A research hydrologist at the Southern Research Station, Ge Sun originally grew up in rural northern China about 150 miles east of Beijing. He immigrated to America in 1991 as a graduate student and has degrees in forestry as well as experience in water science, geospatial information sciences and modeling. In 2017 his forest hydrology work was recognized by the USDA Forest Service with two awards, the Deputy Chief Outstanding Science award and the Chief’s Honor award. He also has an online profile that was developed for a K‒12 audience.
Who or what inspired you growing up?
The Chinese culture emphasizes education and learning. Traditionally, only the best in schools get honorable government jobs. So I always wanted to be a scholar with a good education. I wanted to get out of the poor rural areas and become a city person with a better life. There was a big economic gap between rural and city life in China when I grew up and even today. Education turned out to be the only way to improve my life.
What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
I used to love playing soccer but stopped when I broke my right ankle six years ago. I still sometimes dream about playing soccer. Now I enjoyed reading and chatting with friends on the internet and sometimes gardening with my wife.
What do you do in the USDA Forest Service and when did you start working here?
I study the water cycles that begin from raindrops and continue as water flowing through the soil and forests all the way to rivers. I started working for the Forest Service in February 1997 right after I got my doctoral degree and postdoc training from the University of Florida. I became a federal scientist officially in 2003 when I got my U.S. citizenship. I was on a fast track in getting my green card and citizenship due to my advanced education in forestry.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My work involves synthesizing all kinds of experimental data collected across the U.S. and internationally. I used to work in the field, especially in swampy wetlands, a lot, but now I work in the office most of the time using computers to develop programs and analyze large quantities of data. My favorite part of the job is having the rare opportunity to travel around the country and the world studying different ecosystems and meeting many interesting people. With this global perspective, I appreciate what I have.
How has your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?
Even before I came to the U.S. for graduate studies, I was familiar with the forest hydrology work conducted by the agency’s Southern Research Station. Studying in the University of Florida was an eye-opening experience that prepared me well for working on regional hydrology in the Southeast.
Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.
Recently, we completed a project funded by the interagency Joint Fire Science program. We studied how historic large wildland fires affect streamflow and water supply across the U.S. We found that the watershed responses to wildland fires vary a lot as result of differences in climate and watershed conditions and the severity of fires.
Why do you think your field is important?
Water is life, and water shortages are occurring everywhere. Forests provide the best water on Earth. Understanding forest–water interactions, or forest hydrology, is critical to forest management and ensuring that people continue to have access to water.
What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
Water is becoming a rare resource in many regions due to changing climate conditions and increasing human water needs. How do we provide clean and abundant water for people today and in the future while not harming the environment? This is a grand challenge facing our society. In my research field, the challenge is understanding the interactions of multiple factors influencing forest water supply and projecting to the future so we can be better prepared.
What are some of the most promising strategies being used by the USDA Forest Service to address these challenges?
We are the leaders in forest hydrology research and world’s largest leading agency in using nature, i.e. forests, to protect water resources. Some of the strategies that the agency is using to address anticipated future water shortages include watershed restoration that make watersheds more resilient to disturbances, forest planning with consideration of future climate change and the implementation of forest best management practices.
How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the USDA Forest Service?
I would like the public to see that our work is relevant to their wellbeing, such as improving water and air quality and providing outdoor recreation opportunities. Every American deserves clean air and water. Clean air and water is priceless. We work hard to discover new science and develop technology to protect our nation’s air and water.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a USDA Forest Service employee?
This is a special place with a tradition of family-oriented culture. We take care of each other. The main advantage of working as a scientist with Forest Service is the access to facilities with long history and long term data records. Some of today’s experimental stations were established in the 1930s and have been continuously collecting all kinds of data.