By his own admission, Nicholas Sutfin was not one of the best high school students.
“I wasn’t really focused, and college wasn’t on my radar,” he says.
After graduation, with no set career plan, he took jobs in fast food, as a furniture delivery person and as a landscaper.
“And then I got bored,” says Sutfin, who grew up in Lorain and Vermilion. “My girlfriend at the time was attending Lorain County Community College, so I decided to take a class. The flexibility of scheduling and evening classes helped open the doors to see what was possible.”
In addition to being affordable, LCCC gave him exposure to a wide variety of topics.
“It helped me learn more about the world and subjects I might otherwise have never thought about,” says the Ph.D. in earth science – fluvial geomorphology. “It showed me connections between what I had experienced so far, including interactions with nature, and provided the opportunity to seek out more knowledge.”
He says his LCCC courses also taught him to make connections between disparate subjects.
“I was taking a physical science class and we were learning about sound waves,” he says. “At the same time, I was taking a foundations of music course and learning about harmonies. That allowed me to make the connection between the science of sound waves and harmony, and I thought that was really cool.”
Sutfin graduated from LCCC with an associate degree in universal arts, then backpacked through Eastern Europe. When he got back, he enrolled at Cleveland State University, where a class in geology pointed his career in a new direction.
“At the end of the semester, they asked me to be a teaching assistant in that course,” he says. “I really liked it and added it as a major with studio art photography. That helped me maintain a balance with creativity and analytical thought and science — and that started at LCCC.”
Sutfin transferred to Boise State University and worked in landscaping until his adviser offered him a position gathering data for geographic information systems. That led to more research opportunities, and a scholarship that came with a monthly stipend, allowing him to focus on his studies.
“Cutting ties to what I thought I needed to do to pay my bills and deciding to work to gain experience doing what I want to do, was an important determining factor in my career,” says Sutfin, who earned his bachelor of science degree in geosciences – hydrology in 2010.
At Colorado State University, a fellowship allowed him to explore the intersections of his interests, integrating his love of photography by documenting landscapes and incorporating music to communicate science through song in presentations. He earned his master of science in geosciences – geomorphology, in 2013, and his Ph.D. in earth science – fluvial geomorphology in 2016.
“I study how rivers influence the landscape and support healthy ecosystems as the foundation for our societies,” he says.
That career choice was in part influenced by LCCC faculty, who Sutfin says were the best he had at any of the institutions he studied at. In particular, he cites a professor from Africa, who’s no longer with the college.
“She still impacts me now with how she talked about the difference in water use practices around the world and how much water we use in the U.S.,” he says. “That really had an impact on me, and now I study water and water resources and teach my own students about water use.”
The next chapter
Sutfin was conducting postdoctoral research at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico when he began volunteering with organizations that engage young teenagers with opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
“I have an affinity to reach and inspire underrepresented groups so we can bring more diversity into this field,” Sutfin says. “Most of my mentors have been women, which is not the norm in my field, so it highlights the importance of reaching out to provide opportunities and inspirational mentorship. That’s important because, for me, the mentorship of the instructors and professors at LCCC, and their enthusiasm, definitely made a big difference in my life.”
Currently a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, Sutfin sees unlimited possibilities ahead as the result of the foundation LCCC laid for his career.
“LCCC is a road that can take you so many different places and so many different intersections in your future,” Sutfin says. “But you have to choose to drive. You can either fall asleep at the wheel and let life pass by, or you can fully engage, take the wheel and steer your future in any direction you want. LCCC can help you determine where you go, instead of just ending up somewhere.”