Hydroclimatology, Shaun Harrigan @shaunharrigan: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Shaun Harrigan


AREA OF EXPERTISE: Hydroclimatology [I study what drives changes in hydrological extremes (floods and droughts), from climate change to human alterations within catchments].

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 5 (two years as a research assistant working on hydroclimate related projects, and currently finishing the third year of my PhD at Maynooth University in Ireland).

EDUCATION: 2006-2009: BA in Mathematics and Geography; 2009-2010:  MSc in Climate Change (both from Maynooth University).

PhD Student, Shaun Harrigan at Pikes Peak, Colorado, USA

PhD Student, Shaun Harrigan at Pikes Peak, Colorado, USA

What’s your job like?

I’ve always been interested in how the world works, and now I get to do this as my job! The majority of my motivation comes from wanting to better understand the hydrological cycle. However, there’s added motivation working on problems involving extremes, such as heavy rainfall, floods, and droughts, as these events have significant impacts on society. I’m always thinking about how scientific knowledge can be used to improve our management of these extremes now and in the future.

What’s a typical day like?

There is no typical day, which is another appealing thing about a career in research – but it always starts with a coffee! The majority of the time, I am working on a specific piece of analysis. For my PhD, I work mainly with observed precipitation and streamflow datasets and increasingly with larger atmospheric reanalysis products; all to improve our understanding of the drivers of changes in floods over multi-decadal time-scales. Eighty percent of my time is spent doing an analysis which involves tidying up these datasets and manipulating them into a workable format to be used for statistical analysis or as input into hydrological models. This requires a decent dose of programming (mainly in R), as it would not be practical to work with all this data otherwise.

There’s a great community of PhD students, post-docs, and staff in my research group at Maynooth, and we all make an effort to have lunch at the same time — guaranteeing a good conversation whether it’s sharing tips on writing your PhD or solving the current political problem of the day!

I’m also involved with the Young Hydrologic Society (YHS), and I’m the Early Career Scientist representative for the Hydrological Sciences division of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). Within these roles, I get the opportunity to work with other like-minded people from all over the world. We have monthly Skype calls to organize events for early career scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco and the General Assembly of the EGU in Vienna. Here’s an example of one of the sessions we organized at the 2015 EGU titled, “The mystery of evaporation”:  http://younghs.com/2015/05/11/meet-the-expert-in-hydrology-the-mystery-of-evaporation/

What’s fun?

One of my favourite parts of my job is the many opportunities to travel to some nice places for conferences and workshops. It’s always great to meet new people at these events who are working in the same area and see how they approach similar research problems. One of the highlights of my PhD has been participating in a three-week summer school at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. I met some great people and hiked in the Rockies!

What’s challenging?

Working with real world data is challenging. Measuring natural systems is not easy and sometimes a precipitation gauge will malfunction, leaving gaps in the record — or a large flood event will fail to be captured at a streamflow gauging site. It’s not always straight forward to know if your model is performing poorly because it’s no good or there’s something wrong with the underlying observed data.

What’s your advice to students?

If you’re finishing your undergrad or Master’s and considering doing a PhD but aren’t 100% sure research is for you, then try find a research assistant role for a few months (or even 2 years!). Even though I had spent some time during my MSc doing research and writing a thesis, I still wasn’t convinced a career in research was for me. That was until I worked as a research assistant. Doing this also gave me time to develop an interesting PhD topic and apply for PhD funding.

Rocky Mountain Majesties: Field Camp Adventures

I was 33 when I went to geology field camp, prior to graduation with my Bachelor’s.  Five of us were headed to the same destination from the University of South Florida that year, so it was nice to be amongst friends for the long journey ahead from Florida to Montana.  The camp was offered by the University of Arkansas and headed by a professor named Dr. Doy Zachry.  As I drove out of my driveway that early morning in May, I’ll never forget looking back at my two boys, ages 4 and 5, and my husband in front of our little, white house with orange shutters.  It would be seven weeks without them and I was torn.  Very torn.  Guilt wracked me more and more with every turn, as I made my way to Tampa and every muscle ached already – almost as if I had been away for much longer than ten minutes.

But I continued, despite knowing I’d miss them terribly and before I knew it, I was standing in front of four University of Arkansas vans that were filled with students from all over the country who were eager to be on their way.  This was actually the beginning.  We would travel through several states including Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and of course, Montana. Places I had never seen with many people I hardly knew.

Field Camp Students on Way to Rocky Mountain Majesties

We headed west through Kansas, passing golden fields, wind turbines and small, quaint towns along the long roadway towards Colorado.  As we continued west, I could have never imagined the sight that I would behold for the first time.  I didn’t pay much attention to the long line of puffy, white clouds that drew us in, but as we drove closer, these clouds grew larger and gave way to the peaks of snowcapped mountains that jetted upward, some taller than the clouds with the reflection of the sun glistening on the snow.  I kept thinking how beautiful the mountains were becoming and felt overwhelmed for some reason I can’t quite explain.  And as I stood before them just below the Front Range, the enormity of these mountains became real.  “Majestic” is all I kept thinking – like the song.  It was true.  They were majestic.  The immenseness of their existence, so tall, so absolutely beautiful with a color pallet I had never seen before took my breath away.  It was actually too much to take in all at once and I had to look away towards Denver and then look back again towards the mountains as if to pinch myself.  I grew up near the Catskills of New York, but no way did they compare to the grandness of the Rockies.  Everything I read in college textbooks was standing in front of me and the opportunity to see all the rock formations, faults, erosion properties, snow, vegetation, rivers and animals finally sparked a sense of excitement over this adventure, and as I grew closer to Red Rocks, I knew I would never be the same.  It was one of the most poignant moments in my life.  If you ever have the opportunity to see the Rockies, don’t fly into Denver, or Colorado Springs, or anywhere else around them.  Drive towards them!  There’s nothing like the first view as you come upon the Rockies.  “For purple mountains majesties…”

This is a link to a picture that captures the majestic view while driving in.

"Rocky Mountain High" by Kristal Kraft. http://www.denverphotoblog.com/colorado-high-rocky-mountain-road-trip/

“Rocky Mountain High” by Kristal Kraft. http://www.denverphotoblog.com/colorado-high-rocky-mountain-road-trip/