New postdoc is ready to run for the rivers

Erin Abernethy can read the subtlest shifts and changes in the rivers and creeks that cut through the Appalachian Mountains.

She knows some are slow-moving, meandering. She knows some have violent rapids, unrelenting currents, sharp rocks and waterfalls. And she’s traveled down all kinds — even the more dangerous ones — in a kayak.

Erin Abernethy

Abernethy, an FIU distinguished postdoctoral scientist, first started whitewater kayaking as an undergraduate at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. To date, she’s gone whitewater kayaking in more than 20 rivers across the U.S., and in Central and South America.

What started as one of Abernethy’s favorite ways to spend her free time ended up inspiring her conservation research. She’s now ready for the next phase of her career, merging conservation with equity issues — after all, marginalized communities often face the greatest challenges involving water resources.

Conservation has always been a part of Abernethy’s life. Her parents were both biologists, working in different conservation roles. Her mother was in environmental consulting. Her father protected wild turkey populations and longleaf pine trees. They loved their work. And they instilled a love and appreciation for nature in their daughter. Abernethy wanted to follow in their footsteps, but she wasn’t certain what kind of conservation work she wanted to do — until she began whitewater kayaking.

Erin whitewater rafting

Many of the bigger rivers in the Appalachian Mountains are dammed. When it comes to recreational use, these dams play a key role. In fact, dams help make sure there’s enough water in the rivers for recreational use — especially when naturally occurring water levels would have dropped too low for whitewater rafting and kayaking. On the Pigeon River in Tennessee where Erin worked several summers as a raft guide, rafting companies and the local powerplant negotiate water releases for summer recreational use.

Abernethy spent a lot of her time waiting for those releases. While she waited, she knew she could visit smaller, rain-fed rivers and creeks. She’d keep a close watch on the weather, anticipating the approach of a storm. Then, she’d wait for the water levels to rise.  

All of this made her start thinking a lot about rivers. And, in turn, freshwater resources. For her doctoral work at Oregon State University, Abernethy focused on dams and their ecological impacts, especially on smaller aquatic insects in the Colorado River Basin.

Now, as a postdoctoral scientist, Abernethy will be working with FIU Institute of Environment researcher Elizabeth Anderson to take her research in a new direction.

Abernethy is going to explore new, urgent and very timely questions, like who has access to water resources and who is making those decisions about where the water goes.

She wants to put discussions about race and gender into broader discussions about freshwater conservation and resource management. As Abernethy points out, it’s often marginalized communities that are most severely impacted by decisions that impact water resources. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is just one example. The damming of the Amazon and its tributaries is another — that Anderson has studied extensively.

“Equity has to be a part of these discussions, especially in Florida, which is projected to be a majority minority state in the near future,” Abernethy said. “In my postdoctoral work, I want to explore how potential bias related to both race and gender may influence current research and policy relating to freshwater management.”

She’ll be working with the Florida Water Management District to look at how they incorporate diversity into their organization, as well as what type of community engagement they have in place. Abernethy hopes to build a framework to increase diversity and inclusion, as well as increase community trust.

Erin and River Monster

Abernethy’s project, rooted in deep collaboration, is coming at a time when she believes people are excited and open to having these conversations. She looks forward to working with researchers in the Institute of Environment, FIU’s Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity, as well as conservation partner Nicole Silk at the River Network.

While starting her postdoctoral research in a pandemic won’t be easy, Abernathy’s up for the challenge. Plus, she will have help from a new friend — her newly adopted one-year old chocolate lab, River Monster. As his name suggests, he loves being near the water, maybe as much as Abernethy. And yes, he even goes for rides in the kayak.

FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education Distinguished Postdoctoral program is designed to support and enhance the professional development of promising early-career scholars toward potential placement in tenure-track positions. For more information, click here.