Hydrologist Margaret Zimmer wins NSF CAREER Award

Margaret Zimmer posing outdoors in front of trees
Assistant Professor Margaret Zimmer studies the pathways water takes through landscapes.

Margaret Zimmer, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her research on the role of Earth’s subsurface in regulating the water cycle. 

Zimmer’s Watershed Hydrology lab studies the pathways water takes through landscapes, especially the poorly understood subsurface movements of water through soil and bedrock. When rainfall soaks into the ground, it can replenish soil water, recharge groundwater, generate stream flow, and be taken up by plant roots, ultimately returning to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration by plants. Zimmer’s group is interested in how the subsurface structure controls the partitioning of water into these different pathways.

“One of the big unknowns for predicting the effects of climate change on the water cycle is our poor understanding of how water is stored and moved in soil and bedrock,” she said. “Climate scientists are predicting more year-to-year variability in precipitation and more extreme weather events, and this has implications for the management of water resources.”

Zimmer’s field site at the UC Blue Oak Ranch Reserve on the west slope of Mt. Hamilton features an extensive array of hydrological instruments her team has installed to monitor water movement. The new grant will help accelerate the research at this site and enable the research group to dig deeper, both metaphorically and literally. 

“Part of this funding will go toward drilling deep bore holes to allow us to peer into the subsurface and see its structure and how it regulates water movement and storage,” she said. 

The grant will also support education and outreach efforts to attract students with diverse backgrounds, ideas, and experiences into the Earth sciences. The program will include developing environmental justice-themed hydrology modules for existing online high school and undergraduate courses that reach more than 500 students annually.

“Understanding subsurface hydrology is critical for developing effective water resource policies and addressing socioeconomic inequalities, and we need to broaden the diversity of people who are involved in this topic,” Zimmer said. 

Zimmer will also partner with local water managers to address the uncertainty in their regional streamflow predictions. The field site forms the headwaters of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves water for about 2 million people in San Jose. 

The CAREER Awards are NSF's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The award provides $587,000 over five years to support Zimmer’s research, education, and outreach activities.

Zimmer earned her B.A. in environmental studies at Oberlin College, M.S. in Earth sciences at Syracuse University, and Ph.D. in Earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. She joined the UCSC faculty in 2018.