Eric Anderson, Ph.D., is a physical scientist at the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystem Research. Though his broad research background has included topics ranging from aerodynamics to microscopic studies in bone tissue, Anderson now studies the movement of water in the Great Lakes using high-powered computers.
Why does your research matter?
In my research, I try to understand and predict the hydrodynamics in the Great Lakes, which encompasses physical phenomena such as currents, waves, temperature, and turbulence. The physical environment is integral to the ecology and chemistry of the lakes and to human interaction with the water. Being able to predict the physical environment allows us to understand the biogeochemistry in the lakes as well as to provide safe drinking, track toxic spills -- like the oil spill in the Gulf, provide safe navigation, safe recreational boating, search and rescue services, and beach quality. Essentially, an understanding of hydrodynamics is an essential piece in being able to use the lakes and rivers in a safe and sustainable manner.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I enjoy learning how the public uses our real-time predictive models to “see” what’s happening in the lakes, physically speaking, and knowing that the work we do can have a direct impact on how people plan their day or week.
"Essentially, an understanding of hydrodynamics is an essential piece in being able to use the lakes and rivers in a safe and sustainable manner."
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
Since I work with physical oceanographic modeling, almost all of my work takes place in an office where I use supercomputers to simulate the Great Lakes. On occasion, I’ll get out on the water to deploy instruments in the summer. It’s a nice break from the office, and I enjoy reconnecting with the waters that we’re studying.
What in your lab could you not live without?
Since I'm a modeler, my computer is essential to me. Without it, we couldn't make the real-time predictions for the lakes and rivers.
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
It would be one that could scan the Great Lakes basin at high frequency, obtaining complete meteorological conditions in the region. Currently, we have only a limited number of stations that report wind, temperature, and other data. Therefore we are in the position where we need to predict the physical state of the lakes with only a handful of observations. Our models are at the mercy of these observations. If we knew these conditions across the region, then our ability to predict the physical state of the Great Lakes at several scales would be greatly enhanced. Essentially, the more observations we have the better we can predict the environment.
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
I think when I was in 7th or 8th grade I started to realize that math and science courses came easier to me than other subjects, and this continued into high school. But it wasn’t until later in college that I started to narrow down my interests to engineering and fluid dynamics, and even later as a Ph.D. student that I realized my interest is in environmental hydrodynamics.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
Read anything that inspires you. Creativity and scientific interest don’t have to just come from science-based literature. I think if that interest exists, then any inspiring work is helpful. If I had to provide a title however, I would say A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking are two recent favorites of mine.
And how about a personal favorite book?
A recent favorite is Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You or nearly anything by Italo Calvino.
What part of your job as a scientist did you least expect to be doing?
Almost all of it! My background was in mechanical and aerospace engineering focusing on fluid dynamics, which typically means studying aerodynamics through turbine engines, over wings, or jet propulsion. However, with that background I did my Ph.D. work on the fluid dynamics inside bone tissue, working at scales of nanometers to micrometers (bone is 25 percent water). So when I switched to environmental fluid dynamics in the Great Lakes for my postdoctoral work, it was a big change. Six years ago, I never would’ve pictured myself doing this research. But luckily I discovered my interest in environmental fluid dynamics during the last years of my Ph.D. and was able to switch my focus during my postdoc.
Do you have an outside hobby?
I love to go backpacking or just get out to the water when I get a chance. Michigan isn’t very mountainous, but it has some great trails and beaches along the coasts and in the Upper Peninsula.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I think I would’ve focused on being a musician or brewing beer, but luckily I still do both at some capacity now.
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
Probably Albert Einstein. He revolutionized physics with ideas that are still hard to grasp.
Anderson holds a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and Ph.D. in fluid and thermal science and engineering from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Before becoming a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research, he was a National Research Council postdoctoral researcher with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.