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Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Stewart Rounds

This is the tenth in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti.  Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS. 

Stewart Rounds is an outstanding scientist, a sought-after mentor, and a continuous contributor to the USGS mission. As an Emeritus, Dr. Rounds continues his career-long work in the improvement of water quality data collection, analysis, and modeling. His science impacts continue to be felt nationally (two Techniques and Methods manuals, DataGrapher, Alkalinity Calculator), regionally (CE-QUAL W2), and locally (30 years of collaboration in the Tualatin Watershed). Stewart continues his mentoring and involvement with students, early career scientists, and peers. Even as an Emeritus, he is adding to his prodigious output of science publications. We salute a career of outstanding achievements and wish Stewart future satisfaction and success. We are certain that his unparalleled curiosity, innovation, and enthusiasm for hydrology and chemistry will continue to serve the American people.  

James Crammond 
Center Director 
Oregon Water Science Center 

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Scientist Emeritus, Stewart Rounds, working to drive a piezometer into the sediments of Fanno Creek.
Stewart Rounds working to drive a piezometer into the sediments of Fanno Creek, as part of a study of beaver activity in urban streams.  Photo by Steven Murschel, who was a USGS volunteer and Portland State University student at the time, 17-Jun-2016.

What attracted or brought you to work for the USGS in the first place? 

I went to graduate school at the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology (OGI). It was a private school that catered to only graduate students in the science and engineering fields, and it was kept afloat by research. The faculty were extremely productive and well known in their fields, with productivity that was right up there with Caltech and MIT. There were only five departments. The school was started by Oregon’s governor Mark Hatfield, and Howard Vollum, the head of a premier tech company in Oregon called Tektronix. They decided that Oregon needed an academic institution to support the burgeoning high-tech industry that was known at the time as “The Silicon Forest.” After I received my undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois, OGI was one of the only schools in the country that had a graduate program in groundwater contaminant transport. Coming from Illinois, I was blown away by the forests and mountains in Oregon, which helped me make the decision to move west.

I had always had great respect for the science done by the USGS, and my graduate advisor, Jim Pankow, did a lot of work in partnership with the USGS. As a result, I had the opportunity to meet with several USGS researchers during my graduate studies and made some early connections to the organization, both in research and in the districts. Jim invited some USGS scientists to my Ph.D. dissertation defense, and I was hired by the USGS shortly thereafter. I was initially hired as a temp, and six months later, I was converted to a permanent position because everyone was worried about a pending hiring freeze.

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus? 

I worked full time for the USGS from 1992 to 2018, when I took early retirement. My center then hired me back part time for two years under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I wanted to come back to complete some unfinished work and assist some of my colleagues with ongoing studies. I re-retired and converted to Emeritus status in 2020. So, that’s about 28 years, give or take.

Stewart Rounds while carrying out a water-quality study on Henry Hagg Lake in the Tualatin River Basin of northwestern Oregon.
While carrying out a water-quality study on Henry Hagg Lake in the Tualatin River Basin of northwestern Oregon, we needed to collect samples from various depths in the lake.  This photo shows me working to lower a Van Dorn sampling bottle into the lake using a downrigger apparatus. 

What was your last title/position at the USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?

My title for those 28 years was Hydrologist, although my background was in environmental chemistry and environmental science. I learned more of the actual hydrology on the job. The wide diversity of studies that my colleagues and I worked on over the years demanded that we know a bit about a wide range of scientific topics, so most of us were generalists rather than specialists. To be successful, we had to keep learning!

What science center do you answer to as an Emeritus?

My entire career with the USGS was with the Oregon Water Science Center (WSC) in Portland. I still report to the Oregon WSC as a Scientist Emeritus.

What are you most proud of during your career with the USGS? 

All of my work with the USGS has centered around studies for the co-operative water program or has been in partnership with other federal agencies (US Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service), so I was always working to provide data and science to support the resolution of local issues. Most of my career was spent working on water quality monitoring and modeling. Our Army Corps partners were interested mainly in how dams affect the thermal regime of reservoirs and downstream rivers. Our Bureau of Reclamation partners were interested in water shortages and water quality issues in the Klamath River Basin. The fact that we could see our science used in real time to solve local water quality and water management problems was the most satisfying part of my job.

Secondarily, I really enjoyed constructing computer-based tools for the analysis and visualization of data. People all over the world still use my online Alkalinity Calculator, and the local Oregon folks still use my Data Grapher tool to visualize and analyze time-series data. I also enjoyed updating a couple chapters (alkalinity, dissolved oxygen) of the USGS National Field Manual.

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus? 

Being a Scientist Emeritus with the USGS allows me to stay connected with my colleagues in the USGS, continue to mentor early-career scientists, provide insight and advice for ongoing studies, and remain associated with the organization.

Erin Poor and Stewart Rounds during a site visit to measure water levels in Fanno Creek.
Erin Poor (USGS) and Stewart Rounds during a site visit to measure water levels in Fanno Creek, as part of a study of beaver activity in urban streams. 

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future? 

