PhD Student, Hydrology, Wouter Berghuijs @wberghuijs: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Wouter Berghuijs, Hydrology

Wouter Berghuijs, Hydrology PhD Student

NAME:  Wouter Berghuijs


AREA OF EXPERTISE: Since January 2014, I have been a PhD student at the University of Bristol (United Kingdom), working in the field of hydrology. Hydrology is the science that tries to understand and predict the complex water cycle of the earth and help solve water problems.


EDUCATION: Before I moved to Bristol, I did a BSc (2008-2011) and MSc (2011- 2013) in civil engineering at Delft University of Technology (Netherlands). During my studies in Delft, I spent three periods abroad working on different research projects. This included fieldwork in Zambia, a research internship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (United States), and a three-month visit to the University of Bristol for my MSc thesis.


PhD Student, Hydrology at University of Bristol

Chairman of the Young Hydrologic Society

Young Scientist Representative at European Geosciences Union Hydrology Division

What’s your job like?

In my PhD, I compare datasets and modelling results from watersheds located all over the world to better understand the hydrologic behaviour across a diverse range of places. This “comparative approach” helps to expose patterns in data and modelling results that would be very difficult to find out if you studied a single place in a lot of detail. Using this approach, I try to answer various types of question related to the water cycle.

For example, I compared over 400 watersheds across the United States and found that historical data suggests that if temperatures rise, the total amount of water in rivers (long-term average) will decrease much more than previously thought. With more than a billion people who depend on melt water for their water supply, the consequences of such a reduction in stream flow can be substantial. This decrease in water availability could only be exposed and thoroughly tested by comparing data from so many different locations in a single study.

Because my research requires several years of measurements from many locations, I rely on existing datasets.  My PhD does not involve fieldwork. I work together with several scientists from different places around the world. Involvement of them is crucial as they have a lot of detailed knowledge about the places I study and have often been involved in the measurement campaigns that produced the data I am using now.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical workday would be at the office. I share an office with PhD students and Post Docs of the Water and Environment Research Group at the department of Civil Engineering. With over 20 people in our group, there is almost always someone in the office, including late hours or the weekend (including myself occasionally).

In the first months of my PhD, I have been focusing on getting my hands on data from various places around the world and to develop several analyses I am conducting now. As there is no fieldwork involved in my PhD, I spent most of my time behind my computer. I discuss the work I do on a regular basis with my PhD supervisor. Because I am working with people from many places around the world, much of the interaction with them is via email and Skype. With a lot of PhD and Post Docs working in the same office, I discuss my work with them mostly during coffee- or lunch- breaks, or in the regular group meetings we have.

Besides my PhD studies, I am the young scientist representative for the Hydrology Division of the European Geosciences Union (EGU), and I am active for the Young Hydrologic Society, which is a bottom-up initiative to stimulate the interaction and active participation of young hydrologists within the hydrological community. This in essence means I am involved in organising several activities aiming at early career hydrologists at the EGU General Assembly and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting.

What’s fun?

The most fun for me is that I am able to work on a “cool puzzle” and try to discover something no one has known before. Giant leaps forward do not happen too often in a science career, but I already had some very rewarding and relevant findings during the early stages of my PhD (e.g. the snow example given above). Another very nice aspect is that you get to meet and work with a very diverse set of people all with strong intellectual capabilities and similar interest as I have.

What’s challenging?

Having the opportunity to define my own research is really fun and rewarding. In the meanwhile, I have far too many questions I want to answer, and I find it sometimes difficult to let go of my research and accept I can’t do it all. I find myself occasionally ending up in working on too many questions at the same time to make effective progress.

What’s your advice to students?

Making most of your PhD not just includes getting your research done very well (obviously this is very important!); Being involved in some organizational activities related to your field of study can be very rewarding and fun too.


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