‘I found myself skipping class to be in the field, out collecting new data’

22 Jan 2020

Dr Kamini Singha. Image: Colorado School of Mines

Dr Kamini Singha of the Colorado School of Mines currently finds herself in University College Cork, where she is trying to better understand the water beneath our feet.

Dr Kamini Singha earned her BSc in geophysics from the University of Connecticut and her PhD in hydrogeology from Stanford University. She is now a Ben Fryrear Endowed professor for innovation and excellence at the Colorado School of Mines, with a focus on hydrogeology and environmental geophysics.

An award-winning teacher, she is a recipient of a US National Science Foundation Career award and the early career award from the Society of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics. She is currently a Fulbright scholar at University College Cork.

‘We need to find solutions to secure our future, including understanding our changing climate’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As an undergraduate, I was hired as an entry-level field technician with the US Geological Survey (USGS). I had been a diligent student, but until then I wasn’t really sure what my calling was. I just knew I liked physics and environmental science.

The experience with the USGS changed everything for me. I found myself skipping class to be in the field, to be out collecting new data to water resources problems and thinking about problems that felt like they really mattered. It was then that I realised that anyone with a little curiosity could be a researcher and that I really enjoyed asking questions about how the Earth works and trying to find the answers.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My work generally explores groundwater – the water underground – and geophysics. This includes the development of methods – some quite similar to medical imaging – to look into the Earth.

My early research focused on contaminant transport, but I’ve expanded quite a lot over the last 15 years. I currently work with a team of around 10 amazing students and postdoctoral researchers. Given such great colleagues, I’ve been able to collaborate on a wide variety of projects, including how permafrost constrains groundwater movement to how and where trees use water in the subsurface.

Currently, I’m a Fulbright researcher in Ireland supported by Geological Survey Ireland, working on the fate and transport of arsenic in surface-water groundwater systems.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

We don’t understand how the water cycle will change under a changing climate, or what the impacts of a growing world population are on both water quantity and quality.

My work explores various pieces of these conundrums.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The answer to this question has certainly changed a lot across my career. Early on, I struggled mightily with imposter syndrome; that I wasn’t smart enough or would have good enough ideas to be a researcher. I’m happy to report that those feelings have (largely) disappeared.

Now, my biggest challenge is managing my time, with all of the interesting projects out there to think about and raising funds to support my graduate students.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

The geosciences have some well-reported issues with diversity, inclusion and access. However, there are lots of people currently working on breaking down barriers to entry into the Earth sciences for women, people of colour and people who have physical limitations.

It’s a great time to get into the Earth and environmental sciences, and there are no shortage of problems that we need smart people with diverse thought processes to tackle.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

There’s no shortage of areas I’d like to see tackled! We need to find solutions to secure our future, including understanding our changing climate, diversifying our energy needs, quantifying water resources, and predicting and dealing with hazards such as landslides and earthquakes.

Closer to my research specifically, there’s a whole new world of ‘forever chemicals’ that are a major concern, including the ‘star’ of the new Dark Waters movie: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. We don’t know the fate or transport of these emerging contaminants in our environment, and thus the total risk to humans.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.