In touch with … Craig Simmons

Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor Craig Simmons has recently joined the prestigious Fellowship of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in its 2021 class of AGU Fellows. We caught up with Craig to discuss what this honour means to him, and how he’s picking up new hobbies since an interstate move.

What is your role and what does your work focus on?

I am Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Hydrogeology and Schultz Chair in the Environment at Flinders. My research area is groundwater science.

Groundwater is front and centre in environmental management and policy on issues as diverse as food and water security, coal seam gas and fracking, and nuclear waste disposal.  Since July 2020, I have been seconded to the Australian Research Council (ARC) as Executive Director for Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences. This role sees me overseeing elements of the National Competitive Grants Program and providing strategic and contemporary policy advice to Government. I enjoy my new role at ARC and living in Canberra.

It is an extraordinary opportunity to give back to Australian research and Australian researchers. I get to meet some of Australia’s leading researchers and learn so much about the wonderful work they are doing.

Can you briefly describe the journey that took you to this point in your career?

I did an electrical and electronic engineering degree followed by a physics degree at the University of Adelaide. In the mid-1990s I stumbled across a tiny advert in The Advertiser for traineeships with CSIRO Land and Water (formerly CSIRO Division of Water Resources) and the former Centre for Groundwater Studies based at the Waite Campus. I applied and was successful.

I commenced a PhD based at CSIRO in Adelaide at the Waite Campus. My PhD was about computer modelling of saline brine leakage from saline disposal basins in the Murray-Darling Basin and I was able to use my engineering and physics background to solve hydrologic problems. At CSIRO I had the good fortune of growing up and cutting my teeth with some of the world’s best groundwater scientists.

I was appointed at Flinders in 1997, at the age of 25, on a fixed-term, Associate Lecturer Level A contract. John Hutson, Corinne Le Gal La Salle and I built groundwater education and research from scratch. In 2009, the ARC National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) was established, with our headquarters here at Flinders, Bedford Park. It has been a tremendously exciting journey so far! We have built a great group of researchers and students here, and Flinders is now one of the leading groundwater research and education institutions in the world.

What does being elected Fellow mean to you?

It feels quite surreal. I still cannot believe it.

The AGU Fellowship contains some of the greatest giants and legends in groundwater science. I am honoured and humbled to join them.

It is recognition of all the work we have done as a team – with so many wonderfully talented students and tremendous colleagues at Flinders, around Australia, and around the world. An award like this is never about an individual. This truly is a team award.

To say that I am grateful to each and everyone who has contributed to our collective success is an understatement. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to so many amazing and exceptional colleagues and students – past and present – who made this possible.

How will this new role help your work / research?

I enjoy working at the science-policy-community interface and AGU Fellows are called upon to act as external experts, providing advice to government and other agencies around the world.

What is something you are most proud of?

This question is easier than some of the others!

I am easily most proud of the students and colleagues I have had the good fortune to work with. It is fantastic to see their own successes – from journal papers getting accepted, to winning grants, or landing a terrific job they have wanted for ages.

Science would not be science without the people and the journey shared with colleagues and students. And it would not be anywhere near as much fun. Working on problems with friends and colleagues is a great buzz. Science is all about people.

It is the great people I work with that make it enjoyable, rewarding, and successful.

What does a normal day look like for you?

I am currently working with the Australian Research Council in Canberra. The breadth and depth of work is incredible and intensely rewarding. I am learning a great deal about how the Australian and international research landscape works, meeting so many of the superstars of Australian research – across STEM and HASS – people I had heard about and admired but had never met or worked with. I get to talk with and hear from young and up and coming early career researchers across Australia who are just starting out.

I am fortunate that I still get time to do research. I am leading a major new groundwater modelling project – Groundwater Modelling Decision Support Initiative (GMDSI).

This is an important project designed to improve groundwater modelling for sustainable resource development and environmental impact prediction. I am also actively involved in several major national and international projects and committees, such as the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) here in Australia which provides advice on CSG and coal mining projects to government; and currently working with UNESCO and the United Nations as part of an international team writing the UN World Water Development Report 2022 “Groundwater: making the invisible visible”.

How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?

Getting time to relax and striking a good work-life balance is a perennial challenge.

I enjoy cooking and have spent a lot of time in recent years learning how to bake bread, cakes, and biscuits. I play piano for fun – something I would like to do more of when I have more time.

Moving to a new place gives you opportunities to try new things. We live close to the Canberra Glassworks, one of the oldest glass factories in Australia. I have always wanted to try glass blowing and this year I had a crack at making a couple things I am proud of – a paper weight and a vase. I loved it! I am going back for a few days later this year to do a more serious glass making course.

Other than that, I enjoy taking walks around my new city. The parks around Canberra are luminescent green and the cherry trees are in full blossom in October. There are flower beds all around the place (often full of tulips in colours I did not even know existed in nature!) for our Canberra-wide Floriade. Spring is a great time of year to be in Canberra. It really makes me feel very fortunate and grateful for everything and everyone in my life.

What have you learned in your career, so far?

I have learned through my career that hard work and persistence is important. If you plant 10 seeds, only two may grow. The fact that all do not grow is not failure or a setback. It’s just life.

I have also learned that it’s all about people. I know one thing for sure – that at the end of life we will not count the number of journal papers we published or the number of pages in a CV. But we will certainly remember all our great friends and family and colleagues and students – that is what matters.

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