For most of my entire career with USGS, I worked on water-quality modeling studies that used the CE-QUAL-W2 2-D flow and water quality model, and I have enjoyed adding new capabilities and algorithms to that model and using them in our studies. Working with colleagues, I applied W2 to numerous waterbodies, including the Tualatin River, Henry Hagg Lake, Detroit Lake, the upper Klamath River, and the Willamette River and many of its tributaries and reservoirs. Currently, we are finishing up some studies in the Willamette River system that use the CE-QUAL-W2 model and my new algorithms to track the sources, amount, and ages of water and heat through that system so that managers can better understand the transient nature of stream heat budgets and the extent to which upstream dam operations affect the downstream thermal regime of the river, which affects the survival of threatened fish species. It’s really interesting work.

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus? 

Well, I really enjoy being retired, but I’m not ready to walk away from the science that I’ve been doing for so long. The Emeritus program is the right niche for me, as it gives me an opportunity to continue sharing my expertise with early-career scientists, and it gives me a chance to stay involved in USGS science. If I ever get around to moving to a nearby university town, I’ll use my Emeritus status to try to strengthen connections between university faculty and students to USGS science studies.

My wife (Bernie Bonn) and me at a waterfall in the Oregon Coast Range. Yes, there is a waterfall called Niagara Falls in Oregon.  Nowhere near as impressive as the real thing, but it's nice.

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus? 

My mentoring activities focus on sharing my water quality and modeling expertise with other USGS scientists. I offer advice and insights on USGS studies and monitoring efforts, when asked, and generally try to offer my opinions on the ramifications of current water quality and water resource management issues on potential USGS studies.

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great? 

Well, I had the privilege of working with some great USGS scientists. Dennis Lynch comes to mind as an outstanding scientific thinker and leader. He is a great big-picture thinker and by far the best I have ever seen at boiling down an issue and making quick estimates as to the ramifications. My best mentor, however, was probably my graduate research advisor, Jim Pankow, who is an outstanding teacher and scientist who continues to do great work to this day.

If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Channeling Jim Pankow who used to say “you can never take too much math,” I would tell my 18-year-old self to take as many courses in mathematics and statistics as you can, as that knowledge will help you in countless ways later on. I took plenty of math courses, and could have taken more, but wish I had taken more courses in statistics.

My wife and I met in grad school, and at one point we took a course on advanced differential equations in the applied physics and electrical engineering (APEE) program. All the APEE students were applying the course concepts to physics, such as electrical circuits, and they kept asking us why we from the environmental science field were taking this class. We simply said that there is so much from the engineering fields that can be directly applied to environmental science; for example, Laplace’s Equation applies just as well to groundwater flow and fluid dynamics as it does to electrical fields.

If you could travel on a time machine to any era in time, what would it be and why? 

The mere thought of time travel just reminds me of the short time we have in life, so we should make the most of it and focus on the big picture, both in life and in our research.

My wife Bernie Bonn and me at Amboise, France, along the Loire River, on our 20th anniversary.
Photo of my wife Bernie Bonn and me, at Amboise, France, along the Loire River, on our 20th anniversary.  Funny that just along the river bank there are the markings of a very old staff gage.

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally? 

My last international trip was to Bulgaria, which is an amazing place with so much history. I look forward to traveling back to Europe, perhaps next year, to visit some relatives in Belgium and do some sightseeing.

What was the last (or favorite) book you read? 

I’ll twist this question around to highlight a book that I always thought was really useful and interesting, and that is Consider a Spherical Cow by John Harte. It focuses on the art of quantitative estimation in problem solving. The title is derived from the question of “How many leather shoes might you produce from the leather from one cow?” Well, one easy way to derive an estimate is to consider a spherical cow and consider a spherical shoe. You can estimate the radius of a sphere that might have the same surface area as a cow, and you can estimate the radius of a sphere that might have the same surface area as a shoe. Knowing the mathematical equation for the surface area of a sphere, you can come up with an answer that is the ratio of the squares of those radii. You’d be amazed by how many relevant scientific questions can be addressed through simplified quantitative thinking that can guide you to useful insights and conclusions without going into great detail. This is what Dennis Lynch is so good at.

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? 

That’s a hard question, but you need to have both the time and the tools to be creative. So, setting aside some time to think about the big picture is always useful. Second, in my studies we always had a need to build customized tools for processing and visualizing data and model results, so I always encouraged fellow modelers to learn more programming languages and become proficient with them so that they could build the customized tools that they would need to carry out their studies. If you can think it, you can do it!

Stewart Rounds posing with a llama that lived at one of our study sites on Bronson Creek.
Posing with a llama that lived at one of our study sites on Bronson Creek, where we were studying the effects of beaver activity on the hydrology and water quality of urban streams in northwestern Oregon.

What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess? 

Every good scientist needs good quantitative analysis skills. The ability to think logically, quantitatively, and quickly is a must. This sort of skill can be honed through practice, but it is absolutely essential.

What resources or advice would you give someone going into a research position for the first time? 

Find a way to keep it fun, interesting, and challenging. You’ll work hard, but it won’t be any fun if it isn’t also challenging. Share your work with others. Find a way to utilize the skills that you enjoy. You’ll have your share of bureaucratic or administrative duties, but focus on the science.

How are you spending your time during the pandemic? 

I take a long walk each day. I work in the yard and garden and spent some time painting the exterior of the house. And, I work on finishing up a few USGS reports.

Stewart Rounds (in canoe) and USGS SCUBA divers Jim Caldwell (left) and Ken Skach-Mills (right) deploying seepage meters.
Stewart Rounds (in canoe) and USGS SCUBA divers Jim Caldwell (left) and Ken Skach-Mills (right) deploying seepage meters in the Tualatin River.