Digging for Adventure

Kelli_core- a woman sits on the ground surrounded by corn husks

Originally Posted on: May 13th, 2015

by Shianne Gruss


IIHR Graduate Researcher Kelli Parsons bands a trumpeter swan during her time as a wildlife technician for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Kelli Parsons is no stranger to adventure. She has picked apart volcanic rock in the Atacama Desert, flown by helicopter high above the Alaskan Seward Peninsula, and banded swans (known for their feisty temperament) in Iowa—all in the name of research.

“I would get dropped off in the middle of nowhere,” she says of her work describing rock core for an Alaskan mining company. “It was like, ‘map the soils and I’ll see you in eight hours.’” Besides that, she has been a wildlife technician for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and a U.S. Forest Service hydrogeology intern, where she monitored freshwater springs in rural Oregon. Nowadays, Parsons maps soils in the Clear Creek Watershed, a short drive from Iowa City. While admittedly not as thrilling as getting airlifted off the Bering Land Bridge or climbing the Cascades, she is still doing what she loves: studying soil.

As an IIHR graduate researcher, Parsons is part of the Intensely Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory (IML-CZO), an interdisciplinary and multi-state research initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. She analyzes soil samples under Clear Creek site coordinator Art Bettis, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Iowa and IIHR associate research engineer. The two seek to better understand how human activity—specifically agriculture—has affected nutrient, water, and sediment storage within Iowa landscapes.

“There’s a large package of sediment on really nice black organic soil,” Parsons says. “I’m looking at how thick that sediment is, when it came, where it is thickest, how it varies, and trying to put together that picture.” The resulting data could help explain how and why the Iowa landscape has changed over time, with potential positive impacts on land-use practices.

Parsons collects core samples at the IML-CZO Clear Creek site.

Parsons collects core samples at the IML-CZO Clear Creek site.

Parsons is equally as passionate about conservation and resource management as she is about soil. After graduation she will join the consultancy firm ARCADIS as an environmental consultant in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Although she loves Iowa City, she is keen on traveling whenever she has the chance and is looking forward to living on the West Coast. “I’m fortunate to have landed a job that allows me to do what I love: studying soil and traveling,” she says.

She gives credit for her adventurous spirit to her father. As a kid, she remembers pictures of him skimming the water while sailing on the Coralville Reservoir and rock climbing at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. “He’s just always been an outdoorsy dude, going on adventures and skiing and throwing a couch in the back of a van and driving it to Colorado,” Parsons says. “It’s in me, too, for sure.”