Alumnus Makes a Name for Himself as “Dr. Beach”

July 1, 2009
By magintern
Hanalei Beach

Hawaii's Hanaeli Beach

Each summer (for the past 18 years)  “Dr. Beach” releases his annual list of the Top 10 beaches in the U.S. and national news outlet such as The Los Angeles Times report on it. Who’s “Dr. Beach”? Stephen Leatherman ’70,  a professor of environmental science at Florida International University. And how big of a deal is the list? Well, The Tampa Tribune claims it’s “to a sea-shore what the Oscar is to actors and movies.” This year top honors went to Hanalei Beach in Hawaii, and North Carolina’s own Cape Hatteras ranked seventh.

NC State magazine profiled Leatherman in our 2007 issue; in that story we explain how Leatherman became known as “Dr. Beach” and why The New York Times once described him as “Jimmy Buffett meets Carl Sagan.” A preview is below, and the rest of the profile is after the jump.

Even Oprah Winfrey envies Stephen Leatherman ’70. She called his job one of the world’s best when he appeared on her show in 1996. “Dr. Beach,” his nickname propagated by the likes of The New York Times, explains why.

Dr. Beach

By Erin Welch ’07

Even Oprah Winfrey envies Stephen Leatherman ’70. She called his job one of the world’s best when he appeared on her show in 1996. “Dr. Beach,” his nickname propagated by the likes of The New York Times, explains why.

A professor of environmental science at Florida International University, Leatherman has visited all 650 public beaches in the U.S. to study erosion. He’s helped TV producers create special effects like rip currents, historians find Revolutionary War artifacts along the coast and billionaires pick islands to purchase. He’s authored more than 200 scientific articles and testified 10 times before Congress. And for the past 16 years, as director of the Institute for Coastal Research, he’s released an annual list of America’s best beaches that’s reported by major news outlets such as The Washington Post and NBC’s Today Show.

All this led The New York Times, in a 1998 profile of Leatherman, to write: “[His] nice-work-if-you-can-get-it lifestyle seems like an inspiration, sort of Jimmy Buffett meets Carl Sagan. But rather than fiction, Dr. Leatherman is an example of how a few media-savvy scholars transform themselves from mere toilers in arcane academic groves to mini-celebrities.”

How did that happen? It began when he was a child growing up in Charlotte. Because he loved to play in the dirt, his parents had a dump-truck load of sand delivered to their back yard. “I had the biggest sandbox in Charlotte,” he says. But when he was 8 and saw the beach for the first time, his eyes became “as big as saucers,” he says. It was the biggest sandbox he’d ever seen, and he was hooked.

That passion eventually led him to the University of Virginia, where he earned a doctorate in environmental studies in 1976, and later to the University of Maryland. There, he pioneered metric mapping—a computer technique that measures shoreline changes—and became one of the first coastal scientists to explore the relationships among rising water levels, increased beach erosion and global warming. It was also there, in the mid-1980s, when a student taking his course, Coastal Environments: Or Beaches I Know and Love, called him “Dr. Beach.” The nickname spread on campus after a local reporter attended the class, which had more than 270 students, and repeated it in an article.

Then in 1989, Conde Nast Traveler magazine asked him to compile a list of the best beaches in the U.S. He named the first 10 that came to mind. Coastal communities and tourist groups swamped him with inquiries about his choices. “All of this hoopla made me think about how seriously Americans take ratings,” he writes in his book America’s Best Beaches. “We rate everything from hotels and restaurants to graduate programs. Why not beaches?”

Over the next two years, he developed 50 criteria such as sand softness, water temperature and tourist visits to evaluate public beaches in the U.S. Then, he ranked them in a list, slapped his nickname on it and released it to the media as “America’s Best Beaches.” Today, in conjunction with his research on beach erosion, he visits 100 beaches each year. Local experts keep him updated about the others. Every Memorial Day weekend, major newspapers publish it, and he makes the rounds on TV news shows. The Tampa Tribune declared in 2000 that Leatherman’s list has become “to a sea-shore what the Oscar is to actors and movies.”

But for Leatherman, the beach listing is “the icing on the cake.”

“The cake is all the science I do,” he says. That research includes his work as director of the International Hurricane Research Center, where he leads a team that has simulated a Category 3 storm’s effects on a house. Its two-fan “wall of wind” testing apparatus can produce gusts up to 120 mph and as much as 100 gallons of water per minute.

“I’m a serious scientist,” he says, “but I like to reach out[and] to make science understandable to the public, and for them to appreciate what we’re doing.”

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user fortes)

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