Erik Gulbranson; Postdoc ScientistErik Gulbranson

In the beginning, I was born and raised in the frigid wilds of Minnesota. Today, after several years in the Mediterranean climate of Davis CA, I am a sedimentary geochemist with an appointment as a postdoc at UWM. My research at UWM will involve investigating the response of paleo-polar forest biomes to climatic change during the Permian and Triassic on Antarctica. This project is unique in that there is no modern analogue for these polar forest biomes. In other words, we may not fully understand the interplay between soils and flora for a forested biome within the polar circle and how terrestrial biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nitrogen operated under such conditions. Additionally, modern polar-regions in the northern hemisphere contain a significant reservoir of terrestrial carbon and projected climate scenarios for the upcoming century create questions as to what extent these carbon reservoirs will impact or be impacted by global climate change. My work here offers the exciting opportunity to provide a glimpse into the relative importance of environmental conditions (e.g., light) on polar forests and how sensitive these biomes may have been to changes in atmospheric pCO2.

  1. What is your hometown?
    Anoka, MN (Halloween capital of the world, yes the world, and hometown to Garrison Keillor)
  2. What are your previous degrees?
    B.S., Geology, University of Minnesota-Duluth
  3. What is your expected graduation date?
    Early 2011. Ph.D., Geology, University of California-Davis(5th most bicycle friendly city in the world, go Aggies!)
  4. What is your field of study and how would you describe it to a prospective graduate student?
    My research is focused on paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental change. To this end, much of my research is centered on the geochemistry of soils and paleosols (fossil soil).

    Why soils?
    Soil is the natural result of the confluence of the biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. In soils, these interactions occur on timescales that range from nanoseconds to millennia, so there is potential to retrieve a large amount of environmental and perhaps climatic information from soils and paleosols.

    In particular, my interests are in climate-soil-plant interactions through time, terrestrial carbon cycling, paleoclimate proxies, and geochronology (Sam Bowring’s motto, “No dates, no rates”). I utilize stable isotope geochemistry of soil-formed minerals (e.g., goethite, calcite) and organic matter to investigate changes in climate and biogeochemical cycles. I have a strong interest in calibrating stratigraphic successions with high-precision radiometric ages, and this work ties directly to quantitative paleoclimate reconstructions by allowing for precise regional and global correlations.
  5. What brought you to UWM to study Geosciences for your graduate degree?
    The research opportunity in Antarctica was a big draw as it may have positive implications beyond my postdoc and will hopefully foster additional collaborative efforts.
  6. What's been your best experience so far?
    To this date, the best experience I’ve had has been traveling to Argentina for an international conference, meeting a number of people that I have great respect for and some new people that I’m now happy to know. I expect, however, that there will be many other experiences that surpass this.
  7. In graduate School, have you gotten the opportunity to travel as part of your education?
    At UC Davis I traveled extensively as part of my education. I’ve conducted field work in: southern France, eastern Ukraine, northwest Argentina, Patagonia, Nevada, California, Utah, Arizona, and Texas. I have conducted laboratory research in a range of facilities at different universities including: UC Davis, Boise State University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Utah. Much of this travel has been the result of collaborations and/or interdisciplinary research with mentors from different universities (e.g., Boise State, SMU), and I would strongly recommend students to seek out these opportunities as they can be tremendously rewarding.
  8. What trait or thing has allowed you to succeed in graduate school?
    I think some of my “success” is due to setting ambitious yet feasible goals, writing the dissertation as soon as I possibly could, and carrying out interdisciplinary research.
  9. Do you have any advice that you would give to a new graduate student in your program?
    For a new student I would say that it is crucial to find a topic that you are strongly interested in, and to be honest with yourself about why you are in graduate school. Everyone measures success differently, but the students that I know who (I think) have met their expectations have done so because they were driven, understood what was required of them for the various degree programs, and looked forward to what would be required of them after graduation.

    Being passionate about your work is important, but it depends on your goals. For example, for a Ph.D. student you shouldn’t mind so much when you realize you will likely have to spend your evenings, weekends, and holidays (and even coming out of drug induced sleep from wisdom teeth extraction) thinking about your field of research, or if you realize that being able to remotely operate a piece of scientific equipment may be the best invention created by human-kind because you can spend time with your family and do research (sort of). In the grand scheme, this is really a bonus as it is likely the last time in your professional life when all of your time is truly yours.
  10. What has been the hardest part about being a graduate student (Is there anything that you've had to "give up" as a graduate student)?
    The most difficult experience I’ve had is finding a balance between family life and academic life. Having a family in graduate school is not impossible or detrimental, but finding the right balance can be a formidable challenge replete with unpleasant decisions. I haven’t yet pulled out all of my hair, so it can’t be that bad.
  11. What are your plans after you graduate?
    My long-term goal is to work in academia as a tenured faculty member in a high to very-high research university (Carnegie Classification). To this end, my objectives are to complete my postdoctoral research in a timely manner (i.e., published), develop curriculum for and teach a course in geochemistry at UWM, develop the beginnings of an outreach program, and apply for tenure-track positions.
  12. How would you describe the Department of Geosciences at UWM to a prospective student?
    Granted my perspective is limited by my lack of experience in the Department, but I would say that it is a small Department with active and approachable faculty members and an excellent staff. There is a wide range of research that is and can be undertaken both locally and throughout the U.S. and the globe. Supporting facilities in the Department are great and there are locations well within driving distance that contain additional instrumentation, but would likely require some agreement between an advisor and the facility director/lab manager. If you examine the publication records of the faculty you will note that they actively publish in high-ranking journals. To sum this up I would say that the Department of Geosciences at UWM is a fantastic place to consider for graduate school.
  13. What has been your favorite activity while you’ve been in Graduate School in Milwaukee?
    At the moment I have been away from Milwaukee about 50% of the time I’ve lived here. But, I’d say getting a brief glimpse of fall colors and enjoying the parks and beaches with family has been the highlight so far. Being a Minnesota native I look forward to the winter, but I’ll be gone for most of that as well.
  14. What do you most enjoy about Milwaukee?
    At the moment I can’t say that I can give Milwaukee a fair shake, but I’d definitely say that being so close to Lake Michigan is a plus. It is a large metropolitan area, but the communities are certainly charming and the local pubs are nice.

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