Meet Matthew Miller, a research hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
What do you do?
I am a Research Hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey. My work focuses on how much groundwater comes into streams, what is in the groundwater and once groundwater comes into streams, what happens to nutrients and/or carbon in the groundwater. One reason why it is important is in arid systems such as western U.S. a lot of water originates from groundwater and knowing those two above-mentioned items allows managers to better plan for future drought. It is also important to know water quality. For example, in the area of hypoxia (reduced oxygen environment detrimental to aquatic organisms) such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, learning where nutrients and carbon come from and lead to create hypoxia conditions tell us how to manage them.
What’s the most exciting part of your project/job?
The most exciting part is coming to meetings and getting to know people and talk to people. Another exciting part is what drove me to science: finding new things through my work and making sense of a bunch of seemingly meaningless data you or somebody else collected and be able to tell a story.
What do you think helped you to get to where you are now?
Lots of things. But it started with having role models growing up such as my scientist father and great science teachers especially in a middle school and a high school. That got me interested in science. Once I got to college, I did not know what kind of scientist I wanted to be. In college you take a lot of courses, and I eventually took a limnology class (the study of lakes and other fresh water bodies) taught by a professor who was excited about the field. From there, you go onto a graduate school and hopefully you will have an excellent advisor. I was fortunate to have a great advisor. I think people who I could interact with helped me the most to get to where I am.
What’s the strangest place/situation you have been?
I did a lot of graduate work in a small alpine catchment up in the Rocky mountains. One of the major concerns up there was lightening storms because they are right up against the continental divide and you cannot see the storms coming. So there are many instances you are up there at 12,000 feet and realize a huge storm rolls through and got 10 minutes to get out there. One in particular is especially memorable. I was with this man and trying to get to lower elevation to find a safe location walking along the lake. It was hailing so hard that you could not tell the difference between land and water. I was following this man and he stepped right into the lake. Luckily I grabbed his backpack to hold him out. It was definitely a memorable experience.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
Before I was able to have some success in my career, just seeing people I look up to such as my advisor have gone through similar frustrating situations and persevered helped. In science, part of the job of other people is to keep you in check. For example, you submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal and you get critical comments. It took me a while to learn that is part of and important part of the system. And it happens time and again. Nobody is ever going to say your work is perfect without offering critical comments in the system. Just knowing that everybody goes through this and if you stick with it and are persistent, and if you know you are doing a good job, you will eventually get out of the frustrating situations and can keep going.
What aspect of your job/research/science would you happily do away with?
One thing I like the least about my job is that I, for my situation, have to come up with my own funding and support myself. The constant pressure to bring in new projects and money to do science would be great if somebody can say, “here is your salary. Do whatever you want to do with it.” But that is not the reality, so that is something I would do away with.
Where do you see your career and/or current projects taking you?
I have been with the USGS for five or six years and have yet had any desire to leave. So I suspect, in terms of what I do, I will stay with the USGS although it will be partly driven by funding. It has been interesting just over the last few years seeing what others and I have done leading something towards bigger. There are number of bigger picture questions that can take the career more to answer. So I would like to continue to focus on those little projects that I outlined at the beginning.
What advice you have for students considering a career in hydrology and/or in the federal agencies?
This goes to any career but being persistent is important. In federal agencies, in particular, right now, it is very difficult to get you to put a foot in the door because there is not a lot of funding for new science unfortunately. But if you can just get your foot in the door, hang on, and do a good job that you usually do, things tend to work out pretty well. With respect to hydrologists in particular, I would say take every opportunity to learn from people around you. Everybody approaches problems differently and not getting fixated on your view of how things work has been really helpful for me and step out of that and say so-and-so thinks about this way.