Tell us about yourself:
My name is Austin, and I’m graduate student in geology working in Professor Michael Lamb’s group at Caltech. I earned my bachelor’s degree in geophysics at UCLA, where I conducted research in geophysical fluid dynamics and tectonic geomorphology. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area before making my way to Los Angeles for my higher education.
What is your research about?
At Caltech, I study the mechanics of river deltas using a combination of laboratory experiments, theoretical models, and remote sensing techniques. My research focuses on the natural tendency of deltaic rivers to catastrophically change course through the process of channel avulsion, and how the frequency and location of channel avulsions are influenced by relative sea-level change and flood variability.
What excites you about your research?
Rivers are some of the most dynamic features of the Earth’s surface. However, there is a lot we do not know about river deltas because modern observations offer only a glimpse into the thousands of years it takes for rivers to build and shape the deltas they flow through. What excites me most about my research is the opportunity to fill this knowledge gap through laboratory experiments, tackling the fundamental mechanics of how rivers form deltas at reduced scale, accelerated rates, and controlled conditions.
What broader importance does your research have for society?
Predicting the location and timing of river avulsions is crucial for sustainable water resource management on densely populated river deltas. A better understanding of how rivers naturally distribute water and sediment across floodplains and wetlands will help us to recognize the long-term consequences of water infrastructure such as dams and levees, and to revise land-management solutions like engineered diversions.
What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I have always been fascinated by the natural world. At the age of five, I was fully determined to pursue a dual career as an astronaut and paleontologist. While this early dream subsided as I matured and attended school, my passions found an enduring outlet in the study of the physical sciences, especially geology and physics.
What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD?
After I earn my PhD, I hope to pursue a career in academia. I am really excited at the prospect of further research, tackling other outstanding questions in the earth sciences, and mentoring students.
Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?
Wow, that’s a big question! With unlimited resources, I would hire a fleet of ships to systematically measure shallow-water bathymetry on the major river deltas worldwide. Many of these deltas feature vast wetlands that are only shallowly submerged by water, making them difficult to survey using larger vessels or satellites. The little data we do have suggest these wetlands are incredibly dynamic, and that they are at the front lines in the battle against relative sea-level rise.
What else do you do? Any hobbies or interests outside of work?
In my free time, I practice Muay Thai boxing and mixed martial arts. I also enjoy playing music for the acoustic guitar and writing comics.