ASU professor’s unintended dive into water research leaves lasting impact

Research Professor Pat Gober establishes new award recognizing outstanding student water research

March 9, 2020

Pat Gober became a water researcher by accident. 

For 25 years, as a population geographer and demographer at Arizona State University, she focused on migration patterns and urban planning issues in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Pat Gober, a research professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, will be retiring as full-time faculty after 45 years to focus on research and professional service projects. Download Full Image

Then came an email from the National Science Foundation. 

The government agency was looking for social scientists to pursue work that advanced the understanding of decision-making in uncertain environments. Gober’s mind started to churn with ideas. 

“I read the request for a proposal and it was written very generically, but for me, I could see climatic uncertainty in Phoenix and water and growth,” Gober recalled. “I thought it was written for Phoenix and for me to be able to put different disciplines, economics, hydrology and geography all together to tell a water story.” 

Gober teamed up with then ASU anthropology chair Chuck Redman and applied. They won the grant. 

“From that moment on, I became a water person,” Gober said.

Today, 20 years later, Gober is a leading authority on water management decision-making research. Her research sparks interest across the globe, and she has won international prizes for being at the forefront of integrating physical and social science for water planning.

This month, Gober will be retiring from ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning full-time faculty to focus on research and professional service projects, but her outstanding leadership, mentoring and scholarly contributions to the department and the field of geography at large will never be forgotten. 

“Pat is in many ways the best version of us: a geographer who understands not only how the discipline works and what its value is to society, but is willing to put in effort, time and creativity to the task of blending those values across the spectrum of teaching, research and service,” said Martin Pasqualetti, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and colleague of Gober’s for more than three decades. “The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and Arizona State University, owe her a heartfelt thanks. We would not be where we are without her.”

A secure water future 

In the face of a long-term drought, rising temperatures and global climate change, growing cities like Phoenix face hard questions about how to prepare for a future with less water.

Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin, a crucial source of Phoenix’s water supply, has been suffering a drought linked to higher temperatures and climate change. The basin provides less water than it used to, having declined by more than 16% in the past century. If trends continue there is a risk of severe water shortages for the 1.6 million people living in the Phoenix metropolitan area. 

“If you really are interested in the future of Phoenix you have to be interested in water,” Gober said. “In a desert city it’s the engine that supports growth and development.” 

After being awarded the NSF grant, Gober centered her research on the human activities around managing water and the use of science for water decision-making. 

“The focus of my research became: How do we take knowledge as scientists and put it to good use in water management decisions?” Gober said. “As geographers, I think we’re really well equipped to bring different groups together to solve a problem.” 

Decision Center for a Desert City

With new funding, Gober and Redman created the Decision Center for a Desert City housed within ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute for Sustainability

The research center, armed with more than 40 people of various academic disciplines, aimed to advance research about water management decisions in the context of rapid population growth and urbanization, complex political and economic systems and global climate change.

Gober brought the water science community together with the water policy community to build decision tools that would help integrate climate change into decision making. She sparked important dialogue for groups to learn from each other and together examine the future growth of Phoenix.

Facilitated interactions included monthly water briefings, joint colloquiums and the co-development of water simulations and global climate models. The center became a model of successful science and policy integration where decision-makers and scientists could collaborate on important research questions and experiment with new methods.

“We enhanced learning between the two groups so that collaboration was easier,” Gober said. “We created the social institutions to make sure it was happening on a regular basis. It was our contribution to the water discussion locally.” 

Gober often is tapped by researchers around the globe to speak about the technologies and strategies developed by the project and how to apply what ASU has done in other parts of the world.

“Pat’s command of the social and physical geography of this region together with a growing knowledge of decision science made our application a winner,” Redman, the founding director of the School of Sustainability, reflected in response to the NSF grant proposal. “From that point forward she led the intellectual exploration and community engagement that DCDC has become internationally known for.”

Building capacity for learning 

Gober’s ASU story began in 1975 when at the age of 25 — fresh from earning her PhD from Ohio State University — she flew across the country to accept a role as an assistant geography professor. 

