method
allowed measurement of 10’s of thousands of temperatures across scales of 0.1 to 10,000 m. These are precisely the scales at which “point” measurements and remote sensing. This is an obvious gold mine for our science (opportune? Yes!). We have now used DTS to “see” air movement, quantify groundwater upwelling in streams, measure soil water content, observe lake stratification, surface temperatures of the ocean, and flow in deep boreholes. A wonderful aspect of the scientific endeavor is that we move as a community. We (my DTS buddies Scott Tyler and Nick van de Giesen) have now put on 15 hands-on workshops training folks how to use the method, and started an NSF-funded center (CTEMPs.org) where we make the gear and technical support available to others who have ideas that DTS might help address. It has been a delight.

The bottom line is that life is too short to:
1. Study problems that don’t matter;
2. Try to “go it alone” rather than feeling the joy of community;
3. Get stale studying the same old thing. If you feel it is fresh, great. If not, then open your eyes to new problems;
4. Worry about others stealing your ideas!The jokes on them – you are multiplying the number of people who are helping you answer the questions that you can’t wait to understand. Share your ideas, your data, your time.

Here’s a little secret: the coolest problem ever is just around the bend. Take the corner, and enjoy the ride. I can’t point the way, but following a few simple rules I promise you’ll have a great time

Rupp, D.E., K. Warren, E. Peachy and J.S. Selker. Diuron in Surface Runoff and Tile Drainage from Two Grass-Seed Fields. J. Env. Qual. 35:303-311. 2006.
Selker, J.S. and D.E. Rupp. An environmentally driven time  integrating water sampler. Water Resour. Res. 41. W09201,DOI:10.1029/2005WR004040. 2005.

Two great science communication tools for conferences and teaching: smart screens and cell phones

Two great science communication tools for conferences and teaching: smart screens and cell phones

A few weeks ago at the European Geosciences Union in Vienna I learned about two dead-easy and great science communication tools for conferences.  These are great for any conference hall or meeting, but could be just as easily be used in the classroom to make a more exciting in class research presentations. For better or worse, most of us are carrying them (or looking at them!) right now: a smart screen or cell phone.

The EGU conference uses smart screens in their innovative PICO (Presenting Interactive COntent) sessions. Every PICO author first presents orally in a 2-minute science blitz and then has a smart screen pre-loaded with a dynamic presentation to discuss further with colleagues. Simple and effective.


Jan Siebert (University of Zurich) showing off just how dynamic PICO sessions are.

While I was a traditional poster session, Hannes Müller Schmied of Frankfurt University pulled out his cell phone to show me some additional visualizations (in this case global hydrologic model results posted on their website – this was connected to his poster with a QR code!). It was great to for him to be able to walk me through the results right there rather than be limited by the static images on his poster. We immediately realized this should be called micro-PICO!


Hannes Müller Schmied showing off model results in this micro-PICO session with his poster in the background.

Thanks EGU for teaching me about two super simple and effective science communication tools, which I hope will cross the pond to AGU and other meetings.

What busy profs would like to read in a blog post about active learning

What busy profs would like to read in a blog post about active learning

During a great workshop today on active learning in engineering at McGill I asked two questions (using Socrative) , of the audience. Here is a summary of 24 answers I received:

1) I would like to read blog posts about:

  • activities for large classes (18% of people)
  • activities for small classes (30% of people)
  • technology in active learning (22% of people)
  • wacky or creative ideas for active learning(30% of people)

2) I might read a blog post about teaching and supervision if…

  • It takes into account the sheer lack of time and resources for preparation; ie quick and easy ideas to engage a bored class!
  • it was linked through twitter
  • It was regularly updated and interesting!
  • It does not take too long
  • it helps me achieve better my teaching objectives compared to my current teaching practice
  • It related to economics / social science a bit
  • Its short and introduce tips and examples
  • It gives concrete practical examples of activities for teaching and making students more active
  • I was interested
  • I knew where to find it
  • It dealt with distance education
  • they talked about encouraging creativity and critical thinking
  • it was about new and creative strategies that I can use in my class
  • it included the occasional evidence-based pieces that demonstrate real impact
  • Give ideas about how to get the students more active
  • It’s concrete, thoughtful and provides ideas
  • it was relevant and to the topic. I also would like to see it promoted within the departments to encourage conversation about teaching and learning
  • It is useful

My summary is that people want to hear about all types of different aspects of active learning and they would be motivated to read posts if it interesting and provided something useful.

