Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Big news to start 2023: I am now an Assistant Professor in Coastal Engineering here at TU Delft! An opening appeared online last summer, and after weeks of preparing applications, several rounds of interviews and a teaching demonstration, and a lot of waiting, I finally got the good news. This has been my dream job for a long time and I can’t believe it came true.

Officially, my new portfolio will focus on “Climate-Robust Deltas”. How does sediment contribute to the strength and adaptability of our coasts and deltas against the effects of sea level rise and climate change? In my research we approach this gigantic problem by quantifying sediment pathways and connectivity for strategic placement of sediment, using a combination of numerical modelling and field measurements. In the coming years, I hope to build up a diverse team of enthusiastic, coastally curious researchers to tackle these challenges. Stay tuned for opportunities to join our group!

Turn and face the strange!

Visions for the Coming Years

When I first moved from Canada to the Netherlands, I was warned to expect grey skies and rainy summers. Contrary to that bleak picture, last summer we faced down our fourth major drought of the past five years. Climate change is knocking at our door, and we need to answer before it breaks that door down. Deltas and other low-lying coastal regions like atolls are already feeling the impact of rising seas and increased anthropogenic pressures. The coming decades will require new tools and knowledge to make our coasts and deltas climate-robust, and I am thrilled to stay with the TU Delft coastal team to contribute to their development. I am driven by the goal of using my research and teaching to make a positive impact on society and the environment, and fueled by my curiosity for the natural world.

On Research

My primary line of research focuses on quantifying and understanding coastal sediment pathways and connectivity across different scales in space and time. I currently approach this topic from two perspectives: (1) development of theory and numerical models of connectivity and sediment pathways; (2) novel field and laboratory validation approaches to support the latter, including techniques like fluorescent-magnetic or optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) tracing and morphodynamic-stratigraphic analysis. These efforts are supported and valorized by a wide network of international collaborators in multiple sectors: at universities, in government, research institutes, consulting companies and indigenous/community groups.

My research seeks to advance the field of coastal engineering by enhancing our understanding of coastal sediment transport and by providing new quantitative tools and techniques for analysis and visualization (e.g., the SedTRAILS model, Sediment Connectivity framework, Sediment Composition Index). Although developed for the Dutch coast, these approaches and knowledge have already been extended to other environments (e.g., the Fraser Delta (Canada), San Francisco Bay (US), and the Mouth of the Columbia River (USA)) and valorized in international research and consulting projects. This knowledge enables strategic sediment nourishments and beneficial reuse of dredged material, making more effective use of a precious resource for delta-building and minimizing negative environmental impacts. These approaches are necessary to ensure safe, sustainable futures for our coasts and deltas, not just in the Netherlands but around the world.

On Teaching

My teaching and mentoring focus on developing knowledge of coastal processes and building student competence in techniques needed for their success in engineering practice and research. These include field measurements, data analysis, numerical modelling, and technical writing skills.

The next generation of hydraulic engineering students will face challenges like climate change, the energy transition, and others that we cannot yet conceive of.  We must therefore prepare our students with the right quantitative techniques and problem-solving skills to adapt and innovate. By endowing them with a strong theoretical basis and sharp critical thinking skills, we can help students develop their “bullshit detectors” (see Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West’s Calling Bullshit, which I highly recommend!) to avoid being fooled by models, confront misinformation and restore public trust in science, minimize uncertainty, and ultimately to make good engineering decisions.

My enthusiasm in the classroom is rooted in a lifelong curiosity and an urge to share that with the people around me. My teaching philosophy is very much rooted in “learning by doing” as a result of my own educational background: my undergrad program was interspersed with 6×4-month internships that informed my perspective on civil engineering practice across a range of disciplines. I also believe in getting students to the field to help them make connections between the classroom and reality. In the classroom, it is important to me to regularly use real-world examples so that we can avoid the dreaded, “when the heck am I ever going to use this?” question.  Keeping an eye on student mental health is also an important personal priority: students (especially those from marginalized groups) have been more disconnected and less motivated since the pandemic began. When we take good care of our students, we are investing in the future of our TU Delft community, our society at large, and ultimately our coasts, too.

On Community Building

I am very much looking forward to building up a research group in the coming years. If you are a current TU Delft BSc or MSc student who is interested in working together on a thesis project, check out the MSc Hydraulic Engineering page on Brightspace for ideas and shoot me an email at s.g.pearson@tudelft.nl.

While I am not yet recruiting new PhD students during this transition to my new job, future positions will be posted on the Coastal List, Academic Transfer and the TU Delft vacancy page, so keep your eyes peeled!

To navigate the Anthropocene era, we will need more than just better sediment transport models or coastline datasets. Ultimately, we need a more holistic and interdisciplinary view of coastal geoscience and engineering. To that end, Michèle Koppes and Leonora King’s Beyond x,y,z(t); Navigating new landscapes of science in the science of landscapes is a manifesto of sorts for 21st century geomorphology that really resonated with me, and I highly recommend it to curious readers who want to make a difference.

Many systemic barriers related to our background, our gender, and our race still persist in engineering and academia. I recognize that I have been enormously privileged in these and many other respects throughout my life and academic journey, and that this has made my road smoother. Let’s work together to dismantle these barriers and build a more equitable research and education community.

With a shared vision of what our coasts can look like and the tools and people to make it happen, we can ensure a sustainable and equitable future for our coasts for generations to come, in spite of the challenges that lie ahead.

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