Over the course of her 45-year tenure at ASU, she held a range of appointments including a term as chair of the Department of Geography, where under her leadership it grew into a nationally-ranked geography doctoral program. 

Additional appointments include distinguished honors faculty fellow in Barrett, The Honors College; policy research associate, Morrison Institute for Public Policy; senior sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; and interim director in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban planning. 

Gober also journeyed beyond ASU during her time here, serving as a visiting professor at University College London and professor at the University of Saskatchewan. She has published three books about her research, the most recent in 2018 titled, “Building Resilience for Uncertain Water Futures.”

Gober fostered a new capacity for learning wherever she went and her demonstrated leadership was felt beyond the university settings and into her commitment to public service. 

Over the course of her career, Gober led the global network of leading geography researchers, educators and practitioners as president of the Association of American Geographers; served as a member of the science advisory board for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration; was a former member of the Population Reference Bureau's board of trustees; and for seven years served on the Stockholm Water Prize nomination committee, amongst many other professional service commitments. 

Gober holds an honorary doctorate of science from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin; is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and was awarded the Prince Sultan Abdulaziz International Prize for Water in 2008. She received the ASU's Faculty Research Achievement Award in 2009, the Association of American Geographers' Presidential Achievement Award in 2011 and will be recognized with the highest honor offered by the association in April, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Research Award in the population specialty group.

Sun Devil for life 

Gober credits the support she’s received from ASU to giving her the grounding to advance her academic career and research pursuits. 

“Everything I’ve been able to achieve has been from my ASU base,” Gober said. “I’ve had great encouragement and support to pursue my interests inside the university and outside the university, it’s a great place to be.”

She continued, “I really feel like this has been a place that is supportive of a person like me to make a big change in topics and to make it possible for me to have done the things that I have done. I think the university saw the importance of science really informing decision-making. I have tremendous gratitude for finding a supportive academic place.” 

Pat Gober Water Prize 

Proud to have seen the growth of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and to continue to be a part of it its future success, Gober has committed to the future of water research at ASU by investing in student success. 

Gober has established the Pat Gober Water Prize, a student research proposal competition awarded annually that recognizes and supports scholarly contributions in water research. 

“I think water is a natural topic for geographers, it was for me,” Gober said. “To have a more secure water future, we should do more water research. My hope is that this scholarship will inspire someone to do something they may not have otherwise have done.” 

Qualified submissions will be in the area of water-related research broadly defined. This includes, but is not limited to, water policy, climate research, geomorphology or social science. Funds can be used to support travel, purchase of data, surveys and expendable field supplies related to the proposed research. 

A bright future ahead 

As Gober answers the call to the next chapter of her career, she remains an active part of the ASU family and looks forward to advancing several ongoing professional research service projects. 

“I’ll continue to do research with other people, I continue to do work with students, but now I have the time for more professional responsibilities.” 

Amongst many other things, Gober is currently serving on a water review committee for the University of Stockholm in Sweden, reviewing a 600-page book in her field of research, and collaborating on several other research projects. 

“I have found a lot of things that I can still do to keep myself active where I know what’s going on in the field," Gober said. “I’m not teaching anymore, not serving on student committees, but I continue to do research and public speaking. I’m not leading a bunch of research projects but I’m participating in them,” Gober continued.

“I try to add value to what someone else is doing.”

And add value she has for more than four decades, as she undoubtedly will continue to for years to come.

In honor of Gober’s outstanding career and service to ASU and water research, donations can be made in support of the Pat Gober Water Prize here

David Rozul

Communications Specialist, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


One-person office becomes largest NSF-GRFP advising program in academia

March 9, 2020

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series on ASU’s new universitywide NSF-GRFP tracking and advising initiative — GRFP@ASU. This first article will focus on advising, another article will focus on tracking and a third article will profile an applicant who moves through the advising system, achieves the award and eventually becomes an adviser within the initiative.

