This article is part of a Centennial series recognizing eminent Earth and space scientists. Our series presents scientific journeys, as well as “family portraits” of the luminaries and their scientific progeny—the students, postdocs, and collaborators who have received inspiration, encouragement, and guidance from these leading lights of science.
In high school, Mary Pikul Anderson sang in her church choir, took piano lessons, and appeared in community musicals. But the native of Buffalo, N.Y., had to rethink her idea of majoring in music when she discovered she had “no ear at all” for music theory.
Anderson instead declared her major as geology after remembering a class she had loved in high school: Earth science. That decision would launch Anderson’s long career of lauded research in hydrogeology, service to the discipline’s community, and academic advising that has produced a plethora of devoted students.
After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Anderson headed to California and enrolled in Stanford University’s graduate geology program.
Anderson was interested in fluvial geomorphology, but she connected with a groundwater hydrologist named Irwin Remson, who quickly set about convincing her to pursue a different line of research for her doctorate—hydrogeology, specifically numerical modeling of groundwater.
“Why on Earth fluvial morphology?” she remembers Remson inquiring. “The future lies in hydrogeology.”
In 1973, Anderson defended her doctoral thesis in hydrology and moved back to New York to join the faculty at Southampton College of Long Island University. One of her first projects focused on saltwater intrusion in wells, “a big issue” around Long Island, said Anderson.
Two years later, when Anderson moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she began studying nearby lakes and the interactions between them and groundwater. “I’ve really taken to studying local problems,” she said.
Anderson’s research—a body of work spanning nearly half a century—has garnered a variety of prizes. In 1999, Anderson was named a Fellow of AGU, and in 2007 she was the Langbein Lecturer of AGU’s Hydrology section, which she presided over as its first woman president from 1996 to 1998. She’s also been honored by the National Academy of Engineering, the Geological Society of America, and the National Ground Water Association, among others.
In addition to being an accomplished researcher, Anderson possesses an editorial gift for cleaning up ideas, making them succinct, and telling a scientific story, her students remember. She has coauthored several books and served on the editorial boards of journals including Geology, Ground Water, the Journal of Contaminant Hydrology, Hydrological Processes, and Water Resources Research.
Even after retiring from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2009, Anderson has remained active in the research community. A second edition of her book Applied Groundwater Modeling: Simulation of Flow and Advective Transport was published in 2015, and she has served on AGU and National Academy of Engineering committees.
But prizes and publications aren’t Anderson’s proudest legacy. That honor goes to her protégées: Anderson has advised more than 50 graduate students, who have gone on to careers in academia, government, and private consulting. Four of those students are highlighted here, along with one “grand-protégée”—a student of one of Anderson’s students.
Cleaning up Fukushima
After finishing an undergraduate degree in engineering geology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and doing stints at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, Erik Webb set his sights on graduate work.
“There was a definable small number of really good schools in hydrogeology,” said Webb. “When Mary offered me a position [in her lab], I was over-the-top thrilled.”
At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Webb studied the inflow of groundwater into Lake Michigan and simulated braided streams.
Anderson’s way of mentoring, which was to frame a research problem and then give a student enough room to explore, fail, and learn, was a perfect style for him, Webb said. “I needed to struggle.”
The senior scientist was also generous with her professional network and made sure to introduce students to successful colleagues, Webb said.
“I didn’t have to call many of the leading hydrologists cold,” said Webb. “Mary knew them.”
After finishing his Ph.D. in 1992, Webb joined the staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., where he has been involved in a variety of hydrogeological research projects and, more recently, in administration. From 2003 to 2008, he worked for the U.S. Senate on water policy in the western United States.
In 2011, Webb was in a unique position to address consequences of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, including the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Webb had learned Japanese in the 1980s while working in Japan as a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and after the disaster he served in multiple advisory positions about cleanup work and water treatment.
Today, Webb is the senior manager for the Geoscience Research and Applications Group at Sandia. He oversees a team of roughly 100 people, and, like Mary Pikul Anderson, he’s proud of the many students he’s mentored.
It’s a compliment to be compared with his adviser, Webb said. “Mary set an example of community leadership and service.”
The Impacts of Mining
When considering her options for graduate school, Tina Pint kept hearing one name over and over: Mary Pikul Anderson.
“She was already a legend,” said Pint, who majored in geology as an undergraduate.
Pint decided to take everyone’s advice and enroll at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her first meeting with Anderson confirmed that the elder scientist was committed to seeing her students succeed.
Mary “really took the time to try to figure out my long-term objectives after graduate school,” said Pint. “It wasn’t like she was pushing her research.”
Pint’s plan since starting graduate school was to work as a hydrogeological consultant. “Mary was very supportive of the choice,” said Pint. “It was one of the things we discussed at our first meeting.”
Even before Pint defended her master’s thesis, Anderson had helped her get a job. The younger scientist joined Barr Engineering, an environmental consulting firm in Minneapolis, Minn., as a hydrogeologist in 2002.
“I got the job at Barr because of my connection to Mary,” said Pint. “The reputation of being one of her students opened many doors for me.”
As a consultant, Pint helps clients in the mining industry navigate the environmental review and permitting process. She focuses on assessing potential impacts to water quality and quantity.
“It was easy to transition to being a consultant,” said Pint. “The skills I learned in graduate school were extremely applicable.”
To this day, Pint is sometimes still introduced as a student of Anderson’s. Pint is proud of that connection to a woman she views as not only an accomplished researcher but also a role model.
