Nothing Makes Sense About Being A Research Director, Unless You Realize Your Career Follows a Crooked Path
By: Mark Deutschman
I had just agreed to join the staff of the International Water Institute (IWI) on a part-time basis after 30 plus years in private consulting. The voice of the Executive Director, Chuck Fritz, on the other end of the phone line asked, “What are we going to call you, Mark?” I replied “Heck if I know, Chuck. How about Research Director; that kind of has a nice feel to it.” “Research Director it is,” replied Chuck. That is how I became the first Research Director at the IWI.
My interest in science began at an early age. I grew up on Long Lake, which is north of Fergus Falls in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. Early on I became intrigued by lakes, what lived within them, and how they worked. My path to becoming the IWI’s first Research Director began with undergraduate and graduate degrees in Zoology, from the University of Montana and North Dakota State University, respectively. I focused my college curricula and graduate school research on aquatic ecology and limnology, which is the study of lakes. After nearly four years in Bismarck, North Dakota, working as a Research Scientist (title number one), my wife Lisa and our first daughter, Megan, decided to move to “The Big City.” I had accepted a position as an Environmental Scientist (title number two) at an engineering consulting firm. Yup, you got it, the small city family moves to the big city of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I soon found myself doing two things I promised myself I would never do….commuting and wearing a white shirt and tie to work…the uniform of engineering consultants in the 1990s. I learned to never say never.
I soon realized engineers made all the important decisions in the consulting world and I yearned for a more rigorous academic foundation in water. My interest in a more rigorous foundation lead me to the University of Minnesota. I approached Dr. Heinz Stefan, a faculty member within the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota and at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL). Dr. Stefan, who is known for his cross-discipline collaborations, just happened to be looking for a limnologist / ecologist to be part of his water quality modeling team. Looking back, I now realize my good fortune to have the opportunity to learn so much from Dr. Stefan, and my fellow graduate students at SAFL.
It took me a long time. I worked full time and went to school part time. A lot changed in my life during the 7 years it took to complete my PhD. My wife Lisa and I added two daughters, Kelly and Caitlin, to our family. Lisa took care of every domestic detail. I wanted to quit several times. But in the winter of 1997 I finally traversed the stage at Northrup Auditorium and received my degree. My research was focused on, yup, you got it WATER and specifically using mathematical water quality models to describe how nutrients move between a lake and the lake bottom. My standard joke today is, “My friends tell me I’m conflicted, because I couldn’t decide whether to be an ecologist or an engineer.”
As Research Director I consider myself as both an ecologist and an engineer. My primary focus is to develop practical solutions to real world water related problems. At the IWI, we do this by transforming basic academic research into everyday use. My first task at the IWI was formally establishing the Center for Applied Research and Decisions Support (CARDS). Five core research topics comprise CARDS. A couple of the core research topics are how to develop computerized decision support systems which incorporate big data to make real-time resource decisions and developing and implementing new approaches for managing runoff from nonpoint sources to improve the water quality of our lakes and rivers. We are currently working on ways to improve farm profitability, while simultaneously improving environmental outcomes. It is fun. I feel like I am applying my academic background.
The path to becoming a Research Director is crooked and maybe the title just happens to be made up, but everyday I feel lucky to be exploring new ideas and utilizing science to improve society.
Acknowledgement: I would be remiss if I did not thank Lisa, my wife and our children, Megan, Kelly and Caitlin for their love and support, and for providing me with the opportunity to pursue my dreams. I remain indebted to Dr. Stefan for instilling critical reasoning skills into my thought process and taking a risk on a young ecologist. I am eternally grateful to so many that placed their trust in me during my career as a private consultant.