35 Years in Hydrogeology - A Career Retrospective
In October 2023, I had the privilege of re-connecting with many people I’ve met over the course of my career as a student, scientist, engineer, hydrogeologist. I’ve had the good fortune of working in the hydrogeology profession for my entire career and it seems like it’s a good time to share my perspective on my experiences. I realize that this article is self-indulgent, but I want to share my story, partly because I want to articulate my gratitute for all the mentors and opportunties I’ve had along the way.
In 1985, started my undergraduate degree in Geological Engineering at the University of Waterloo (UW). Engineering at UW is a co-op program, so the degree took five years. The first couple of years were difficult for me academically. I found the jump from high school to engineering overwhelming; in high school, it was pretty easy for me to get decent grades but that wasn’t the case in university and I nearly failed out in second year.
By third year, things started to fall into place. This coincided with my first relevant work term in 1987 when, through connections my dad had at Environment Canada, I was able to work with a groundwater research group in Burlington, Ontario, led by Dr. Richard (Dick) Jackson. Through my third and fourth years of my engineering degree, my marks went up and my work experience continued with Environment Canada1 where I learned about hydrogeology from experts like Dr. Kent Novakowski (now at Queen’s University in Kingston) and Dr. Allan Crowe (now retired from Environment Canada). My job included field work (at the Gloucester Landfill, near Ottawa), computer work (numerical modelling and programming) as well as some drafting! In an internal government publication, my name is listed as an author on a research paper for the first time.
In my final work term in 1989, I began to ask questions regarding who I should do my fourth-year engineering project with at UW. Dick highly recommended Dr. Ed Sudicky, so back at UW for my final year, I approached Ed and he took me on as his undergraduate student. For a thesis topic, Ed’s idea was to take one of his existing computer programs (called “DPORTRAN”) and modify it such that it could be used to simulate the dissolution and migration processes of non-aqueous phase liquids in the subsurface2. The research involved a literature search as well as an introduction to programming and computers and my first real technical writing experience.
The Grad Student
I enjoyed the experience with Ed enough for me to apply to the Master’s program in Hydrogeology at UW and he took me on as a graduate student in the fall of 1990. Graduate-student life was a different experience than my undergrad. I took, at most, two courses at a time (compared to the five or six I had each term in engineering), and I was able to supplement my expenses by working as a teaching assistant.
The Hydrogeology graduate program at UW was (and still is) one of the strongest of its kind in Canada and internationally. I took courses from some of the top groundwater scientists in the world (including Dr. John Cherry who literally wrote the book on groundwater and Dr. Emil Frind who was one of the first scientists to apply numerical methods to solve groundwater flow equations).
In the early 1990s, the graduate program in hydrogeology at UW was attracting students from across Canada around the world. I shared an office with new students from places like Newfoundland, Alberta, Manitoba and Japan and most of us still keep in touch to this day. Other friends I met in the department were from the USA, Germany, Quebec, BC.
For my thesis, Ed had the idea of taking an existing program called VapourT (written by Ph.D. student, Carl Mendoza, who later became a professor at the University of Alberta) and adding discrete fractures to it (from another code called FracTran, written by research associate Rob McLaren and Ed). During my research, I spent many long days and evenings in the computer lab, staring at lines of computer code, writing and debugging. And with the help of others like Rob and Carl, I got the code to do what we wanted. I had to prove that the code solved the equations properly before using it to demonstrate how vapours can migrate through fractured materials underground3.
During my tenure as a Master’s student, I had the opportunity to be a computer lab assistant for a short course called “IBM PC Applications in Groundwater”, which was offered by the US-based National Ground Water Association. The course was offered twice a year (San Francisco and Princeton) and from 1991 through 1993, I was involved five times.
My time as a graduate student (1990-1993) was a key period in my career. Not only did I complete and defend a detailed research thesis, I took many graduate courses and learned about hydrogeology, computer programming, groundwater modelling and other skills, all of which have continued to serve me to this day. In addition, many of the people I met during this period have become long-term friends and colleagues.
Joining the Work Force
Upon completion of my Master’s degree, Ed Sudicky offered me a job to stay in the Department of Earth Sciences at UW as a full-time researcher. He was able to secure funding to pay me for a one-year contract (which ended up lasting about four-and-a-half years!). One of my first tasks was to modify the computer program from my Master’s thesis4 such that it could be used to simulate density-dependent flow of groundwater in fractured geologic media. This led to another published journal article, co-authored by Ed and Dr. Frank Schwartz5 .
This journal article6 has been cited by subsequent researchers, including Dr. Thomas Graf (Ph.D., Laval University, current professor in Germany) who has expanded the work we did with much greater detail. Thomas and his team have used one of my simulations as a baseline for some of his work and they refer to my computer run as the “Shikaze problem”. I’m not sure if this term has caught on in the esoteric circle of people who research the migration of dense water in fractured geologic media, but I was flattered, to say the least, to have a problem named after me.
I worked on a number of other research projects while employed at UW and I published a few more research articles. I also gave presentations at conferences in places like Boston and Edmonton. And one of the other benefits from this period was meeting new cohorts of graduate students who remain friends to this day.
In mid-1997, I moved on and accepted a contract position back at Environment Canada in Burlington. By this time, the groundwater research group was led by Dr. Kent Novakowski (Dick Jackson left for Austin, Texas to join the consulting world). I worked closely with Dr. Allan Crowe, with whom I’d worked previously as an undergraduate student. Allan had a lot of different research interests, including an extensive groundwater study at Point Pelee National Park. I visited there a couple of times, but my focus was on building numerical models to help understand the groundwater flow system.
