Friday, May 15, 2015

2015 Undergraduate Research Day at UW

On May 2, Wyoming EPSCoR co-sponsored the sixteenth annual Undergraduate Research Day at the University of Wyoming. The conference was designed to showcase student research, provide an opportunity for undergrads to practice public speaking skills, and develop the research interests that will inspire future STEM-related careers.  Students presented research in a wide variety of areas including engineering, agriculture, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. 
Presenter Blake A. Balzan,
from the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management

I spoke with Beth Cable, an Education, Outreach and Diversity Coordinator at EPSCoR and one of the organizers of this year’s event.  She was impressed by the passion students demonstrated towards their work: “Building a presentation about what interests you – what lightbulb went off – I think that’s what engages the audience.” 

Presenters offered many creative projects, from an examination of “LGBTQ Identity and Romantic Relationships in Glee,” to an exploration of the impact of diet on Alzheimer’s disease.  

Wyoming earth science and hydrology also made a strong showing, with presentations on fauna in Yellowstone, Wyoming river ecology, and a geological analysis of Wyoming’s Granite Mountains. 

I asked Beth if she has any advice for students who want to showcase their research in 2016.  She emphasized the importance of following directions during the registration process.  Careful work makes you seem responsible, and it helps you practice for more rigorous conference and journal submissions down the road.  As Beth pointed out, “professionalism goes a long way.” 

It’s also important to provide organizers with a clear, concise abstract.  The abstract is your “elevator pitch” to your audience, the preview that appears on conference schedules and websites.  With that in mind, be as direct and engaging as possible.  Put focus on your research question and offer a “big picture” summary that will resonate with readers outside your discipline.  Most of all, make your audience curious about what you’ve learned. 

Beth said that the students were a very impressive group, and that she was very excited to see the hard work they’d been doing all semester.  She’s looking forward to organizing next year’s conference and reading the next set of proposals from dedicated student researchers. 

Gregory Galli, from the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, with Dr. Suki Smaglik,
Professor of Chemistry and Geology at Central Wyoming College
EPSCoR would like to thank the students and faculty who made this year’s Undergraduate Research Day a resounding success! ​

Friday, May 1, 2015

Seeing Underground with Geophysics

Being able to “see” underground is the basis for the study of geophysics. Within the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG), geophysics helps scientists understand what is going on underground—making WyCEHG a unique interdisciplinary research center.
Model of seismic refraction datasets, created by Brady Flinchum


Graduate students Ryan Armstrong and Brady Flinchum are part of the Geophysics team at WyCEHG. Ryan is exploring changes that are happening underground in the Snowy Mountain Range in southeast Wyoming, which may be caused by vegetation changes like beetle kill. Brady is gathering information about density and porosity below the surface.

Ryan in the field (photo courtesy of Ryan Armstrong)
In the future, their research can help give WyCEHG a clearer picture of how water travels from the Snowies down into the surrounding areas. 

Ryan is making an underground geologic map of the Snowies using electromagnetic data. He collects data by measuring the speed at which electrical current travel through the ground.

This type of data helps researchers “see” the shape of features on the earth, which in this case it is a mountain. The data can also help researchers understand what the mountain is made of, since different types of rock conduct electricity in different ways.

Geophone (photo courtesy of Brady Flinchum)
While Ryan uses electrical currents to map the ground beneath our feet, Brady uses a technique called seismic refraction which uses vibration to better understand the earth. Brady’s team uses an instrument called a geophone, which is a magnet attached to a spring. When the ground vibrates, the vibration travels through the spring and the magnet. Then the geophone converts the vibration into voltage that can be measured by researchers.

Brady’s team places geophones throughout the area and then hits the ground with a sledgehammer. The geophones measure the speed of the vibrations from the impact.  Vibrations travel at different speeds depending on the density, porosity, and rock type. High velocity translates to more dense rock; low velocity can indicate porous rock like sandstone. These data sets provide cross-sections of the area, allowing Brady to create a three-dimensional image.

Interpreting this data takes careful examination. Geophysicists often see data that can be caused by many different factors.  It can be difficult, for example, to tell underground water and ore apart.  As Ryan says, “We’re seeing many contrasts between different bedrock properties, and we’re trying to tease those differences apart and see how we can use that information.”
Sledgehammer (photo courtesy of Brady Flinchum)

Every researcher involved in watershed modeling also runs into the problem of scale.  For example, the Laramie range dataset shows smaller geological features that might not translate to a larger-scale map.  Something that shows up in one place, like the striking granite hills of Vedauwoo, may not appear a few miles down the road. 

“Big picture” information is a major part of geophysics research, particularly for projects covering a large area.  These different data sets help form a detailed picture of a complex region. As Brady says, “It’s pretty neat because we’re both seeing similar stuff in our data.  Since I cover a smaller area, I’m essentially on one rock type. The weathering process and changes in underground water content are more important than the overall geological structure. Our goal is to use geophysical methods to learn more about the hydrologic and geomorphic processes within a few hundred meters of the surface.”