Arizona State University's Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships has developed, piloted and implemented the most extensive one-on-one advising system among its peers for the U.S. government’s flagship STEM fellowship — the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP). Graduate Research Fellowship Program Download Full Image

"I had a great experience advising NSF-GRFP hopefuls as they submitted their applications. I think this mentoring program is a great resource, and something I wish I had when I applied for the award in grad school," said Suren Jayasuriya, faculty GRFP@ASU adviser and assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, and the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

The National Science Foundation is a United States government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all nonmedical STEM fields. It is a leading U.S. government funder of basic research in science and engineering at U.S. colleges and universities. 

ASU’s ties to the NSF are strong. Recently, the NSF ranked ASU at No. 7 (out of 760) for research expenditures for universities without a medical school. In September 2018, ASU received a $2.9 million grant from NSF’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation award to support the development of pathways to leadership for STEM academics, particularly women and under-represented minorities. 

In December 2019, an ASU-led project was granted $3.5 million by the NSF to create platforms for the development of infrastructure systems for urban resilience. ASU’s head of research and innovation, Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, was also nominated by the president of the United States to lead the NSF.

ASU continues to strengthen its ties with the NSF through its new centralized Graduate Research Fellowship Program advising initiative and tracking system. Both were developed by Joshua Brooks who heads ASU’s Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships — jointly housed in the Graduate College and Barrett’s Office of National Scholarship Advisement.

The GRFP is the oldest fellowship program directly supporting graduate students in STEM fields. It provides an award of $138,000 over the course of a three-year period, in a combination of student stipend payments and Cost of Education allowance that is administered by ASU’s Graduate College. In addition, ASU’s Graduate College provides additional tuition and fees support, health insurance and a $750 annual allowance to further support the student’s research. Past fellows include Karen Uhlenbeck, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for math, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and National Medal of Science winner Sandra Faber.

Historically, a disproportionate number of the GRFP’s recipients have been concentrated among a few elite institutions. According to some analyses of 2019’s recipients, the 10 schools with the most graduate student awardees amassed 31% of the available awards. Fourteen percent of awardees were concentrated among only three of those ten schools. Eight-six percent of awards were concentrated among R1 (very high research activity) institutions. 

“My thought was that Arizona State University is an R1 institution that already has strong ties to the NSF, so it’s well situated to attempt to make the GRFP academically more inclusive by systematically engaging in efforts to increase the representation of ASU students among GRFP recipients,” Brooks said. 

There are two significant hurdles to systematically increasing ASU’s representation within the GRFP: 

Logistics:  The ASU Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships is a one-person office. Yet, it’s responsible for advising the entirety of the largest U.S. R1 research university’s graduate student population for several prestigious fellowships, including the NSF-GRFP. Any solutions would have to work within existing budgetary and staffing constraints.  

Tracking: If a university cannot discern who or how many are applying, it cannot assess the ongoing effectiveness of any advising initiative that it might develop. However, the GRFP is so difficult to track that, except for universities who require all their STEM graduate students to apply (e.g., Stanford), no institution has been able to track which of their unawarded students actually applied in a given year — that is until this academic year. The Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships has developed and piloted a system to track ASU’s GRFP applicants — awarded and unawarded alike — for the most recent application cycle and will have that information complete by the end of the spring 2020 semester.  

Josh Brooks (head of the Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships) having lunch

Josh Brooks (left) heads the Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships.

In solving the logistical problem, Brooks developed the GRFP@ASU advising initiative. 

According to Brooks, “this operates like a well-tuned community-organizing movement that stretches across ASU’s STEM community.”

GRFP@ASU now has 20 official one-on-one GRFP advisers who themselves have won the GRFP in the past. The advisers are made up of both faculty at ASU who are GRFP alums and current NSF Graduate Research Fellows in attendance at ASU.

Those advisers engage in an in-depth, one-on-one advising process with student applicants over a period of weeks leading up the GRFP deadlines. This advising system can sustain up to 60 NSF-GRFP applicants currently, making it the largest in-depth GRFP advising system in the academe. 

