The Routine of a Hydrologist: Diogo Bolster

Author: Brandi Wampler and Diogo Bolster

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Diogo Bolster is a self-described “extroverted geek, who gets excited about everything and anything that has to do with science.” He uses his passion for teaching every day as a professor in Notre Dame’s College of Engineering and is the newly appointed Henry Massman Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. 

Bolster’s research program centers around developing and using mathematical models to broadly understand the environment, including flow and transport in streams, rivers, and aquifers as well as other flows of environmental interest. He is also the assistant director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, where he directs the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility (ND-LEEF). Learn more about Diogo and how he manages his day, including his administrative roles, classes, and research group, while also finding time for family, exercise, and more.

Wake Up and Work Out

I get up at 4:30 a.m. and read the news, address any urgent emails (typically from collaborators abroad), and go to the gym from 5:15 - 6:30 a.m. for Spinning, HIIT, and some core strength training classes depending on the day of the week. My daily workout is essential to my energy and well-being. Days where I do not exercise are notably ‘grumpier.’ 

Once I get back from the gym, I wake my kids up, have breakfast with them. Then my wife and I along with our dog walk my daughter to school. After that, we walk a little more together, which is a good time to catch up on everything going on at home that day.

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Diogo Bolster and his family on a hike.

The Daily Commute

Before I get to campus, I listen to NPR – I feel like I need to know what is going on in the world. I try to avoid having anything before 9 a.m. as an actual meeting time so that I can come in and prepare for my day. Then I can quickly go over my schedule, clear emails, and read any notes I have to go over for classes or meetings that day. To prepare for class, I try to walk around in my office and jump up and down a little to get my energy flowing.

Joy in Teaching

Even on days when I am in a bad mood, nothing energizes me more than giving a lecture to our students. I come out of class on an adrenaline high and I really love interacting with the students one on one. Most jobs do not allow you to be in a young and thriving environment every day – where better than a university in that regard?

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Diogo teaching an undergraduate engineering class.

On Pursuing Teaching

I was always the student at university who enjoyed the parts of the lectures others did not (e.g. the derivations in engineering classes). I loved thinking about why things are the way they are. However, when I finished my undergrad degree I was exhausted and did not want to go straight to grad school. During that time I worked several jobs, including as an engineer in a large company. While the work itself was interesting it was not satisfying to me that I was simply working on projects and not able to pursue my own curiosities or interests. This is when I knew I had to go to grad school. 

In grad school, as most Ph.D. students do, I questioned my abilities to actually succeed in academia, but by the end of my third year, it was pretty clear that this was the path for me. I was lucky to have some great teaching opportunities, including for small (10 people) and large (350 students) classes that verified that I love to teach.

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Breaking Lunchtime Habits

It varies from lunch brought from home, something premade from Costco (Madras lentils and Pho being on top of my office fridge right now), or something on campus. Sometimes I forget to eat altogether (correlated with grumpier days – or so my wife tells me). I miss the culture I experienced in Spain as a postdoc and on sabbatical where lunch every day was a shared experience between colleagues, not a quick meal at the computer. One thing I am trying to change as department chair is to have more lunches with colleagues that may or may not involve work.

Research Time

Roughly 40-50% of my time relates to research, mostly revolving around meetings with my students and with my collaborators. It revolves around developing mathematical models and writing codes to solve them. This is why I try to make sure that I code and derive regularly because like all skills in life it fades if you do not practice and stay sharp. It is also essential that I work with experimental colleagues who gather the data that we then model. So I depend heavily on these people, their groups, and wonderful facilities, such as ND-LEEF, which has been an amazing site for producing the kind of data we need.

Tuning the Engine

My students and postdocs are the engines of my work. The vast majority of the actual work and implementation of my work is done by them. I spend time trying to teach them what I know and then present them with my ideas as well as teach them to develop their own. But without them my productivity would be a fraction of what it currently is and I am fortunate to have a great group of students and an energetic and engaged group.