Thanks Michael Prince of Bucknell for the great workshop and Milwaukee Mag for the image.

Surprises and lessons learned from co-teaching an inter-university graduate course

Surprises and lessons learned from co-teaching an inter-university graduate course

GrantFergusonContributed by Grant Ferguson, University of Saskatchewan


In an earlier blog post, Tom discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of co-teaching a blended graduate course to students at McGill University, the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the University of Saskatchewan. This course wrapped up last month… we definitely learned a few things during its delivery, some of which were surprises that we hope you can learn from.

Surprise #1: The course outline and structure came together rather quickly and there was minimal debate on the content that we would cover. We did not attempt to be comprehensive in our coverage and chose to teach to our research interests. At the same time, we did not feel that there were obvious gaping holes in the curriculum. We included a review of what we expected the students to understand coming into the course. Although we were teaching students from a variety of backgrounds including civil engineering, environmental science, geosciences and forestry our expectation was that everyone should have been exposed to similar content in their undergraduate hydrogeology course. A recent review on the content of undergraduate hydrogeology courses by Gleeson et al. (2012) indicated that the core content of these courses does not vary that much from university to university.

However, surprise #2: students had very different interests and strengths. Some universities had students that excelled at MatLab while others were far more proficient with GIS. The interests of students also tended to mirror those of their home institutions. Students from McGill tended to be interested in water resource sustainability and large-scale problems, students from Saskatchewan were focused on problems associated with resource-extraction and students from Wisconsin tended to be more interested on hydrological processes and ecosystems. Exposing these biases, strengths and weaknesses was valuable for both instructors and students.

Surprise #3: this may not be a more ‘efficient’ way to teach since we spent far more time preparing lectures for this course than we normally do for other courses. Teaching to students and other universities with other instructors present brought teaching to a different level.   This effectively negated the initial thought that this would be a more efficient way of teaching because we were only on the hook for a third of the lectures. Part of this preparation was related to knowing that we would be forced to rely on slides more heavily than in a conventional classroom. However, the greater motivation was knowing that this presentation was going outside the walls of the home institution and that colleagues from other universities would be following along.

Surprise #4: Communication during the course went more smoothly than expected. Aside from a few momentary hiccups, there were few problems hearing the lecturer. Talking between institutions during the lecture went well, although questions were generally repeated by the lecturer or someone nearer to the microphone at other schools. The biggest obstacle might have been for the lecturers. Despite some efforts to situate cameras and explore different views within Microsoft Lync, it was difficult for the lecture to see the remote classrooms. Without being able to see facial expressions or body lan20140325aguage, it was difficult to assess how the material was being received at the other locations. This problem can likely be resolved to some extent with additional monitors and better cameras.

The feedback from the students was largely positive. Most of them seemed happy to participate in this experiment and get some exposure to other institutions. Tom, Steve and I all agreed that we would do this again given the chance. However, it appears that the stars might not align for us in 2015 due to some other commitments. We will see if we still feel this way in 2016.

Re-posted on Inside Higher Ed blog.

Why read “Water Underground” blog? And for me, why write a blog?

Why read “Water Underground” blog? And for me, why write a blog?
Picture from https://blog.shareaholic.com/how-to-clear-your-head-to-come-up-with-new-blog-post-ideas/

Picture from https://blog.shareaholic.com/how-to-clear-your-head-to-come-up-with-new-blog-post-ideas/

My reason to blog is really quite simple: to share what doesn’t currently fit into peer-reviewed articles. I will write about groundwater as well as how I research, teach, supervise and collaborate. In short I hope to cover the whole kit and caboodle of academia, from the underground perspective of groundwater.

Why read this blog? Time is precious so only read on if you are interested and/or passionate about…
– groundwater science, engineering, management and policy
-active learning of science and engineering at universities and colleges
-supervising and mentoring students compassionately and effectively

So, who might want to read this blog?
-environmental and water policy makers and managers – I hope to explain interesting, new groundwater science in plain language
-groundwater enthusiasts and nerds
-fellow scientists and grad students
-fellow teachers (outreach of our teaching ideas and experience)

My overall goals as a prof are also simple:
-nudge the world towards more sustainable groundwater use and learn about groundwater
-teach hydrology interactively and critically
-supervise and mentor students compassionately and effectively
So I hope this blog might help with these goals. Help me make this an interesting place to read about groundwater and academia – I encourage contributions from collaborators, students, postdocs. Or I’d love to hear ideas for blog entries – may they be weird, interesting or useful.


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