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A Different View of Water

Interdisciplinary research stretches students' perspectives
8/12/2011

What do graduate students studying ecology, economics, geography, history and hydrology have in common? The common threads for 12 graduate students from three countries include the Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC) and a passion for researching water issues.

Graduate students in the physical and social sciences and the humanities were brought together last summer through the Humans Transforming the Hydrologic Cycle Summer Synthesis Institute supported by City University of New York, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science Inc. and the National Science Foundation. Our aim was to conduct interdisciplinary hydrologic research during our seven weeks together. For the first three weeks we bunked and did research together at the AEC. Our mission was to document and analyze the environmental, social, and economic impacts of humans on the hydrologic system in the Northeast United States between 1920 and the present. Our challenges were daunting: construct and implement an interdisciplinary research project while dealing with capricious weather and black flies.

Upon arrival in Newcomb, the research benefits of spending three weeks in the Adirondacks were difficult to identify. We initially felt isolated because we had no cell phone service, and the population of the closest town was 471 people. We were brought to the AEC so we could focus almost exclusively on our research without distraction and to become acquainted with our fellow scholars. As we quickly realized, living in a one-room bunkhouse for three weeks provides a unique opportunity to get acquainted with others' personal and academic values and to exchange ideas.

During the day we worked in groups at the AEC, discussing research ideas, narrowing questions and designing methodologies. As we learned, when 12 people work in one room with eight tables, they have unusual conversations and gain insights into how researchers from other disciplines approach environ- mental issues. Within a 15-minute period, I was able to speak with a hydrologist about stream flow, an economist about the water stress index and a historian about dam construction patterns in the Northeast during the 20th century. The ability to immediately access and share disciplinary information that would be otherwise arduous to obtain proved to be one of the greatest benefits of our time in the Adirondacks.

At the conclusion of each day, weather permitting, we explored the Adirondacks by hiking, biking, canoeing or kayaking. The beauty I observed and serenity I found sitting in a kayak in the middle of Rich Lake after a long day of conversation and research is indescribable. The rejuvenation we found through the charm and magnificence of the Adirondacks enabled us to sustain intense 10- to 12-hour research days for three weeks.

Our time at the AEC enabled us to spend three weeks living near the headwaters of the Hudson River, where we developed our understanding of water resource issues in the Northeast and the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary research. The progress we made in the Adirondacks enabled us to complete our project during the remaining four weeks of the program spent in New York City at the mouth of the Hudson River.

By Joseph Hoover

Joseph Hoover is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Denver. For more information on the Summer Institute, see: http://hydrosynthesis.ccny.cuny. edu.