Laurel G. Larsen

Laurel G. Larsen
University of California-Berkeley

2018 Young Scientist Award (Donath Medal)

Presented to Laurel G. Larsen

Citation by Judson Harvey

Dr. Laurel G. Larsen of the University of California-Berkeley has shown exceptional creativity and vision in developing a “system science” approach to some of the most pressing environmental problems facing society. The grand challenge, as she sees it, is to decipher difficult “water problems” and “ecology problems” by solving them simultaneously rather than separately. She is a leading advocate for adaptable models that can predict long-term ecological outcomes while also retaining the crucial physics to permit detailed scenario testing.

Laurel investigates feedbacks between hydraulics, vegetation, sediment transport, and geomorphic change that shape river corridor ecosystems. She asks questions such as “how did river corridors and their ecological functions co-evolve?”, “how and why have ecological functions degraded?”, and “will scientifically-based management strategies be effective in restoring them?”. These questions are extraordinarily hard to translate to predictions because physical and biological processes do not operate in isolation but instead interact nonlinearly.

It is interesting to trace Laurel’s path to this early career milestone. As the daughter of a NASA shuttle program engineer and a state water manager, she was drawn to public service. She entered Washington University of St. Louis at age sixteen where she earned an undergraduate degree in Systems Science and Mathematics and a Master’s degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences. When she was twenty-one, Laurel received a prestigious Hertz Foundation Fellowship that would fully fund her Ph.D. studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Freed from work on specific grants she chose her own problems to work on that required mastery of several disciplines including fluid mechanics, fluvial geomorphology, and aquatic ecology.

Armed with a systems approach, Laurel went on to singlehandedly redefine the science behind multi-billion-dollar restorations of aquatic habitats. She chose as her first “model” system the Florida Everglades, i.e., the “River of Grass”, a national treasure and a RAMSAR designated wetland of international significance. In her Ph.D. work Laurel sought to understand how the strikingly patterned waterways of the Everglades, with linearly arranged deepwater sloughs separated by sawgrass ridges (that has been credited for simultaneously maximizing biodiversity AND connectivity) evolved in the first place. She answered that question and she also addressed why the system has been largely degraded in just one century under man’s care, whether the Congressionally authorized Everglades restoration will be successful in reviving Everglades habitat and biodiversity functions, and how best to improve the restoration’s performance. These questions had been broadly outlined by a community of experts that thought the really “big” questions were untestable because of the disparate timescales of hydraulic transport (seconds to months) interacting with biological and geomorphic processes accumulating over decades to centuries. Laurel showed otherwise and her published papers on the Everglades are landmarks of interdisciplinary research, which along with her tireless efforts at communicating to stakeholders, accomplished what a legion of senior scientists and their students couldn’t in the Everglades, i.e., providing reliable predictions of the outcomes of water management practices on functional values of floodplains. Quoting one of her supporters, “Laurel blazed a trail in the understanding of the co-evolution of landscapes, channels, and aquatic ecosystems”.

Fast forward just a few years with Laurel now a professor at University of California-Berkeley and leader of the Environmental Systems Dynamics Laboratory, conducting research on Louisiana’s degrading coastal wetlands, sustainability of anadromous fisheries in the California coastal mountains, and floodplain restoration testbeds in Pennsylvania and Virginia. At Berkeley, Laurel has aimed high. Her 45 papers published, in press, and in review are widely used and cited (1,111 cites, Google Scholar), and include a paper out this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “near-term ecological forecasting”. A natural leader, Dr. Larsen chaired and co-chaired, respectively, of the Reduced-Complexity Modeling Workshop, Boulder, CO and the Appropriate Complexity Modeling of the Impacts of Global Change on Ecosystems Meeting, Berkeley, CA. As one of her supporters put it, “Laurel has set her sights on articulating grand challenges for the earth sciences community.” From those workshops came Larsen et al. (2014), which outlined the roles of increasing computing power and information theory in building predictive models from the explosion of data streams now available from sensor networks, and Larsen et al. (2015), which boldly proposed a 10-year Earth Surface Observatory initiative to take the pulse of Earth’s surface systems. Laurel has been a plenary speaker at the Joint Aquatic Sciences meeting in Portland in 2014 and the Hydro-Eco Meeting in Birmingham, England in 2017, and she recently won a highly competitive Career Award from NSF Geosciences that is marrying computational and laboratory flume-based experiments with coastal wetland fieldwork. She also was the recipient of a highly competitive Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation grant based in adapting information theory to understand regional connectivity of aquatic ecosystems, an emerging field that already has influenced EPA’s revision of the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act.

