Sean Reilly, a student of Hari Mix, overlooks the Owens Valley from Mount Whitney in California. (Photo courtesy of Hari Mix)
A calling from the mountains
With a career that balances mountaineering, teaching, and research, Hari Mix uses his background in Earth systems and geology to reconstruct past climates, examine mechanisms producing extreme precipitation, and teach the next generation of students about the planet.
As an undergraduate at Stanford, Hari Mix channeled his energy into becoming a track star, waking before dawn to train for a professional career with sponsorships.
But graduate school at the same university was quite different. He pursued geological sciences because of its disciplinary depth and a youthful fascination with mountain landscapes. That led to research projects on the formation of the Rockies, ancient temperatures in the American West, and the impact of grasslands on the hydrologic cycle in the past 65 million years.
Today, Mix, Environmental Earth System Science PhD ’14, is an academic: an assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences at Santa Clara University, where he teaches 40 students about the Earth and how it works in Intro to the Earth Systems, along with courses such as Sustainable Living Project and Climate Change: Past to Future.
His research focuses on how atmospheric rivers produce such large amounts of precipitation.
“We’re currently getting the forecasts wrong a lot,” said Mix, who hopes his research will inform the development of better freshwater storage for the American West. “We’re predicting a flood on the wrong river, or we’re not getting the water resources in terms of Sierra snowpack that we need for the thirsty cities of the Bay Area and the LA area.”
Blown away by a sense of scale
While Mix didn’t always have a clear career path, his childhood family road trips to the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado sparked a deep curiosity for the Earth sciences and how things worked on large spatial and temporal scales spanning millions of years.
“The mountains make me feel very small, and thinking about the Earth sciences, it’s hard not to get blown away by the sense of scale,” Mix said.
That awe eventually led him to major in Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford and then pursue a PhD in Earth System Science. “There was technically a gap between the end of my PhD and my start date at Santa Clara, but I never really stopped at all. I’ve always just had my breaks in the mountains, and then when I’m down here I’m working on something.”
Those mountain breaks have taken him all over the world, from Pakistan to Bolivia, Canada, and Nepal – often participating in the sport of “alpinism,” the light and fast ascents of the world’s tallest peaks. That has included summiting the three highest 23,000ft+ peaks in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, an aborted partial ascent of Mount Everest due to an avalanche, and climbing the 12th and 13th tallest mountains in the world without supplemental oxygen.
Learning to balance academics and his personal life have been critical to Mix’s career development. He was very focused on high performance early in life, becoming valedictorian of his high school.
For me, it’s important to get away from the American rhythm of everything being on demand.
Although he brought dedication to his studies, his college years were not always smooth sailing. There were times in which he struggled with his mental health, making it difficult to balance school with the rest of his life, he said. He found support from his friendships and undergraduate advisor, Anne Egger (now on the faculty at Central Washington University), who always found a way to make time for him.
“I would just drop in on her office and we’d have these long talks,” Mix said. “She was always very, very gracious with her time.”
The process helped him find a stability. He made a deal with himself to not care about his GPA, for example, and thinks he did a pretty good job of holding himself to it.
“The imposter syndrome really showed up in graduate school,” Mix said. “It’s so easy to be intimidated around research because it’s so hard, and also teaching, because you can always do better. You really can… I have to kind of cut myself some slack sometimes.”
Running or research?
Mix first arrived at Stanford with the help of an athletic scholarship – and a future as a professional athlete was nearly a reality. After receiving less money than expected from his athletic scholarships, he considered a coterminal master’s. But after his research advisor, Page Chamberlain, encouraged him to pursue a PhD, Mix seized the opportunity to further his interests in geology.
“I never thought that I was actually going to do a PhD – the whole thing happened in two weeks,” he said. “I got really nervous, because I thought, ‘Man, this is a huge decision, isn’t it?’… but I don’t regret anything.”
Building a portfolio
Through his PhD program, Mix dove deeper into geochemistry by exploring when and how the Rockies in the American West came to be. A second research project involved using stable isotopes to observe how grasslands altered local hydrologic cycles in order to promote their own expansions. For his final investigation, he combined oxygen and hydrogen isotopes from clay minerals in order to construct ancient temperature records.
“I think the type of fieldwork we do in this branch of geochemistry is great, because it’s not so intensive as, say, structural geology like geologic mapping or a number of other fields. You’re basically going out, interpreting maps and figures, collecting samples, and things like that.”
As the program progressed, Chamberlain became less and less involved in each project in order to let Mix grow as a student and as a researcher. The breadth of topics Mix pursued formed a foundation of knowledge he would later bring to his own research lab.
“Stanford taught me how to think, and especially my advisor, Page Chamberlain, taught me how to go about asking a good scientific question, and how to evaluate it,” he said.
It was also during this time that Mix learned the basics of mentorship by becoming a teaching assistant for Chamberlain. As Mix began looking for future careers, he wanted to continue teaching and researching. After seeing a job posting for an assistant professor position at Santa Clara University, he immediately jumped on the opportunity.Mix brings the skills he learned with Chamberlain to his role as a teacher and a mentor today, striving to support each of his 40 students at Santa Clara University and to pass down the same attention and kindness that his mentors gave him.
Developing new skills
Whether by lecturing, mentoring, or running his hydrology lab, Mix finds inspiration through interacting with his students.
But being both an assistant professor and a lab manager means one of the most important qualities to have in this position is time good management, he said.
His position requires 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research, and 20 percent service, which includes participation in university committees, professional meetings, and other administrative tasks. His teaching schedule is usually composed of a lecture course with two accompanying lab sections.
As much as he enjoys spending time with his students and running his lab, Mix admits some parts of his position are less thrilling – like the email load and many meetings he’s required to attend, he said.
“You don’t get the same number or size of uninterrupted blocks to do research as in graduate school, but you still have to find a way to be productive, so it’s a different skill set. It’s something I’ve had to learn on the fly here versus from my training.”
The academic lifestyle
His tasks are also subject to change based on institutional needs, fieldwork opportunities, journal submission deadlines, and more. “It’s very episodic, especially research,” he said. “Three weeks could be all about one thing, and then it’ll totally change.”
In order to prevent burnout, Mix always turns to the mountains to recharge. “For me, it’s important to get away from the American rhythm of everything being on demand, everything being high-speed Wi-Fi,” he said. “I try to do one big trip a year. Academia is the kind of a job that affords that lifestyle.”
Up at 26,000 feet with little sleep, water, or oxygen, the mountain-climbing experience offers an unparalleled perspective on the rest of the world, Mix reflected. “It gives you a whole renewed sense of how good it is down here. But still, I absolutely love the mountains.”
For his next adventure, Mix plans to climb various unexplored mountains in India.