Land snails – the canary in the coal mine? Matt Kutcha joins Real Scientists

We are delighted to welcome our next curator, Dr Matt Kuchta (@kuchtam), Associate Professor of Geology, University of Wisconsin–Stout, USA. Matt’s unnamed-2research focuses on the diversity and biogeography of landsnails in the upper midwest, and he is a dedicated science communicator who has appeared on the Weather Channel and TEDyouth. We asked Matt our usual set of questions, you can read his answers below. Please welcome Matt Kutcha to Real Scientists!

I don’t think I’ve “ended up” in science. Instead, I think that I’ve managed to find a way to “stay” in science my whole life. My grandfather and father were high school chemistry teachers, my mother was a librarian/learning technology specialist, so those kinds of topics were always talked about in our house while I was growing up. I didn’t feel any pressure to pursue science as a career; my parents and grandparents cultivated a “curiosity culture” where my sister and I were encouraged to observe and explore the world around us. Whenever I would ask questions, my parents would usually respond with another question, creating a sort of “junior” socratic dialogue. I don’t think they did it entirely on purpose. Being teachers, they were trained to get kids to think and develop ideas on their own, but as I was a very curious child, I think they used it to get me to stop coming to them with simple questions all the time. My parents taught me as much about art as they did science, too. My father is an accomplished illustrator/cartoonist, and my mother taught me photography and making puppets and other crafts. As such, I have always interpreted the world around me as both a scientist and an artist.

When I was about five years old, I drew a picture for my parents titled, “When I grow up I want to be a Scientist or a Bus Driver.”

I love art. Drawing, taking photographs, building models have come as naturally to me as looking at samples of pond water under the microscope. I double-majored in geology and studio art as an undergrad and if I hadn’t found science as vocationally rewarding as it has been, I might have ended up working in the unnamed-1movie/TV special effects industry.

My parents got me a dinosaur book when I was about four. I was hooked. I was one of the few students that specifically went in for geology. As a freshman, I mostly wanted to do vertebrate paleontology, but as I learned about sedimentology and invertebrate paleoecology, I realized there were interesting questions I could ask that wouldn’t be possible if I only looked at dinosaur bones. I spent as much time in graduate school learning about the physical evolution and ecology of rivers and lake systems as I did learning about the evolution and ecology of clams and snails. My time as a graduate student and working in the Geology Museum at the UW–Madison showed me how fun and exciting it could be to do research with undergraduates.
It’s largely due to fortunate circumstances that I ended up at Stout. My wife has a PhD in plant ecology and she got a tenure-track position in the Biology Department. Stout doesn’t have a geology program, but they have required geology courses for some of the other majors. Long story short, I was hired in a tenure-track position and teach soil mechanics, intro geology, soil science/conservation, and physics labs/discussions. Finding a viable solution to the “Two Body” problem, which allows my wife and I to work at the same institution has been a valuable gift.

Tenure-track faculty have responsibilities in three main areas of Teaching, Research, and Service. I’ve been fortunate that I work with colleagues who value my efforts in these areas. This is most obvious in terms of my service to the university and broader community. My work in science communication has given me opportunities such as an appearance on The Weather Channel explaining the mechanics of quicksand and a TEDyouth talk about the “Science of Sand.” I teach courses in Intro Geology, Soil Mechanics (think “physics of dirt”), Soil Science (think “chemistry/ecology of dirt”), Hydrology, and some of the Physics labs and discussions. I only took one semester of undergraduate physics, so I’ve learned a lot about how to deconstruct and analyze a problem from another discipline’s perspective in a way that you can teach it to others.

My research projects have been rather diverse. I study the diversity and biogeography of land snails in the upper midwest, fluvial geomorphology (landscape evolution due to river erosion/deposition), and the deposition/transport of phosphorus through the Red Cedar River watershed (west-central Wisconsin).

unnamedLand snails have the potential to be the “canary in the coal mine.” Their response to their environment can help us identify areas being adversely impacted by subtle changes like lower soil moisture (from groundwater overuse or climate change, for example). Conversely, they can also point to areas unique species and where conditions are improving.
Cyanobacterial algae blooms, often caused by excess phosphorus, have both negative economic and health impacts. Any attempt to mitigate excess phosphorus without understanding the ways in which it can mobilize and get into the water column could result in spending millions of dollars on ineffective treatment efforts.

I’ve been blogging since 2005 – currently writing about geoscience topics at “Dispatches from the Dirt Lab.” As a result of my SciComm and outreach efforts, I’ve given a talk at the 2013 TEDyouth conference and appeared on The Weather Channel to explain the mechanics of quicksand. This gave me a chance to spend two hours hip-deep in quicksand.

I enjoy birdwatching, nature photography, kayaking, and gardening, and the perfect day off is heading out on a 2AM hike up to Chasm Lake to watch and photograph the first rays of morning sun hit the east face of Long’s Peak.

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