Todd Van Natta: Fun and Fulfillment in the Field

Todd Van Natta loves going to work, wherever that happens to be on any given day. As director of field research for the Center for Coastal Solutions (CCS), Todd oversees field work for multiple complex projects in different locations throughout Florida and the Southeast region.  

“I’m the luckiest person in the world, I really feel that way every day I come to work,” said Todd. “I got into fieldwork because I wanted to drive boats, get a sunburn, scuba dive and be outside.”   

At 47, Todd made the decision to go back to college to pursue an undergraduate degree in marine biology at the University of California Santa Cruz to combine his career aspirations with what gives him joy–boating, scuba diving, and being outdoors–activities he now gets to do regularly as part of his job.  (Photo credit: Carola Forlini)   

Todd’s wide-ranging skills, acquired during a career that has taken many twists and turns, make him a unique fit for his role at the center. After a stint in the navy, he worked in construction (hes currently building his own house here in Gainesville), on ranches, at a coastal research lab while a student at the University of California Santa Cruz, and once owned an automobile shop.

Todd and his team of field technicians are integral to the production of high-quality science at CCS. Their work takes them to many different places, from muddy marshes off Sapelo Island, Georgia to coral reefs in the Florida Keys, where they often encounter challenging conditions such as high temperatures and tropical storms, especially in summer when most field work happens. Whatever the weather, the team stays focused on the collection of consistent and repeatable data in support of solid research. 

“Todd cares very much about those he works with and works impressively hard to meet project timelines and keep his team safe,” said Research Coordinator Shannon Myers. “As a new member of the CCS field crew, and continually learning more about how this program developed, I am quite impressed by all that Todd has accomplished during his tenure as CCS field director. And it goes without saying that if not for the incredible synergy between Todd and the passionate PI’s he works for, the infrastructure or success of many of CCS’ projects would not be where it all is today.” 

Wading his way laboriously through the viscous mud, field technician Patrick Norby deploys monitoring instruments at a research site in Cat’s Paw marsh near St. Augustine. Field work requires a high level of attention to detail to track and document how data is collected and the instruments involved. In one study led by UF Professor Alex Sheremet, Ph.D., of the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, the field crew deployed 21 instruments to monitor wave-sediment transport and broader coastal ecosystem dynamics. (Photo credit: Todd Van Natta)   

Todd’s team, all of whom have backgrounds in science and technology, bring a diverse set of technical, problem-solving and observational skills to ensure each project is successfully executed.

“The extensive fieldwork done by Todd and his team backstops dozens of our research projects and is essential to the hands-on training we can offer to our students,” said Christine Angelini, CCS director and associate professor at the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment. “We are so grateful for their incredibly hard work, creative troubleshooting, technical know-how, dedication to safety, and for the spirit of fun and adventure they bring on the road.”

(L to R): PhD student Rizwan Qayyum, Field Technician Patrick Norby and Todd Van Natta in Cat’s Paw marsh, which Todd describes as “quicksand that’s mud.” The mud’s extreme stickiness makes the deployment, movement and retrieval of materials and instruments very challenging. On this trip, the team had a three-and-a-half to four-hour window to complete their work and get out before their boat got stuck in the mud, which would have left them stranded in the marsh for 12 to 24 hours, depending on the tide cycle. (Photo credit: Carola Forlini)

Despite the physical demands and rigorous manual nature of the job, Todd enjoys being outdoors. “The marsh is harsh,” quipped Todd. “I’m toting instruments, dragging things underwater, taking pictures, looking for instruments. But when I stop and breathe, it’s just me and it’s quiet. When I’m underwater, I’m also at peace, and I can’t imagine any other place I’d rather be.”