Brady in the field (photo courtesy of Brady Flinchum)
When asked how he became interested in Earth science, Brady said that a near-drowning experience during a Hawaiian surfing trip introduced him to the grandeur of nature. “I remember getting out of the water and looking at the ocean and thinking, ‘Wow, the Earth is so powerful.’”

His interest in geophysics stems from learning about Wyoming’s role in the water system: “We’re at the headwaters of the Midwest. The snow that falls on these mountains feeds the rivers.” 

Posted by Jess White

Monday, April 20, 2015

How does a journalist tell his story?

Photo of Mark Jenkins courtesy of UW Profiles Page
Start small: this is the advice of Mark Jenkins, National Geographic journalist and adventure writer.  Whether you are a scientist, an essayist, a researcher preparing a presentation, or a hobbyist starting your own blog, this lesson can apply to your work.  Every story starts with a single arresting detail. 

When Jenkins turns in a story, he says, “I have to turn in notes that are this long” – he stretches his arms wide – “to verify everything.”  GPS, weather reports, contacts: every assertion he makes in every article, whether the identity of a contact or the height of a mountain peak, must be independently fact-checked prior to publication.  Jenkins is also a staunch advocate of careful note-taking techniques for any aspiring writer, recommending basic tools like a tape recorder for interviews and a digital camera to document surroundings at every step.

Mark Jenkins has worked as a journalist with National Geographic for nearly thirty years, covering war zones and scenes of natural grandeur all over the world.  In 2012, he climbed Everest with an expedition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent.  His books include A Man’s Life: Dispatches From Dangerous PlacesThe Hard Way: Stories of Danger, Survival, and the Soul of AdventureTo Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger; and Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia.  He is currently on assignment in Iceland. 

Even after gaining this global perspective, he still believes that the best way to captivate readers is to start at ground level.  He finds that the best entry point is the human angle: the person at the center of the story who can bring the story to life.  For example, San Mao, the amputee at the center of Jenkins’ 2009 story about the devastation landmines have caused in Cambodia; or Saulius, the Lithuanian cyclist who led Jenkins’ tour through the Baltic in 1989. 

Mark’s mission, then, is to help bring the world into focus in a few thousand words, so that readers can get a sense of the immediacy of firsthand experience.   His challenge isn’t scaling the mountain, but bringing mountaineering down to human scale. 
Photo from Hang Son Doong Expedition (Property of Mark Jenkins)

Last year, Jenkins traveled to Vietnam to visit Hang Son Doong, “the largest cave on Earth.”  Hang Son Doong, or “Mountain River Cave” is part of a network of largely unexplored caverns that extend through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park near the border with Laos.  The expedition was the first to attempt a descent into this cave, which Jenkins describes as gigantic.  Jenkins gave a talk on the expedition at the University of Wyoming on February 10 of this year, emphasizing the awe-inspiring scale and impenetrable darkness of Hang Son Doong’s interior.

National Geographic is not Jenkins' only outlet; he has also published stories in OutsideMen’s Health, and Time.  National Geographic is perhaps the most prestigious travel magazine in the US, and Mark has a great deal to say about its high standards for submission and publication.  

Conscientious research and editing is part and parcel of adventure and travel writing – as he says, “You must love writing more than you love travel.”  ​

Friday, April 17, 2015

Update: Science Café was a Big Hit!

The Science Café was a great success! This event was the conclusion of a 5-week workshop on effective communication in the STEM fields. Workshop participants learned to engage a popular audience with captivating presentations on current research.
Willow Belden introducing the event

The audience ranked their favorite speeches based on unique material, presentation style and effective delivery. After presenting her research on Agent Orange, Diem Thu Pham was chosen by the audience as the most outstanding speaker of the Science Café. Braden Godwin won second place for his research on river otters.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Science Café Thursday!

Come to Altitude Chophouse and Brewery Thursday April 16th at 5:30 for our Science Café!  

Brian Barber calls the Science Café “bite-size science.”  The culmination of a five-week workshop, the event is a joint effort between UW’s Biodiversity Institute and Wyoming EPSCoR with additional support from the UW Botany Department, Program in Ecology, the Haub School, and the Zoology Department.  

Barber partnered with journalist, Willow Belden, who is working with the students and early-career scientists to communicate with the public.  As Barber says, “It’s an opportunity for scientists to step out of their world and talk to the public.”

Workshop participants started with a basic elevator pitch before progressing to mock media interviews.  Participants are “all across the board” in terms of scientific disciplines – ranging from neuroscience to zoology.  Belden, the host of the Out There podcast and former Wyoming Public Radio reporter, says, “It’s been a good mix.  Even though they’re all scientists, they’re having to work to communicate with each other.”