The main motivation for researchers, whether in academia or government, is to publish their work in research journals. While at my position at Environment Canada (which lasted until the end of 2001), Allan and I published several papers (including another paper co-authored by Dr. Frank Schwartz). I was also doing some programming in Visual Basic Applications (VBA) in Microsoft Excel, and Allan encouraged me to write short articles (“computer notes”) for a journal called “Ground Water”. I also presented the results from my Point Pelee work at an international conference in Toronto.
When those contracts ended, I accepted a consulting job with a US-based company called HydroGeoLogic in a new office in Waterloo, Ontario in January 2002. I didn’t last a year with that company before joining a small (under 10 employees) Toronto-based company called EarthFX, which specialized in groundwater consulting and software. I was able, for the most part, to work from home, which served me well since I had a young kiddo at home. With EarthFX, I did some consulting as well as some technical writing. The owners at EarthFX had a couple of commercial software packages they’d developed and one of my tasks was to write technical documents and teach short courses for the software. Most of the clients were based in Ontario, so I made a lot of new contacts at different levels of government and different consulting companies. I worked there until the summer of 2011 when I felt it was time for a change.
I accepted a job with another small consulting company, Aqua Resource, based just outside of Kitchener, in a town called Breslau. My role was to lead and support consulting projects. Only a few months after I joined, Aqua Resource merged with the much larger (400+ employees) Matrix Solutions Inc., which was based in Calgary, Alberta. Matrix wanted to expand into Ontario. While I struggled in the consulting world7 I was able to work on some interesting projects during my years at Matrix (which lasted until 2022). Some highlights included developing computer models to examine the potential impacts at proposed lithium brine mines in Chile, Argentina and Nevada, USA. I even got to travel to Santiago, Chile a few times to work on the computer models and meet with clients and collaborators. I also worked on a lot of projects in Ontario, including the Region of Waterloo (where groundwater is a vital resource).
The focus of consulting is not on research, but Matrix liked to send employees to conferences on occasion. I was able to give presentations at conferences in Calgary, Niagara Falls, and my hometown of Waterloo, Ontario.
And that takes me to today, fall 2023. When I left Matrix Solutions in August 2022, I called it my “semi-retirement”. I already had a part-time, contract position with the Oak Ridges Moraine Groundwater Program (ORMGP) and I planned to keep an eye out for other part-time opportunities. And just a few months ago, I signed on to work with a small consulting company called Geofirma to support them on a project in the Ottawa area (Dick Jackson, now retired, is a Fellow at GeoFirma).
Reflections and Lessons Learned
I feel immense gratitude for the career I’ve had in hydrogeology/groundwater. From my first co-op jobs to my university degrees at UW to my work experience, I’ve been priviliged to have a fantastic education and I’ve learned from many mentors along the way. I have been able to travel to many places (Chile, San Francisco, Princeton, Boston, Denver, Calgary, Montreal, Wisconsin) to see places I might not otherwise visit. Perhaps most of all, 30+ years in hydrogeology has provided me with a long list of friends, colleagues, mentors, students, which I will always cherish. The connections I’ve made are invaluable.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
Groundwater is an under-appreciated yet vital resource
A career in hydrogeology requires a lot of background knowledge but perhaps the most important skill to have is the ability to solve new problems
The next generation of hydrogeologists brings a set of new tools that can help analyze and visualize data and model results, but there will always be a need for experience and intuition.
As I’ve progressed through my career, I’ve found myself mentoring young scientists and engineers. Although I cherish this role of mentor, I’ve never stopped being curious. I continue to want to learn new things about the science as well as new tools and tricks to make the tasks a little easier.
A good hydrogeologist needs skills in a lot of different areas: geology, mathematics, computer models, computers (data management, GIS), chemistry, hydrology, mapping. And they need to be able to solve complex problems using these different tools. They don’t have to be an expert in each area, but they’ll need to at least be aware of the different tools available to solve problems.
My first field work was on Navy Island, on the Niagara River. We took a speed boat across the fast-flowing river to the island where staff had installed monitoring wells. Navy Island is a few kilometres upstream from Niagara Falls!
We didn’t publish this work in a journal, nor did we present it at a conference. I have a hard copy of my thesis, but nothing else. Also note: Research, in general, tends to be esoteric. Most of the research I’ve done has been of interest only to other researchers.
I’ve tried to keep it simple here but if you want more information, here’s a link to the abstract from a research paper we published. The full manuscript is available for purchase, and if you really feel like you want to read the whole thing, let me know! https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/94WR00066
I modified a lot of programs in those days! It made a lot of sense to modify exisiting programs than to start from scratch. Although, when you modify someone else’s code, you need to spend a lot of time figuring out what their code is actually doing before you can make any modifications.
Dr. Schwartz, a friend of Ed’s, was a professor at the Ohio State University at the time. Like John Cherry, Frank literally wrote the book on Hydrogeology.
Again, I’ll direct the reader to more information here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0169772298000801 . The full publication is available for purchase (only the abstract and a snippet are available for free). If you really feel the need to read the full manuscript, let me know!
Consulting is very different than academia. Consulting companies make money by billing time to clients. As such, consultants have to keep track of every hour of every day and make sure the work they do is “billable” to the client. After many years working in academia and government, consulting was a greater challenge than anticipated.