Meet our SERC scientists: Dr. Henry Briceño

Many don’t find rocks all that interesting, but Dr. Henry Briceño can bring everything back to the rocks – from the glass cups we drink water out of to our planet’s very existence. Briceño has been a researcher and geologist with the Southeast Environmental Research Center for over a decade and has been working to drive positive change for the environment even longer than that. Currently, he studies water quality across South Florida and provides recommendations to policymakers to respond to issues impacting our local water systems. Rocks and water, two of the planet’s most critical elements, are Briceño’s favored research topics.

Name: Henry Briceño 

Home Department: Southeast Environmental Research Center  

How long have you been at FIU? In SERC? I’ve been at FIU and in SERC for 15 years.

How would you describe yourself as a scientist? How do you describe your title and role?I consider myself a water researcher.

How did you started working in this field? My interest in nature and geology started as a kid. My father used to takes us everywhere, like excursions and camping, so I started to really like rocks. In high school, we had an earth sciences course, and from there I decided that I wanted to be a geologist. I started college in Venezuela, my homeland, where I was able to be an assistant at the mineralogy lab, so I did a lot of things with minerals since it was my passion at that time. I finished my Bachelor of Science in Geology at Colorado School of Mines and also did my Master of Science in Geology, with thesis research in Geochemistry of Mississippi Valley Type ore deposits. After finishing my master’s I went back to Venezuela to teach and went back to Colorado to do my doctorate in geology with the thesis research on remote sensing in heavily vegetated terrain for diamond exploration. I returned to Venezuela to teach again at Universidad Central de Venezuela (Central University of Venezuela). During that time, I realized that I didn’t know much about the industry outside of academia, so I started to share my time between a private company I founded and the university. Most of my work was as a geologist and geochemist. I worked on environmental assessment and exploration for minerals and hydrocarbons. However, I had to leave Venezuela 15 years ago for political reasons, so I moved to Miami and got a position at SERC. Since then, I have been working mostly on coastal water quality, urban waters and the Everglades.

In a nutshell, what is your research about? I am working on six projects right now concentrated in water research in South Florida, such as in the Everglades, Biscayne Bay, Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys. But I do many things with water. There are many questions, many areas, many water types. In Florida coastal waters there are many types of water, so I analyzed and classified them into 42 groups of water quality types. In other words, I might concentrate on water research, but I work on different things with water. Each project challenges me; I learn something new every day. It’s some sort of an addiction to explore and learn something new. I also work with really good people, my technicians are excellent and they know their job better than I do!

I like to have a larger perspective and holistic picture of whatever I do, linking knowledge from different research fields. I might have to work twice as much, but I think that it’s really important to have more than just surface-level information. Information drives our society, but not too many people know the subjects with enough depth. In academia, we need to transform information into knowledge – knowledge stays with you forever, but superficial information is just like makeup, once it rains it goes away.

What excites you most about your research? I am really interested in water quality and how that affects the environment, including urban ecosystems. I am mostly interested in how things are related to climate change and sea level rise. I’ve been trying to explore what the future is going to look like and how the water quality is going to be like if we keep on our current path with climate change. If we have higher sea levels, the best way to see what’s going to happen with water quality under those conditions is to do analysis while we have abnormally high tides like the so-called king tides. The idea is to get information on how the future is going to look and be able to inform decision-makers to avoid future issues. Geology and rocks also play an important role in our water. They partially rule how much water there is in aquifers, how good our water is and how bad it’s going to get in the future. Sometimes rocks can be taken for granted, but if we look around, how much of the things around us come from rocks? Rocks have always been the basis of civilization and development, and they are the base of raw materials like concrete, steel, glass and many more, so everything is geology! They are everywhere, and there are so many types of rocks that will please you. When we see mountains or valleys, they are all made of rocks, and although we don’t see a lot of rocks here in Florida, they’re still there. They are responsible for all the topography, all the internal processes of our planet.

I enjoy what I do. I don’t feel like I’m a workaholic; the only problem is that we don’t have enough time. It also feels refreshing to know that what you did was useful for something or to learn that the people that you taught are doing something with the knowledge and are successful. That’s when I find my work to be most satisfying.

How do you think this research impacts people or the planet in a broader sense? Countries are different, but humans tend to be very similar, especially in the way they react. When we try to emphasize a problem or crisis, we also develop fear in people (like with sea level rise). So I think what is missing is that we need to give people a light at the end of the tunnel. We need to spread the message about sea level rise with some hope at the end by being realistic and not lying. But, to solve a problem, you first need to recognize that you have a problem. We need to take a step back and show what our research is saying and push for political decisions and policy making that will take action on the issues researchers work on every day. For me, generating knowledge is not enough; I need to spread the word. I frequently do interviews, usually once a week on radio and television, and I just talk and talk. Usually, when we work in science, we try to stay away from the media, but we need to take a step forward to show what our research is saying. We are coming up with solutions and information that can help change the world. We need to try to push forward legislation and policy making, that’s our responsibility as scientists and citizens for our future generations.

What was your most memorable experience working on this topic? One of the greatest moments of my life as a scientist was working with a group of scientists from different disciplines on a project in some mountains in South America in the middle of nowhere. We used to call it “a place where the wind returns.” Those mountains were weird; they were flat and looked like tables. However, the ecosystems up there were isolated for millions of years making them unique. For biologists that’s a paradise, there is all kind of species many people have never encountered before. This project was multidisciplinary. We got a holistic view of the environment and tackled all the tops of the mountains together. I was in charge of the geology, geomorphology and geochemistry of the project. There were other scientists in charge of soil, botany, ecology, etc. We used to gather in the afternoon, sit around a fire and make bread, drink wine and talk science.

Those are perhaps the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced: enjoying a chat with friends, all of us a kind of pioneer in the field, since the area had been isolated for many years. We also felt the responsibility to record the information and deliver, because we didn’t know how long it might take for another person to get to that area. We wrote a book from the research after we returned. I think it was the research project that I enjoyed the most in my life as a scientist.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab/field? I am a father, husband, grandfather and friend. I have a close relationship with my family, so most of my time is spent on my research, family and friends. My hobbies include reading and traveling. I love and enjoy nature, that’s why I decided to do geology.