Few scientists of any age have Laurel’s depth and mastery of applied math, fluvial geomorphology, hydraulics and hydrogeology, and ecology, which has freed her mind to imagine new frontiers of integration. Armed with funding and an arsenal of top graduate students and postdoctoral scientists, she is now attacking some of the most pressing environmental challenges at the water-environment-society nexus. Laurel Larsen has rapidly become a leader of great consequence who is advancing fundamental research with predictive models and practical applications to solve problems of major societal significance.

2018 Donath Medal — Response by Laurel G. Larsen

It is a tremendous honor to receive the Donath medal, and I thank the Geological Society of America, my nominator Jud Harvey, and my letter writers Dorothy Merritts, Chris Paola, Bill Dietrich, and Julio Betancourt.

I started working on water problems and ecological problems from a systems perspective simply because I loved water, math, plants and animals, and being outside, and I wanted to follow all of those passions. In large part, I owe those passions, and the determination to pursue them, to my parents, Carol and Jamie Griggs, and my amphibious upbringing in Florida.

I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my first advisor, Ray Arvidson at Washington University in St. Louis, who took me into his lab when I was just 16. Ray planted the idea in my mind that I should consider becoming a professor and provided me with my initial introduction to systems thinking and modeling. Ray opened so many doors for me by providing me with numerous opportunities for field work near and far, encouraging me to apply for awards that changed the trajectory of my career, and also to turn my undergraduate research into a masters thesis.

While working on my PhD, I found a fantastic family in the Everglades community. I thank Christopher McVoy, Martha Nungesser, and Thom van Lent for recognizing the importance of flow in that ecosystem and encouraging me to pursue related research. To all of my colleagues at the USGS, South Florida Water Management District, and Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research group, thank you for an extremely fun decade of field research and late-night discussions.

I thank my PhD advisor John Crimaldi for teaching me environmental fluid mechanics and the value of physical experiments, and for letting me pursue some crazy ideas. And to Jud Harvey, my unofficial PhD advisor and long-term mentor and colleague, thank you for making my dream of working in the Everglades possible. Jud taught me so many things—how to design and execute incredibly intense field experiments, think like a scientist, write an effective scientific paper, maximize the impact of my work, and manage many aspects of a research career. He welcomed me into his family and always had my best interests in mind, even when they were contrary to his.

I would also like to gratefully acknowledge the role that the late George Aiken played in my career. Far beyond teaching me everything I know about dissolved organic carbon, George reminded me of the importance of maintaining a sense of fun in my work and showed me through his work and storytelling how science could be a key part of a fulfilling, meaningful life. I miss him deeply.

For me, it has also been extremely important to have strong female mentors and role models. I thank Diane McKnight at the University of Colorado, Dorothy Merritts at Franklin and Marshall College, Beth Boyer at the Pennsylvania State University, Heidi Nepf at MIT, Rose Cory at the University of Michigan, Efi Foufoula-Georgiou at UC-Irvine, and Mary Power and Stephanie Carlson at UC-Berkeley for their sage advice, deep wells of encouragement, and positive examples they have set.

Thanks to the program managers and funders who believed in me and my work at the Hertz Foundation, National Science Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Last but not least, I would like to thank all of my current and past students for bringing new directions and fresh enthusiasm to our lab’s work, and all of my tremendously supportive and inspiring colleagues at Berkeley, the USGS, and from my graduate school days. Career successes are built upon strong foundations of work by others and so many serendipitous connections. Truly, I have been lucky.