Grad Student Spotlight: Matt Norton

While Michelle Trudeau has been on maternity leave this quarter, we’ve had a few friends helping out Amanda Davis and Lisa Nordlund in the Office of Student and Academic Services. One of the cheerful folks you’ve probably seen, whether in person or as a name in your inbox, is Matt Norton, who began his master’s program at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) this past fall. We’ve been hearing a few tantalizing rumors of his past exploits—from driving airboats to having a day named after him in Florida’s Volusia County (February 8, 2001)—so we sat down with him last week to learn a little more of his story!

Matt Norton

Matt Norton steers through the Everglades on an airboat.

Turns out the rumors are true, though Norton is exceedingly modest when relating the colorful experiences that brought him to SEFS. A six-generation Floridian from Ormond Beach, he moved to Seattle in 2012 when his wife Claire was placed in the Pathology Residency Program here at the University of Washington. He’s enjoyed the cross-country transition so far, especially getting to explore all the parks and mountains nearby. Plus, the cool, wet climate has been an enormous relief from those sweat-soaked days in Florida. “One thing I guess I didn’t inherit from my great-grandfather is that I still overheat!”

Back home as an undergrad at the New College of Florida, Norton majored in environmental studies. Some of his course work and research involved canopy ecology, and spring ecology and eutrophication of Florida’s spring systems. For his thesis he focused on beach sedimentology—specifically, looking at beach nourishment (adding sand to eroding shores), policies and practices surrounding it, and how it relates to sediment dynamics.

After school, from 2009 to 2012 he worked as a lab and field technician, and later became a project manager, under Dr. Todd Osborne in the Soil and Water Science department at the University of Florida. He helped to conduct and managed research on a number of projects: several investigating the soils and ecology of the Everglades, one involving restoration work in the Kissimmee River basin, and three others looking at various species of clams and their preference for soils in Cedar Key, Fla.

Part of Norton’s job was guiding students out to study sites in the Everglades by airboat (also known as a fanboat). “You can go over anything,” he says. “It’s got Kevlar® on the bottom and a 550-horsepower engine, so you can run it anywhere, even on dry land.”

Matt Norton

Navigation can be tricky in some parts of the Everglades, where the grass goes on forever and can get up to 15 feet high.

Yet aside from enabling you to access remote reaches of the expansive Everglades—and scaring away gators—airboats are also “hellishly” loud and dangerous. From the risk of your engine blowing up to breaking down in 115-degree heat to getting lost in the endless sea of grass, tree islands and gator holes, Norton has more than a few harrowing tales from his time as an airboat pilot. So for all the fun memories of cruising through beautiful waterways and seeing all sorts of wildlife, he wasn’t terribly sad to leave that task behind when he moved to Seattle.

He spent his first spring here volunteering and later working as a surveyor with the digital mapping project at the Washington Park Arboretum. Norton spent some of that time, as well, researching possible graduate programs. “I really want to do something related to being outside and trying to help the environment in some way,” he says. And since his wife’s work as a pathologist will keep them fairly close to a larger city, Norton started thinking how he could apply his experience with restoration ecology and soil science in an urban setting.

Norton’s search quickly led him to SEFS, where he’s now working with Professor Darlene Zabowski. He’s currently studying stump decomposition and creating a model for carbon related to tree farms and biofuels with Erin Burt under Professor Rob Harrison, and he has a separate project involving restoration work in Magnuson Park.

He’s had a hand in a great many other projects along the way, too, from his days as an Eagle Scout to interning at a nuke site, but we don’t want to spoil all of his stories. So stop into the advising office sometime to introduce yourself and learn a little more about Norton!

Photos of Norton on the airboat © Ben Loughran; photo of Norton in the grass © Justin Vogel.

Matt Norton