Annette Hilton Researcher Feature: groundwater sustainability and creativity in research

My name is Annette Hilton and I am a third year PhD student at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California Santa Barbara. With a background in geology, I love to be out in the field conducting hydrological research. I also equally love writing code and processing large datasets. I get to have the best of both worlds in my dissertation; most days you will find me in a stream or at a screen, but regardless of the situation, always with a cup of tea.

How did you end up in the field of Hydrology?/  What or who inspired you to be a scientist?

My senior year of high school I first started to become aware and interested in environmental issues. In college, I took an environmental course first semester and really felt passionate about everything we discussed, as well as inspired by my amazing professor. After that course I realized that if I wanted to make a difference in environmentalism I would need to know the science behind the issues—which led me to geology. Geology is so cool just on its own! I fell in love. Moving forward into graduate school, I wanted to work on something that felt critical to me, which is water. Thus, hydrology. Many mentors have inspired me along the way but most pivotally, my professor in that first environmental class, Dr. Melissa Schultz, inspired me to consider being a scientist. She was a brilliant chemist who helped me not feel intimidated by chemistry and sciences.

What is your favorite part of research?/ Are there aspects of your work that allow you to be creative?

My favorite part of research is when I feel I can be creative. A lot of creativity for me comes from problem solving. When there is a goal or task I need to accomplish but I am not sure how to do it, I really like that space where you’re just generating ideas and thinking critically about how best to approach the problem. I think this happens quite a lot for me when I am coding and performing data analyses or data cleaning. I used to do a lot of creative writing when I was younger, and still do occasionally. Often when I’m coding, it can feel like creative writing. I really enjoy coding and making reproducible data flows.

Which part of your work do you feel is the most rewarding?

The most rewarding part of my work is the opportunity to meet and become friends with so many wonderful people. I work in an interdisciplinary department, the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara. My best friends in the program are studying things completely different than me—small scale fisheries, oak tree health, microplastics in aquatic environments—and it’s great. I feel that it’s refreshing to be surrounded by other people doing different work than I am. It helps keep my own pursuits in perspective and ensures that I can adequately explain and justify the research I am doing. When I want to talk hydrology, I have my lab group and advisor. I would say it’s the perfect blend.

What is your not-to-do advice for those who want to start a PhD or are considering grad school?

I would say my most important piece of advice for anyone interested in a PhD is to above all else, make sure you work with a good person. An advisor that is genuine, caring, and can communicate well is a thousand times more important than someone who has particular credentials or research interests. At the end of the day, the number of publications your advisor has is not going to save you when you’re going through a tough moment in life or feeling uncertain about your capabilities. A person who cares about your personal and professional success will be able to help you.

What is a social issue (in the hydrology community or just water science?) you think everyone should care about? /you care about?/ What environmental policies are you passionate about? Are they influential to your field?

Access to water is extremely important, and I consider water access to be equally a scientific issue as it is a social justice issue. It’s also important to think critically about where data on water availability and water quality is available geographically. Scientists go where the data are, and unfortunately that often does not include indigenous governed lands, or certain states and territories such as Alaska and Puerto Rico. Especially for groundwater, where long-term records are critical for understanding changes over time, we lack information for many areas where people could really benefit from understanding their local resources and how it may be impacted by anthropogenic use and climate change. We should, as a community, at least start talking about where we have data and who that data benefits.  

Describe your research and its importance using the ten hundred most common words.

Water under ground moves in ways that are hard to understand because we can’t see under land and into rocks. One way we can figure out how water under ground is moving is to study its direction. We can do that by using wells to see how far down the well water lies and how deep the wells are. Water direction can help us understand if water under ground is tied to waters on land and if water under ground is in trouble from not safe things moving into wells. No study so far has looked at how water direction has changed over time in areas where there is a lot of water under ground in the US. In this study we focus on three big water under ground areas and see how their water direction has changed over 100 years. We found that in almost all of the areas where the direction of water under ground used to be up, so water moves to the top of land, have now changed so water direction is moving down, further into the ground. We think that studying water under ground direction over time is important and can help manage water.

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