"The NSF-GRFP has become extremely competitive and restricted to only one chance at applying, so for ASU students to be competitive. They need not only good research ideas but coaching and support in how to convincingly present these ideas," said KiKi Jenkins, professor in the School for the Future of Innovation. "ASU’s new NSF-GRFP advising system is a very promising and important initiative. By leveraging the experience and knowledge of successful GRFP recipients as coaches, they are giving ASU students across disciplines intensive one-on-one advising that could help diversify who receives these grants. I haven’t seen such an intensive, yet personalized program at any other university and if successful it could be a model program."

Prior to the establishment of the distinguished graduate fellowships program at the Graduate College, GRFP preparation was handled on an ad-hoc basis with no central point of contact for collaboration. One-on-one advising for the GRFP was handled primarily by the individual units.  Each unit alone can sustain relatively few GRFP applicants if they are going to provide in-depth quality advising. However, when faculty, fellows and applicants from all the STEM units combine and organize into a larger whole, they are able to sustain the entirety of ASU’s GRFP applicant population with in-depth, quality advising.

This ability to organize and mobilize both faculty and students across units into sustainable innovative initiatives is the core of Brooks’ success. He's reproducing this model with other large fellowship programs as well.

One of the faculty advisers in this new initiative is Suren Jayasuriya, NSF-GRFP alumnus and assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, and School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

"For many students, this is their first real experience where they aren't given a class assignment, aren't told what to work on under an external research, but instead are given the trust and confidence to be asked from the NSF, 'What is the most important research you want to do? How will it impact people and society? How will you enhance access to public research, and allow for new diverse perspectives and inclusion into the process?'" Jayasuriya said.

"I think it's the first time these students are asked these questions from something as abstract as a National Science Foundation," Jayasuriya continued. "I personally was a NSF-GRFP awardee ... the NSF-GRFP allowed me the courage to try something new and answer (these questions) in my own unique way. … The three students I met with were bright, motivated and above all else, had fresh ideas and diverse perspectives to add to the national conversation. Most of the time, my job was to show them how they knew the answers to the questions posed by the NSF-GRFP all along, and it was my job to just help them hone the communication of their message, their story. I think this advising program is a great addition to ASU since it doubles down on what the NSF is already realizing: You invest in students not necessarily because of what they have achieved, but because young minds are the best hope for our nation's scientific and technological progress."

In addition to faculty GRFP advisers like Jayasuriya, Brooks’ office also has Graduate Research Fellows presently on tenure at ASU who advise for the initiative. One of those advisers is NSF Gradate Research Fellow J.P. Nelson. Nelson won the award in 2019 after going through Brooks’ early-stage advising system — what would later become GRFP@ASU

"In large part, I really just try to do for my advisees what my friends, mentors and advisers did for me," Nelson said. "Josh (Brooks) particularly stressed statement writing when he first contacted me about the new program, and I’ve mostly worked with my three advisees for this cycle on that writing process — in terms of content, structure and style. I’ve tried to give them a sense of how I understand the rhetorical structure of an application, and the personal and research statements’ places therein; and to help them think through how they want to present their experiences, motivations, and aspirations through those statements.

"More prosaically, I also just read through drafts and give feedback," he continued. "Most of all, though, I try to present myself as a resource for those applicants — for whatever I’m worth. I have some understanding of the application process and some particular ideas about how to go about it, and I offer those up front. But I try to make clear that the ideas I emphasize derive from my own, individual experience — and, to some extent, from those who helped and informed me — and I encourage my advisees to focus our time together around their most pressing questions or concerns."

NSF-GRFP hopefuls can begin entering the GRFP@ASU initiative on a rolling basis starting in early summer 2020 and may continue to enroll through early October 2020.

ASU’s student applicants and potential GRFP advisers can participate in the GRFP@ASU advising system by contacting Joshua Brooks in the Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships.