UD grad students advised: adapt, migrate or face extinction

May 10, 2013

University of Delaware graduate Dr. M. Brandon Jones used fundamental natural law in his advice to students receiving honors at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment’s Honors Day ceremonies May 3.  Jones currently works as program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Higher Education Training Program.

“Concentrate deeply in your discipline,” advised Jones, “but hone your soft skills as well so that you’re in a good position to transfer what you learn to others.  Take a cue from nature when it comes to our changing world: you either adapt, migrate or face extinction.”

Jones, who earned his master’s degree and his PhD at University of Delaware and the Lewes campus, kept his comments short but pithy.  “As Kim Kardashian said to one of her boyfriends, ‘I won’t keep you long.’”

He acknowledged a world in transition.  “On Wall Street now, they’re hiring physicists - in particular physical oceanographers - because of their ability to handle large data sets.  I’m not suggesting you go over to the dark side, but you all have gifts.  Let your gifts help humanity. Adjust constantly so you can be where you need to be to give your gift to humanity.”

Time and tide standeth for no man

There is, after all, nothing constant but change.  Aline Pieterse, a graduate student from the Netherlands, researched the constantly changing tides and their effects on Brockenridge Marsh in Kent County.  For three and a half weeks without pause, living in a hunting lodge on the marsh, Pieterse gathered data from cameras, thermal instruments and other gauges to gain an understanding of the forces that transport sediments across mud flats during the ebb and flow of tides. She saw firsthand how the great variation of the neep and spring tides - pushed and pulled by the moon - affects the intensity of  high tides.  And she saw what a storm can do to a marsh.

During the same March storm that breached the dunes at Indian River Inlet and closed the bridge there, she watched her marsh.  “For three days, the tide never went out of the marsh,” said Pieterse.  As a resident of a country that owes its existence to successful efforts at holding back the Atlantic, Pieterse understands the importance of teasing out such dynamics. Her research on the marsh, and perseverance, earned her the Delaware Sea Grant Student Award.

That kind of research is particularly important to Delaware in light of sea-level rise and its ultimate impact here.  It goes right to the heart of one of the old jokes about Delaware being a state with three counties at low tide and two at high tide.

After the ceremonies, one faculty member said the upbeat atmosphere of Honors Day stood in contrast to the mood in Washington, D.C., these days due to the uncertainty caused by the sequestration budget cuts. He had been inside the beltway last week visiting federal agencies involved with the sciences. “At least I didn’t have any trouble finding people,” he said.  “Nobody’s traveling these days.”

As I drove away from the ceremonies reflecting on on what I had heard, Dr. Jones’ admonition echoed in my mind.  “Adjust constantly.  Life keeps moving.”

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