Laura Keefer is the leader of the Water Survey's Watershed Science section and is the Illinois State Hydrologist. She has more than 30 years of experience in multi-scale watershed monitoring studies of hydrology, sediment, and nutrients for many Illinois watersheds. Over the years, she has served as technical or science advisor, as well as ISWS representative, on dozens of committees ranging from watershed planning to state and federal interagency task forces to resolve hydrologic, sediment, and nutrient watershed concerns.
What does the IllinoisState Hydrologist do?
The State Hydrologist is someone who has institutional knowledge and training to be an authoritative spokesperson and provide science-based information from Water Survey studies and other survey experts to answer inquiries from the public, other scientists, industry, and government agencies. The State Hydrologist’s office is focused on the State of Illinois and its unique water resource issues for the benefit of the state and its citizens. It’s an honor to be designated Illinois State Hydrologist and appreciate the breadth of knowledge of my colleagues at the Water Survey who contribute to this responsibility.
What is the best part of your job as a researcher and Professional Hydrologist?
I don’t get to be outside nearly as much as I used to, but being out there in and around water is the best part! I’m awed by the power and beauty of water, its role in life and death, growing and nurturing life, as well as its catastrophic impacts on life and property. My passion is to understand how it works and to apply and translate that knowledge to stakeholders, policy makers, and resource managers as a certified Professional Hydrologist.
What is the most challenging aspect of your research studies?
Dwindling resources is the biggest challenge we face, in terms of funding and talent. Finding scientists to fill positions has been very challenging. I guess folks can make better salaries and live in more exciting places than Champaign-Urbana. However, they need to take into consideration their long-term passions and dedication to the applied science needs of the future.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I became interested in rocks early in grade school, especially ones that I would find in creeks. Growing up in western New York State, I discovered that many of those rocks had fossils, and I used to chisel them apart in my father’s workshop to find more. After being mesmerized by Jacque Cousteau TV shows, I hoped to become an oceanographer and later discovered earth sciences in high school.
What made you decide to pursue a career in hydrology?
At first I focused my college training on geology, trying out structural geology, volcanology, and sedimentology, and eventually obtaining a B.S. degree in geology at the University of Illinois. In my first position, I started working on groundwater studies at the U.S. Geological Survey in Urbana.
Eventually, I found a more stable position at the Water Survey in surface water, concentrating on erosion, sedimentation, and nutrients. This was my first exposure to open-channel flow, and after many years I obtained an M.S. degree in fluvial geomorphology at the University of Illinois. In geology you learn what rocks were before they were lithified, so it was natural to gravitate to and increase my knowledge through the hydrologic mentorship I received at the ISWS.
When did you start at the ISWS and how has the Water Survey changed over the years?
I started at the Water Survey in 1986 as a field technician. I literally worked my way up through the ranks and have seen a lot of changes over those 34 years. I remember many folks used to be working in the office on Saturdays, but the internet has allowed those work tasks to occur in other places besides the office for a better work-life balance.
Mainly, the survey’s core strength is having long institutional knowledge and the records and data that give us a perspective on the next water resource issues that need to be investigated. Then those investigations feed back into the institutional knowledge. That keeps the survey changing all the time. The investment in this cycle occurs because staff share a sense of contributing to something bigger than themselves: the welfare of water resources in the State of Illinois.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
People see science as this mysterious bubble and think they can’t understand it. In social settings scientists get their obligatory five minutes to explain what they do, then the conversation moves on. I feel that scientists need to take responsibly for and work harder at taking the mystery out of science by translating what it means to people. Also, scientists need to really listen to people, be truly interested in what their issues are; relating better is the key. Science affects lives every day in our home appliances, phones, power, and water delivered to the house and in the food we eat. So let’s make science friendly and real to people.
What advice would you give future scientists?
Find your passion and invest in the lengthy game of scientific research, be it applied or basic. We better understand the interconnections between disciplines more than ever. Developing interdisciplinary partnerships is hard work and is seldom rewarded, but just think of the research possibilities that could present themselves. Finally, find a good work-life balance.