Faculty, Environmental Science

Physical watershed scientist joins new School of Environmental Science

August 17, 2020

From outdoor recreation to natural resources and hazards – it all comes back to rocks. 

This summer, Brendan Murphy, a physical watershed scientist, joins the Faculty of Environment’s School of Environmental Science. Murphy holds degrees in geological science (PhD) from the University of Texas at Austin and geology (BS) from the College of William & Mary. 

For Murphy, rocks run in the family. Both his parents earned graduate degrees in geology and his grandparents were amateur gemologists. Growing up, Murphy and his family attended gem and mineral shows, visited rock shops and embarked on rockhounding trips. 

“There are home videos of me running around with a rock hammer at three years-old,” he says. 

Despite his childhood exposure to geology, Murphy initially enrolled in social sciences during his undergrad. 

“I left for university with an intention to pursue political science and economics – almost defiantly not studying anything related to science or engineering,” says Murphy. 

Outside the classroom, though, he spent his time in nature - rock climbing, slacklining, whitewater kayaking and backpacking. Through these experiences came the growing desire to understand the rocks, rivers and mountains that he explored. Realizing his passion for science, he switched his major to geology. A week later a rock hammer and hand lens showed up in the mail, courtesy of his family. 

Now, a scientist specializing in geomorphology, Murphy studies rivers and how spatial variability and disturbances affect the physical evolution of landscapes, as well as the ecosystems that reside within them.

Meet Brendan Murphy

Tell us about your research. 

My research centers on rivers and questions related to the effects of environmental variability and disturbances within watersheds. One of my big projects right now is an effort to develop pre-fire risk assessment models. The goal is to ultimately determine if the environmental risks posed by wildfire could be significant enough to jeopardize water resources in any given watershed and to use these findings to inform future policies and land management practices. 

What motivates your research?

If you are asking the right questions, particularly within environmental sciences, then your research can examine fundamental scientific topics while simultaneously tackling issues of critical importance to the public. And in my experience, there are frequently exciting and critical knowledge gaps to be discovered and pursued at the interface between disciplines. 

You’ve conducted fieldwork across the globe. What’s been the most memorable?

All of my science-related travel has been so unique that it’s difficult to say which trip is the most memorable. I have many unforgettable stories, such as getting caught in a white-out blizzard while ice fishing in Alaska, encountering drug smugglers while surveying rivers along the US-Mexico border, or startling a sounder of wild boars deep in the Hawaiian jungle. However, I would probably say the most memorable experience was assisting a friend in graduate school who was collecting water samples from remote geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Typically, it is illegal to go near these features, but with research permits from the park, we were able to go right up to some amazing and lesser known geothermal pools and geysers like few people ever will or should.

How is geological science relevant to the everyday person?

Without plate tectonics, you wouldn’t have the mountains to ski. Without glaciers, you wouldn’t have massive rock faces to climb in Squamish. And without many other geological processes, you wouldn’t have all of the natural resources that BC is famous for, like minerals and timber and fish. Furthermore, in considering the relevance to peoples’ everyday lives – geologic processes are also responsible for all of the potential natural hazards here, such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides. So whether presenting people with resources or risks, geology is extremely relevant, particularly here in BC.

Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing environmental science?

Environmental science is an incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary field of study. This provides a lot of opportunities, but also can make the possible areas for specialization feel overwhelming. While students are still early in their careers and have the flexibility, I would encourage them to keep an open mind, explore the many different subdisciplines, and approach various research groups about opportunities to get out in the field or in the lab. You never know what may ‘click’. 

Environmental Science: More than you think