Meet the Researcher, Kate Leary, Assistant Professor, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology
by Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator
Kate Leary is an assistant professor of hydrology for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT). She teaches several classes a year, including Fluvial Geomorphology and Environmental Justice. Leary has been in her position since 2020 and identifies that one of the most important aspects of her job is to educate the next generation of geoscientists through traditional classes, mentoring, and research. To help achieve this outcome, she is currently mentoring two master’s students and one PhD student.
The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) recently awarded Leary a 104b faculty research grant for her proposal titled, Morphology of the Rio Grande will evolve with climate change; will we be ready? This research will investigate the future planform geomorphology of the Rio Grande through numerical modeling as it adjusts to future climate change. In addition to performing her work associated with this grant, Leary mentions she is “excited to continue collaborating with NM WRRI on projects related to rivers in the southwest United States.”
As a fluvial geomorphologist, Leary’s research focuses on bedform kinematics in modern and ancient river systems. Using methods such as analogue modeling and numerical computations, she can analyze and explore precise details of Earth’s surface processes, which are generally not observable on a field scale. According to Leary, some of her ongoing research projects include 1) sub-bedform scale transport dynamics over bedforms, 2) the effect of delta geomorphology on onshore saltwater sequestration, and 3) the paleo-hydrologic history of the paleo-Rio Grande during its transition from aggradation to incision.
Leary recognizes one of the most significant issues within fluvial geomorphology is how rivers will adapt to climate change, thus her most recent proposal with NM WRRI. Whether this response leads to increased flooding or riverbeds drying up, river flow changes can direly impact the environment and societies worldwide. To better prepare for either of these outcomes, Leary suggests learning from past climate changes (e.g., the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum) to assist us in planning our current climate change trajectory and how to analyze our current predicament.
Leary double majored with her BA degrees in Geology and Religion from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Guided by her interest in learning more about river processes in the field of geosciences, she pursued a career in higher education, earning an internship at the Cascade Volcano Observatory (CVO) after college. While at the CVO, Leary worked closely with experimental debris flow flume, further advancing her passion for geoscience. Leary states it was during this experience that she became convinced that applying to graduate school for geoscience was the right path for her. Leary then earned her PhD in Geology from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Leary states she has found great fulfillment in her research career and would like to continue investigating transport processes in river systems as they pertain to changing climate conditions in the past, present, and future. Our interview ended with Leary quoting Steven Grace, author of Dam Nation, “When you explore water, you explore everything.”