Riley Balikian, a geophysicist and hydrologist at the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), is helping Illinoisians and legislators better understand what lies beneath their feet, and how his job can make a difference in people's lives.
In one sentence, what do you do?
I collect, process, and interpret geophysical data to help engineers, policymakers, and other geoscientists understand the subsurface without actually seeing it, only using the physical properties of geologic material (how do they respond to electricity, seismic waves, radiation, etc.).
How does your work at the Illinois State Geological Survey impact Illinois?
With the work I do, Illinois residents and policymakers will have a better understanding of the resources beneath their feet and what can and should be built (or not built) on the land.
What is the best part of your job at ISGS?
Since I have been at ISGS, I have gotten to explore the diversity of landscapes in Illinois. I lived in the Chicago area for five years before I started working at ISGS. There are so many beautiful corners of the state I never knew existed!
What projects are you most proud of?
Two projects I am most proud of: I led the effort to get the geophysical data collected for about the past century onto a public online data viewer, putting the work of several generations of scientists out in the public square. I also worked with the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) to develop a statewide hydrogeologic model that, while incomplete, fills in a number of gaps to help policymakers around the state plan for their water sources in the coming years.
Where has been your favorite place to conduct research?
I enjoyed collecting geophysical data along the beaches of Lake Michigan (in a boat on the lake itself). It is a body of water that is unique in the world, and it is right here in Illinois! It is also one of the few sites in the state where large-scale geologic change is happening on human timescales.
What question do you get asked most frequently about your career?
A lot of people do not even know what a geophysicist is. I usually tell them about how geophysicists study earthquakes, even though that is a minuscule part of what I do here at ISGS.
What do you enjoy most about your current field of study?
I like that geophysics allows us to quickly see and understand the subsurface without ruining the landscape. Most of the time, we are in a site for less than a day and will leave no trace behind, and we have left gaining an understanding of the geologic history of that location for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. Leave only footprints, take only a treasure trove of geologic knowledge!
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I was always interested in the outdoors, but I did not really gain an interest in science until my senior year of college when I switched to a geophysics major after being involved in a student organization that helped fund a water system in rural Honduras. It was interesting to see how a Honduran engineer with basic knowledge of geology and engineering could dramatically change the life and livelihood of an entire town.
What else would you like to share about your work at ISGS?
I enjoy working with my fellow scientists at ISGS who are curious, intelligent, and a load of fun!