The tone of the Science Café’s presentations is lighthearted and easy to understand.  Barber prefers the term “interactions.”  As he says, “talks implies that it's a one-way communication.”  More interactive than a lecture, the Café is a chance for scientists to present their world to the public in an accessible format. 

The 5-week class series leading the Science Café was inspired by Belden’s work as a journalist for Wyoming Public Radio.  (Belden is currently host and executive producer for the Out There podcast.) She enjoyed interviewing scientists on the air but found that they were often “speaking different languages,” and that jargon made it difficult to put together dynamic stories about current research.  “I did a little research, and I could only find a handful of universities that offer classes like this - although there may be more informal workshops and seminars.”

Belden hopes to design a longer course with more focus on presentations.  An expanded curriculum could include written work, like a blog entry or editorial, and incorporate guest speakers.  As a journalist, she sees a strong need for researchers to openly discuss science and public policy. 

Both Belden and Barber are confident that these workshops have a broad appeal, and that they are an important part of science education.  As Belden says, “There some scientists that are naturally good at talking, but for everyone else these are skills that can be learned.”

Posted by Jess White.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Even the Rain at the Shepard Symposium: Water Wars and Social Justice

“Mark Twain once said, ‘whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’,” Interim Latina/o Studies Director, Jacqueline “J.J.” Shinker, said after last Tuesday’s screening of Even the Rain at the Berry Center Auditorium.

Even the Rain is a feature-length drama portraying a group of Bolivian film extras who launch a protest against the privatization of their water supply, a struggle echoing the Spanish conquest and exploitation of the New World.

After the film, J.J. led a discussion about the Bolivian water wars and their relevance in the United States. J.J. believes that the current drought in California foreshadows the likely future of water resources. “There are many houses in California that currently do not have water because of the drought,” she said. “This is a big issue that we are facing, in the past, and in the future.”
Jacqueline "J.J." Shinker leading discussion after the film.

The movies shown this semester by the Latina/o Studies Department have touched on many relevant and timeless topics – politics, education, culture, the environment, and access to natural resources.

The screening of Even the Rain was orchestrated by the Latina/o Studies Department, M.A.S.S. Club, and M.E.Ch.A. as part of the 2015 Shepard Symposium on Social Justice. During the discussion that followed the screening, students said that they found the film to be “intense” and “powerful” because it hit so close to home.

“Something we all have in common in this room is that we all need fresh water to survive,” said J.J., “And this makes it worth fighting for.”

Posted by Meghan Neville.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Translating Snow Patterns into Water Science

Dr. Kevin Hyde, a researcher in the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG), is conducting a snow survey high in the Snowy Mountains.  The survey will map snowfall in an area located within the Medicine Bow National Forest to answer questions about how snow melts and then moves through the environment to become stream flow. 

A key component of the study is to better understand how the pine beetle epidemic has changed the environment.  Pine beetles are a natural part of the forest ecosystem, but periodically climate conditions will favor an outbreak.  While extended cold weather kills the beetles, drought makes trees less resistant, so warm winters contribute to epidemics.

A topographical map of the snow survey terrain.
Pine beetles, like many species of bark beetle, carry a deadly fungus that disrupts a tree’s ability to consume water by blocking its ‘pores’ and clogging its ‘veins.’  Trees are ‘water drinkers,’ pulling water from the soil. The fungus prevents water from moving through the tree, and thereby kills it. The study will analyze how changes to the forest due to tree die-off impact snow distribution.

Needles and leaves on trees make up the canopy of a forest and intercept snow and rain before it hits the ground.  Fewer trees could mean more snow and rain will reach the ground; potentially providing more water in the soil, but there are some complications to consider.  With fewer pine trees,  snow can be more exposed to wind and sun.  This speeds up a process called sublimation, which is when the snow turns to gas and water vapor and ice crystals and blows away. 

The snow survey expedition heads out on April 11, with five groups of four surveying 21 sites in all.  To select sites, Hyde said they, “set up a grid system and ended up with 21 cells in the grid.  Then we randomly chose a point in each square where the survey would be made.”  This way of selecting sites is called a stratified random process, and it allows researchers to have a manageable study area while still looking at a variety of conditions.

Ranjan Shamila, undergraduate research assistant, 
and Ian Hyde (Kevin’s son), WyCEHG field technician, 
at Chimney Park.
Once the group arrives at their destination, they split into two teams.  One team measures the depth of the snow, and the other team digs a snow pit down to the soil and takes snow samples at every ten centimeters of depth.  In addition, they will measure water density in each sample, and study the layering of the snowpack, which gives information about changes in the snowpack over time and temperature. Other members of the WyCEHG team will test for naturally-occurring isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen to better understand how water travels within an environment.

Hyde is looking forward to the expedition, and to having the chance to share information about the life of the mountainside ecosystem.  “I am keenly interested in being a science translator and telling the story.  I have a service obligation to explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”