Kiki Patsch

Assistant Professor of Environmental Science & Resource Management (ESRM) Kiki Patsch and her students hit the beaches and harness technology in an effort to study and preserve coastal environments.

What drew you to ESRM?

I grew up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and always had an interest in the sandy beach environment. Watching the relentless power of the ocean shape the shoreline intrigued me, and once I realized that studying the shifting sands of the beach was a career option, I was sold! I have a professor from University of Virginia to thank for guiding me down the path of coastal geology and hazards, and also for giving me the confidence to pursue my Ph.D. I thrive in a university setting, so the idea of being a professor was a natural draw.

Why do you consider this to be a good major?

ESRM is one of the most interdisciplinary programs at CI. We deal with complicated, societally relevant environmental issues in every class, from oil spills and protected lands to microplastics, coastal access and using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to monitor coastal change. We teach field methods, concentrate on writing and communication, and graduate well-rounded students prepared for a variety of careers.

Describe an interesting assignment or project that your students might experience.

In ESRM 328, Introduction to GIS, I take my students out to Santa Rosa Island to gather data to incorporate into geographic information systems. The project builds a sense of camaraderie among the students and also teaches them how to gather GPS data in the field and how to use that data to create effective maps.

Please share something others might find interesting about you.

My path to where I am now definitely was not straight. I started out my undergraduate career at University of Virginia as a psychology major and by my second year had changed my major multiple times. At one time or another, I was set on philosophy, anthropology, women’s studies, and film and photography. I loved learning; each class I took opened my eyes to new career paths. Once I took a class called Beaches, Coasts and Rivers, my fate was sealed as an enthusiastic environmental science major. I went straight for my Ph.D. right after undergrad because I knew I wanted to teach at the college level.

During graduate school, I had my first baby and my path changed a bit. I ended up having four kids over eight years and loved being a mom more than I ever thought I would. I stayed home with my kids for 10 years while they were babies, but never lost sight of my dream of researching coastal geomorphology, teaching college, and inspiring students the way that one professor inspired me in my first coastal class. I worked during my children’s naps and at night on research projects, accepted lecturer positions that worked with my kids’ schedules, and tried the best way I knew how to stay in the game while also being the mom I wanted to be for my family. This is not the traditional path into academia. I had more than one person tell me it was time to give up on my dream and try to do something else. I wouldn’t let it go; I just couldn’t! Thankfully, CI saw my potential and viewed my large family as a pro and not a con. I love what I do, and I’m happy to have landed in the perfect program at a university that encourages me to push the limits of research and education. The moral of that story is to never give up on your dreams. You are in charge of your own destiny, and your life is what you make of it.

What have been the proudest moments/accomplishments of your CI career?

One of my proudest moments was seeing a GIS map made by one of my students showcased at a conference in front of 15,000 attendees this past June. It was such an unexpected, pleasant surprise that I nearly fell off my chair when I saw it!

What is your favorite course to teach and why?

This semester I’m excited to teach ESRM 210, Physical Oceanography. I love explaining the science behind ocean processes to students who live near the beach but have never understood the processes at work along the beach and in the ocean as a whole. Students can go to the beach with an entirely new lens of understanding and intrigue – mentally calculating the speed of waves, understanding why the width of the beach is what it is, or looking down and seeing the individual grains of sand as separate minerals with their own grain size and shape. The beach and the ocean suddenly become this dynamic, complicated, integrated environment that is far more fascinating that they initially thought. It is a truly eye-opening course for many students. Plus, there is a field trip to the beach, and who doesn’t love that?

How do you involve students in your research?

Students are involved in all of my research. They help build my UAV, monitor coastal change using UAVs and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and come out to Santa Rosa Island to monitor sea cliff erosion and develop sediment budgets. We are building a GIS database in conjunction with Channel Islands National Park, and helping to provide science that will influence policy.

In ESRM 100, Introduction to Environmental Science, students are expected to volunteer for 12 hours during the semester to see how one person can really make a difference in their environment, both in a negative and positive way. Realizing the connection between humans and then environment and thinking about those connections in our daily lives enables students to leave CI as informed and educated citizens who will have the tools to remain lifelong learners. Our connection to the environment does not end after college, and I hope that my students will remember what they learn in our classes throughout their lives and, hopefully, it will influence how they vote, how they interpret or question what they see in the media, and how they make choices in their everyday lives.