Interview and editing by Deborah Chew.
Working as an interdisciplinary researcher is a challenging but productive endeavor, and the significant contributions that result attest to the value and necessity of interdisciplinary work. Michael Singer is one such interdisciplinary researcher, and in recognition of his accomplishments he was awarded the 2018 David A. Siegel Director’s Award. This award was established in honor of Siegel’s leadership and commitment to developing and sustaining interdisciplinary research during his time as Director of the Institute (2002-2016). It consists of $5,000 and is granted annually to a single ERI Principal Investigator who has demonstrated scientific leadership and the ability to establish interdisciplinary scientific relationships.
Singer, who is based in the UK, is the second to receive this prestigious award. Prior to his self-nomination for this award, he had just received three large grants on a common topic—all of them were interdisciplinary. “To me, [interdisciplinary work] is everything,” Singer explained. “I believe that environmental problems facing the globe today require interdisciplinary understanding of their different facets.” He noted that while mono-disciplinary approaches may be less inclined toward innovation in environmental problems, interdisciplinary research, with its openness to combining components of different disciplines, is flexible and allows one to learn about a variety of topics and how they may be used to approach problems from unique perspectives. “Having read the criteria for this award, I determined that the timing was appropriate for me to self-nominate,” Singer said. “So I went for it, and I am immensely happy with the outcome.”
Singer received extensive training in hydrology and geomorphology—the study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water on Earth and the study of Earth’s topographic features, respectively—which enabled him greatly in his interdisciplinary work. “I came to the Bren School for my PhD with Tom Dunne, and it was a fantastic experience,” he remembers. “[Dunne] was a supportive advisor who created a culture of intellectualism around him.” In his PhD, Singer investigated how major river rehabilitation strategies proposed on large river systems would affect the transport of sediment. In 2003, he received his PhD and joined the ERI community, where he worked his way up from an Assistant Researcher to a Full Researcher. “Though at times my research is less integrated with those in ERI, UCSB has been a welcoming community to me,” Singer said. “With Kelly’s arrival as ERI Director in the area of ecohydrology [an interdisciplinary field that studies the interactions between water and ecosystems], my research connections to the ERI community are growing.”
Since then, Singer has worked on several funded projects that cover a range of topics, including mercury contamination and the geomorphic evolution of alluvial fans (triangle-shaped deposits of water-transported material). Additionally, during his time in Southern France, he observed the climate’s control on soil moisture and water table depth—water table is the level below which the ground is completely saturated with water—and subsequently developed a project in which he combined hydrology, dendrochronology (the study of data from tree ring growth), numerical modeling, and stable isotopes to shed more light on water source use by trees. “I was following on some excellent work by previous scholars in this area,” Singer said, “but we have made new contributions to the understanding of the seasonal variability in water source use by trees.” He highlighted this work on climate-controls on water availability to forests in his self-nomination for the David A. Siegel Director’s Award.
When asked about the challenges of working as an interdisciplinary researcher, Singer responded, “Your reputation and citation rate are typically lower because you are less likely to become very well known in a particular subject area [or] cite yourself in any particular work since you dabble in various subject areas.” He went on to add, “However, many scientists are open to interdisciplinary collaboration, so I’ve been able to build some very nice collaborations with experts in various fields, which have been fruitful.”
An area that Singer is especially interested in and hopes to make contributions to is that of regional expression of climate change. The focus on global climate change, such as average rates of warming across the globe and sea level rise, means that there is less understanding of how climate change is affecting specific regions and drainage basins. “These aspects of climate change have important consequences for human society, ecology, and the built environment,” Singer emphasized. He is currently putting four projects into place relating to the general theme of how the expression of regional climate affects runoff, flood risk, drought, water resources, water balance, vegetation responses, etc. He will continue to study the response of forest trees to the fluctuations and trends in water availability that result from climate change and is in the process of planning new research on drought propagation in East Africa.
“Ultimately, the career trajectory for an interdisciplinary researcher is longer [than that of a mono-disciplinary researcher], perhaps with a slower rise, but—I think—more interesting,” Singer concluded. “I believe that great discoveries in the future are likely to come at the boundaries of traditional disciplines.”