Welcome to the My Science Life feature of Brannon Andersen, Professor, and Chair of the Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Furman University.
Current Title & Area of Expertise
Professor and Chair, Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences. I am primarily a biogeochemist that is focused on how landscape transformation affects carbon and nitrogen cycles. From a sustainability science standpoint, I’m interested in 1) the appropriate scale of the economy in relation to the planetary support system, and 2) developing national scale sustainability targets.
Introduce Yourself & Your Field
My website has a lot of good information on what I do. In addition, I’m married and have two teenage daughters and three cats. I enjoy cycling, hiking, and camping, and drinking great wine with friends. Our department of Earth and Environmental Sciences spans Earth science/geology, environmental science, and sustainability science and is an interdisciplinary department. We try and understand the history and resources of planet Earth, the rate and magnitude of human transformation of planet Earth, and addressing the grand challenge of how 9 billion people in 2050 can all live within the means of one planet and yet meet the social foundations of a decent life.
What is your job like on a daily basis?
I am a teacher, scholar, research scientist, and administrator, so I really don’t have a “typical” day. I normally teach two classes per term with labs, so I’m in the classroom 12 hours per week plus the time required for preparing for class and grading assignments and exams. A few of my upper-level classes have weekend field trips as well. I also meet with students outside of class to answer questions and provide advice. I normally have 2-5 research students, so I’m collaborating with them and mentoring their senior thesis projects. So, on any given day, I might be reviewing their data, helping with calculations, working with them in the lab, or reviewing their writing and interpretations. I also write letters of recommendation for my student’s job and graduate school applications. As part of my research responsibilities, I also work on writing journal articles in collaboration with my colleagues, present talks, and posters at professional meetings (often in collaboration with my students), and write grant proposals.
As chair of the department, I’m responsible for evaluating faculty and staff, prepare reports for the administration, attend various meetings, set class schedules, and mentor young faculty, among other responsibilities. I also have professional responsibilities outside of Furman University. For example, I’ve reviewed National Science Foundation proposals, Fulbright Scholar proposals, and manuscripts for journals. As part of my teaching responsibilities, I am an advisor for 30-35 majors in my department, all of whom I know well. There are also weekend functions for Furman (homecoming, recruiting days, etc.).
Obviously, I don’t do all of this every day, but it does result in a very busy schedule. During the summers, it’s a bit more relaxed. I am in the field or lab conducting research with my students. Recently, this has been for a month in Croatia in May, and then June and July in South Carolina. In May, I have also co-led field trips to Iceland and southeastern Europe. My field work and scholarship have taken me to Equador (Galopogos), the Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico, parts of Europe, and all over the United States.
It’s definitely NOT a 40 hour per week, 9-5 type of job. But the variety keeps it really interesting.
Tell us about your research
I’m currently studying the impact of agricultural methods on soil quality in vineyards in Croatia, the effectiveness of rotational grazing for improving soil quality in South Carolina and Georgia, the impact of landscape transformation on the biogeochemistry of rivers, and developing sustainability indicators at the national level for Croatia.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your field?
We work with nested, open systems in which you work backwards from what you observe to how the system arrived at that point. The systems are big and complex, and studying them requires close collaboration with scientists across multiple fields. Wrapping your head around the large and complex data and processes that operate on time scales of seconds to millions of years and on spatial scales from a cell to the entire planet is really a mind blowing challenge. Increasingly, computer models are being used to understand how all this operates, but often are based on limited data or data collected at a different scale. For example, extrapolating global scale processes in a model from relatively few local or regional studies.
As a member of society, I would say that coming up with a pathway to sustainability is the grand challenge. Humanity is facing a confluence of challenges in climate change, decreasing resources, the need to expand food production for a growing population, and so on that are changing exponentially. And, we don’t have hundreds of years to figure out the pathway, we have at most decades.
What advice do you have to those pursuing a career in your field?
Earth and Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Sciences are going to be critical fields over the next few decades. As the human presence on the planet grows, issues of providing food, water, and shelter to 8-9 billion people in an equitable manner will be a huge challenge. So, there will be lots of opportunities but will require optimistic and forward thinking people. The course of study to get there is challenging and typically requires at least a Master’s degree. So persistence, a great work ethic, and intense curiosity about the Earth and how humans relate to Earth are necessary qualities to have as a student and professional. For those interested in sustainability, you need to have interests in multiple fields. I find myself reading as much in the field of ecological economics now as biogeochemistry. It’s all related and connected.
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