NAME: Grant Ferguson
CURRENT TITLE: Centennial Enhancement Chair and Associate Professor
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Hydrogeology
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 15
EDUCATION: B.Sc., Honours Geology, University of Waterloo (2000)
Ph.D., Civil Engineering (Hydrogeology), University of Manitoba (2004)
TWITTER NAME: @geosomething
What’s your job like?
I conduct research and teach hydrogeology in the College of Engineering and School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan. My research focuses on regional and often deep groundwater systems and problems associated with the energy industry.
What’s a typical day like?
No two days are exactly the same. I have a joint appointment and split time between my offices in the College of Engineering and the School of Environment. Most days involve preparing and giving lectures and other teaching-related duties, working with students, various meetings and tasks for committee work at the university and meetings with collaborators both here in Saskatchewan and around the world. Somewhere in there, I try to find time to write papers, apply for grants and do a bit of research, which mainly involves reading papers, staring at data and maybe a bit of modelling during a typical day of the academic year.
I really enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect of geology. It amazes me how little we know about environments that are only a few hundred metres beneath our feet. My research group brings together geological, hydrological and geochemical data together to try to understand deep groundwater systems. One of our current projects has been trying to understand the hydrogeology of the “intermediate zone” between aquifers with potable water and oil and gas reservoirs. Another project that is just getting going is a study of the hydrogeology of Precambrian cratons at depths of kilometres. There’s never enough data! Trying to come up with stories that explain limited and fuzzy geological datasets is something I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of.
I also really enjoy getting out in the field. I grew up in the Canadian Shield and spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I got into geology because spending time in an office didn’t appeal to me. That didn’t work out quite as anticipated as an academic but I still try to find excuses to get out in the field every now and then. Fieldwork typically means installing monitoring wells or collecting water samples. I have also worked quite a bit on springs in alpine environments over the years, which has involved some hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Days like those hardly seem like work.
One of the best parts of my job is being able to work with great people. You might not be able to choose your colleagues within your own department but academics have a lot of freedom to choose their collaborators. I am extremely lucky to work with brilliant and thoughtful people around the world and some of these people have become very close friends.
The biggest challenge I have is keeping my priorities straight. There are a lot of competing demands for academics between getting research done, teaching and doing your share of administration. Sometimes it feels like you have several different bosses, each with different goals. It can be difficult to figure out how much effort to put into each of these, especially for newer faculty on the tenure-track. Even within these categories, it can be hard to figure out where to place your energy. It isn’t always clear which directions you should pursue in your research or which committees to volunteer for. There are only so many hours in the day and some of that has to be reserved for family, self-care and other pursuits.
What’s your advice to students?
If you can pick up some extra skills or find another discipline to complement your geoscience background, do it. Don’t be scared to take what might be perceived as more difficult courses. I loaded up on extra courses in geophysics, geochemistry, engineering and math during my schooling and this has opened up a lot of opportunities for me. My favourite collaborations tend to be with people who have taken a similar approach from a slightly different angle. Having enough of a geochemistry background to be able to work with a geochemist who understands hydrogeology is something that has transformed my research program over the past few years. Picking up skills that allow you to work in interdisciplinary teams can be really powerful.
I would also suggest that you try to work on things you are passionate about. I’m not going to suggest that you only work on these problems because those opportunities don’t always immediately present themselves. Early in my career, I chased research funding on a variety of topics to keep the lights on in my lab but I always made a little bit of time to work on projects that really excited me. Eventually, those projects became the focus of my research program and it makes work a lot more engaging and rewarding.