Laid Back Lab Meeting

I enjoy my weekly research group meeting, which I share with two other professors in my department, David Richter and Paola Crippa (RBC as we call it – and we have the swag and logo to stand by that). It’s a time where I enjoy interacting with my students as well as those from my colleagues’ groups. I enjoy hearing about everyone’s research and trying to give feedback. We also tend to start and end with quite a bit of humor and laughter, which is key for me.

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Lab group swag (left) and Team Bolster (right)

Becoming a Researcher

My first experiences with research were difficult because they taught me that there was an awful lot I had no idea about – including how to design an interesting question and then actually answer it. But with the help of some great mentors (I was fortunate to have several) I got over this. Once I learned how to do research, it all sort of took off. My postdoc experience in Barcelona was also a critical part of it, where great mentors allowed me to be involved in many projects, including in the direct supervision of graduate students that made the transition to being a professor much easier.

Staying Organized

As semesters progress, there is definitely that feeling that you are in a pool sinking and wishing for fresh air; reprieves like Fall and Spring Breaks help a lot in terms of catching up. Keeping a list of things to be done is important (I have a whiteboard) and defining them as urgent/important and then laying out timelines is essential for me. While I don’t like to do things last minute, having a sense of when they need to be done by and mapping out the time to do them is important.

Biggest Accomplishments

I am immensely proud of having won both the Joyce Award and then the College of Engineering Outstanding Teacher Award a few years ago. The second award in particular is decided entirely by a committee of engineering students and it means a lot to me that they value the effort I put into building personal relationships with them and trying to make everyone in a class as large as 150 students feel engaged.

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Diogo participates in the Zahm Retreat offered by the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

New Challenges

I just started as department chair, so my primary goal is making sure that I learn how to actually do this job well as there are a lot of new things that I have to learn. There are a lot of new challenges that are very different from anything I have ever faced, and while I look forward to trying to solve them, I am also very nervous about it.

Building Boundaries

More so than my career, the advent of children has taught me that I need to draw boundaries between home and work life. Sometimes work has to be done outside regular working hours, but I believe that if you have a focused workday that is efficient you can really enjoy that home time more and be ready for an efficient workday the next day. I will respond to emails and the like, but generally, I consider home a place of rest and relaxation and not a place where I like to work. If I burn the candle on both ends my daytime productivity falls rapidly. 

This was one of the hardest things for me during the pandemic, and as soon as we were allowed to come back to work in person I did. I would rather stay later at my office or come in on a weekend than bring work home.

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Diogo Bolster with his family.

From Professor to Coach

In the Fall, two evenings a week I coach my kids’ soccer teams (A U10 girls team and a U12 boys team). This is one of the best wind-downs after a long day as working with these kids is great fun. It’s extremely rewarding when by the end of a season I see what looks like a well-designed and competitive soccer game on the field (often starting the season with several kids who have never played). Outside of that, it depends on what sports season it is, but I will try to help get and bring kids back – although my wife is the true hero on that front. 

Ending the Day

Sit-down dinner as a family is a must. We have a dinner game called ‘Hi, Low, Funny,’ where everyone tells their high, low, and funny points of the day. I’ve been told by my family that I am not very good at this game… but over the years with practice, I have come to enjoy it more.

After that, it really depends on how late we all got home, which varies a lot depending on sports, dance, and other activities. If there is time, we may play a board game, watch an episode of one of our family TV series, or just hang out a little before bedtime. After the kids go to bed my wife and I try to catch up and I try to get to bed early. Before sleeping I try to read a little, although I genuinely wish I did more of that. Right before I go to sleep I tend to listen to some stand-up comedy audio – although my wife and I have very different tastes there. Laughing hard right before I sleep seems to set the right tone for a restful night.

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This story is a part of the “Routine of a Researcher'' story series from Notre Dame Research, which highlights faculty at the University of Notre Dame and their day-to-day activities on and off-campus. The goal is to showcase both the nitty-gritty of a faculty member’s unique schedule and provide supportive examples of how they balance the many competing priorities of work and personal needs. If you are a Notre Dame faculty member who is interested in being featured, please contact Joanne Fahey, Director of Communications, at fahey.17@nd.edu