NOV 04, 2022 6:00 AM PDT

Grad Student Highlights: Ian McDowell (University of Nevada, Reno)

This interview series is focused on the graduate student experience across all STEM fields that allows them to get their research, or corresponding graduate coursework, out in front of a large global audience and share their experiences in graduate school. Our goal is to inspire the next generation of STEM students to pursue graduate studies for a myriad of disciplines, and we hope you enjoy reading these amazing stories!

Ian McDowell in Greenland in 2017. (Credit: Ian McDowell)

Ian McDowell is a third-year PhD student in the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). This comes after earning a B.A. in Earth & Oceanographic Science and Government & Legal Studies from Bowdoin College in 2016. During the year following his undergraduate degree, McDowell worked as a Scientific Support Associate at the United States Environmental Protection Agency supporting air quality modelers in the Computational Exposure Division. He began a M.S. program in Geology at the University of Wyoming in 2017, where he studied how Greenland Ice Sheet temperature influences how ice flows to the edge of the ice sheet before it melts, and he is currently studying the Greenland Ice Sheet for his PhD as well.

Ian McDowell throws snow into a pool where it will be melted and used to drill a hot water borehole in Greenland during his M.S. research in 2018. (Credit: Ian McDowell)

“My research seeks to understand what happens to meltwater that is generated in this region of the ice sheet,” said McDowell. “As air temperatures increase, more of these typically colder regions of the ice sheets will experience surface melting. Rather than immediately running off the ice sheet surface, meltwater will actually seep into the porous near-surface snow and firn. Essentially, the firn layer can act as a ‘sponge’ that saturates and retains meltwater. So, if we want to better predict how much and how fast melt from these areas of the Greenland Ice Sheet will contribute to sea level rise, we need to better understand how the physical structure of the firn layer controls where this water goes and how it is stored.”

Ian McDowell in a UNR cold lab during his PhD in 2022. (Credit: Ian McDowell)

McDowell says both of his parents being high school educators and his childhood boarding school experience were inspirations for pursuing his field of study, to include an annual tradition of cross-country road trips.

“By the time I reached the 8th grade, I had been to all 50 states!” McDowell exclaims. “These trips exposed me to the incredibly beautiful and diverse landscapes found across the US, and I think that exposure left a curiosity and fascination with understanding the natural world.”

McDowell decided to go for a master’s first as he was “too timid” for a five to six-year commitment, but it was after doing research for a year during his master’s degree that he decided to pursue a PhD. He was eventually drawn to UNR due to the work of his current advisor, Dr. Kaitlin Keegan, who he says, “has really given me the freedom to develop my own projects and ask questions that most interest me.”

“I am grateful that UNR has the interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Hydrologic Sciences,” says McDowell. “As a glaciologist, I often don’t feel like I fit into a traditional geology department, so I love belonging to a program that brings together researchers studying all aspects of water. I find it incredibly intellectually stimulating to interact with professors and graduate students studying a wide range of water-related topics from water policy, to ecohydrology, to groundwater hydrology, with far-reaching societal implications.” In terms of challenges that graduate students face, McDowell believes all of them face the real mental challenges of failure, which he says happens all the time in graduate school.

Ian McDowell in Greenland in 2018. (Credit: Ian McDowell)

“Many years of graduate school have taught me that mistakes are inevitable and are actually a crucial part of the learning process that will make you a better scientist,” says McDowell. “I often still find myself paralyzed when I don’t know how to take the next step in my research, or if I think I have made a mistake along the way. But this is what happens when you are developing analyses or answering questions that didn’t previously exist! I am constantly trying to get better at admitting when I need help or when I’ve made a mistake. Your advisor and other collaborators will understand—they too were once scientists-in-training! If you are curious and motivated, you can develop the skills necessary to become a researcher, even if it feels like it does not come easily at first.” After grad school, McDowell aspires to stay in academia, saying he has teaching in his blood.

“I hope to continue researching, but I also am drawn to teaching at a school that values undergraduate learning,” says McDowell. “My undergraduate professors were a big reason why I ended up as a PhD student, and I hope through teaching I can instill a love for scientific research in future earth science students.”

McDowell says he hopes in 5-10 years to find a position with stability, but also allows him to fully-establish roots for the long-term. He says this is due to constantly moving between his undergraduate and the present, but also includes his eventual postdoc position.

“I hope that I have found a faculty position that allows me to develop classes that I think are interesting and relevant for students pursuing a degree in earth science,” McDowell concludes. “I’d love to develop projects that undergraduate students can be a part of and potentially even lead, so they can experience research first-hand and help to push the envelope of our understanding of ice sheet processes.”

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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