Anderson “carried herself in this very male-dominated profession,” said Pint. “That had an impact on me.”
Viruses in Groundwater
Ken Bradbury grew up on a farm in southern Indiana bisected by a small creek. As a teenager, Bradbury was fascinated by the creek’s different phases: It almost ran dry in the summer, developed a thick crust of ice in the winter, and regularly flooded in the spring. Its limestone bed was also a source of interest—it yielded fossils from the Ordovician like brachiopods and corals.
“I got an appreciation for water and geology,” said Bradbury.
After finishing undergraduate and master’s degrees in geology in 1974 and 1977, Bradbury took some time off to hike the Appalachian Trail. Before he departed, however, he mailed letters to several Ph.D. programs he was interested in, including the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
While hiking south through Virginia, Bradbury heard from his mom that Mary Pikul Anderson had called, wanting to speak to him. Bradbury found a pay phone at a gas station and dialed Anderson.
“She told me later she liked people with interesting backgrounds,” said Bradbury, who enrolled in 1979 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as one of Anderson’s first Ph.D. students.
After defending his Ph.D. focusing on groundwater exchange with the Great Lakes, Bradbury remained in Madison and joined the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey as a research hydrogeologist. He credits Anderson with kick-starting his career. “A recommendation from her counted for a whole lot,” Bradbury said.
Now director of the survey and Wisconsin state geologist, one of Bradbury’s current projects focuses on viruses in groundwater. In the mid-2000s, he and his colleagues were surprised to find rotavirus and norovirus, the same kinds of viruses responsible for outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships, in samples of water from deep wells. “We first thought it was a mistake,” said Bradbury.
Because these viruses evolve in just a few weeks and require a human host, their presence in deep groundwater implies rapid transport through preferential pathways, said Bradbury. “We can start to learn things about groundwater transport just by looking at viruses.”
Although Bradbury and Anderson are now peers—the two researchers have coadvised nine graduate students—Bradbury still acknowledges that Anderson helped launch him professionally.
“She was the door to my career,” said Bradbury.
Researcher and University Administrator
In 1983, Chunmiao Zheng was one of a handful of students to win a scholarship from the Chinese government to attend graduate school in the United States. “At that time, China was just opening up,” said Zheng, whose undergraduate degree was in hydrogeology.
A Chinese colleague who had recently studied at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s medical school suggested to Zheng that he work with Mary Pikul Anderson.
Anderson agreed to take on Zheng as a student, and he arrived in Madison during a snowstorm in December 1984, his first time leaving China.
Using fieldwork data collected by another student of Anderson’s, Zheng developed a computer model of how agricultural chemicals tend to collect in drainage ditches. “I developed computer tools to predict how contaminants move,” he said.
Zheng valued being able to explore this research problem, mostly on his own but always with Anderson’s guidance. She didn’t dictate what you do, said Zheng.
“She encouraged independence.”
Zheng’s initial job after graduate school was influenced by Anderson. Her first Ph.D. student, Charles Andrews, was then the president of S.S. Papadopulos & Associates, a consulting firm focused on water resources. The company hired Zheng as a senior hydrogeologist in its Bethesda, Md., offices.
Zheng later landed a joint appointment to the faculties of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Peking University in Beijing. At the latter, he also founded the Center for Water Research.
In 2015, Zheng got an “incredible opportunity,” as he describes it, to join the recently opened Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. He launched the School of Environmental Science and Engineering there, which today has grown to include more than 50 faculty members. Anderson played a role in the new school, too: She served as the chair of its international advisory board.
Zheng remains an active researcher despite his administrative duties. In 2013, he received the O. E. Meinzer Award from the Hydrogeology Division of the Geological Society of America. This award, in recognition of “a publication or body of publications that have significantly advanced the science of hydrogeology or a closely related field,” was a particular honor to Zheng because of who nominated him: Mary Pikul Anderson.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without Anderson, said Zheng. “She’s my biggest cheerleader.”
A Student’s Student
Anderson’s legacy lives on not only in her students but also in her students’ students.
Yingying Yao, a hydrogeologist at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, is one of Anderson’s “academic grandchildren.” Yao completed her Ph.D. with Chunmiao Zheng in 2016 at Peking University in Beijing, where she developed a groundwater model of China’s second-largest river basin.
“I didn’t know how to build a simple groundwater model when I started,” said Yao. But Zheng told her what Anderson had instilled in him 2 decades earlier: It’s important to explore different ways of analyzing a problem, be bold with trying experiments, and, perhaps most critically, learn from failure.
Yao met Anderson for the first time in October 2012, when Anderson was in China to give a lecture at Peking University. Yao spent several days with Anderson, showing her around Beijing sites such as the Summer Palace.
During that time, Anderson shared advice, both professional and personal, with Yao.
“She told me to never give up on a difficult research project,” Yao said. “Mary told me I needed to be patient.”
Yao also remembers Anderson acknowledging the difficulties that some female scientists face balancing a career and a personal life and the importance of having a supportive partner.
This fall, Yao plans to use Anderson’s influential book Introduction to Groundwater Modeling: Finite Difference and Finite Element Methods in the hydrogeology classes she’ll be teaching. Yao is also looking forward to accepting her first Ph.D. students—researchers who will represent the third generation in an ever-widening network of scientists tracing their professional roots back to Mary Pikul Anderson.
1 May 2019: This article has been updated to more accurately describe Mary Pikul Anderson’s progression through graduate school.