Thursday, May 5, 2016

Own It! Celebrating UW Women in STEM

To highlight the achievements of women scientists on campus, Wyoming EPSCoR developed the Own It! Awards, a celebration of women researchers in STEM fields at the University of Wyoming. Last night, recipients were honored at a ceremony on campus. This event underlines the importance of visibility in STEM fields for women, highlighting disparities that increase as women complete their studies and enter the job market.

Young scientists in Wyoming were the first to receive Own It! Awards: a group of Girl Scouts in Laramie who participated in a year-long citizen science project with the Biodiversity Institute, collecting data about ecological conditions on the Laramie River.

Girl Scout hydrology researchers receiving their Own It! Award.

Next, audience members saw a multimedia presentation on the Bearded Lady Project by Dr. Ellen Currano, who used false beards to draw attention to a very real gender disparity in paleontology. You can learn more about her project at; a documentary created by Ellen Currano and her creative partners will premiere later this year.

Dr. Cynthia Weinig presented an Undergraduate Own It! Award to Jazzlyn Hall, a double major in anthropology and geography. One of the graduate supervisors who nominated Jazzlyn said of her: “Within less than a year, she has proven herself by leading two research projects in our lab while continuing two other research projects in geography and anthropology departments. She has presented her research at internationally recognized conferences, including the 2015 American Geophysical Conference in San Francisco.” Jazzlyn has also been awarded an NSF award for graduate research when she begins grad school at Columbia next Fall.

Dr. Indy Burke presented the Graduate Own It! Award to Karagh Murphy, who has published in a broad range of techniques including hormone manipulations, brain imaging, and behavior. She is currently the lead investigator for two projects seeking to understand the role of mirror neurons in vocal learning. Karagh has presented research at the international Society for Neuroscience conference, and is currently organizing Wyoming’s first Brain Awareness Week.
Student Own It! Award recipients Karagh Murphy (left) and Jazlynn Hall (right)
Dr. Shawna McBride presented a Staff Own It! Award to Dr. Susan Swapp, a Senior Research Scientist and the Manager of the Materials Characterization Laboratories in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. As Dr. McBride said, “For over 20 years, Dr. Swapp has built one of the best material characteristics labs in the West.” Dr. McBride also highlighted Dr. Swapp’s exceptional mentoring of younger students, so that they can increase their confidence and expertise in using instruments in their research.

Arts & Sciences Dean Paula Lutz presented two Faculty Own It! Awards. The Early Career Own It! Award went to Dr. Melanie Murphy, a faculty member in the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences in the department of Ecosystem Science and Management. Professor Murphy’s nominees described her as “a terrific scientist” and an “outstanding mentor.”

Dr. Cynthia Weinig won this year’s Own It! Award for Tenured Faculty for her work in the Departments of Botany and Molecular Biology. Dr. Weinig is also a member of the leadership team for the UW Science Initiative, part of the team developing the National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant, and is now helping to lead an effort to develop a large institutional grant to better understand Wyoming’s microbiomes. 

Own It! Awards Presentation by Dr. Ellen Currano
All of the presenters acknowledged a spectacular field of nominees, making it difficult to choose just one deserving winner in each category. Presenters also spoke about the value of mentorship in their own careers, and how inspiring it was to see such a vibrant community of women in STEM fields at the University of Wyoming.

Finally, Megan Candelaria of WYSTEM presented an Own It! Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Dolores Cardona, who has worked for decades to improve the UW community by bringing awareness to issues related to race and gender. Dr. Cardona created the Summer Research Apprentice Program (SRAP) thirty years ago, still going strong as a part of EPSCoR’s education and outreach efforts. Dr. Cardona also spearheaded the Women in Math Science Engineering group (WIMSE), a vital professional development resource for young women on campus.

In her closing remarks, Liz Nysson expressed her hope that the Own It! Awards would become a UW tradition: “Wyoming EPSCoR hopes that the Own It! Awards will continue on an annual basis, so that the achievements of UW women researchers in STEM can be celebrated.”

Posted to the UW EPSCoR Blog by Jess White

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Critical Hydrology Research in the Critical Zone

Bryan with the undergraduate research team about to depart for Pennsylvania
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Shuman)

With support from EPSCoR, Paleohydrology Professor Bryan Shuman took four UW undergrads to Pennsylvania this past summer to study the long history of drought in the area. With a study area of hundreds of square miles and timeframe of thousands of years, the team sought to answer questions about the hydrological past and illuminate the future.

Ground-penetrating radar allowed the team to see the ancient shorelines of these lakes, establishing a water record dating back millennia. The team pushed plastic tubing into the lake bed to collect sediment core samples. This technique allows researchers to grab a cross-section of silt layers. 

Undergraduate researchers hard at work collecting samples on the lake
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Shuman)
  As Bryan explains, “Because this is a history of drought in natural reservoirs – when water levels were high, when they were low – we can learn about hydrology and climate change over several timescales.” Lake sediment can also be used to plot forest fires, since researchers can measure fossil charcoal deposits from burned trees. “Everything washes into these lakes over time. They’re like time capsules, big memory cells that record environmental change.”

Why Pennsylvania? Ocean temperatures in the Atlantic influence conditions throughout North America. The Atlantic coastline also boasts several Critical Zone Observatories, which study the interactions between life on the earth’s surface, microbes underground, and water flowing through the ground. These complex processes generate soil, contribute to erosion, and determine what plants grow and which animals survive. The “critical zone” is the zone where this vital interaction between geology, hydrology, and biology takes place.

The EPSCoR grant offers Bryan’s team access to these Critical Zone Observatories, and two of these sites are in Pennsylvania. The team is interested in the role water plays in these interactions, especially as it changes over time. “It’s great to take students out in the field and have them see these things for the first time. Being out in the field is such a different experience from sitting in the classroom. Learning is so much more tangible when you can pull samples out of the ground.” 

Undergraduate research team with core samples
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Shuman)
The team found evidence of drastic rises in Pennsylvania water levels. “The magnitude of that change is kind of equivalent to going from the amount of rain we have on the Great Plans to the amount of water we have on the North Coast right now. Not making it a desert, but in terms of ecosystems and plants, that would be a pretty big shift. If you were to make Pennsylvania like Illinois, that would have a big impact on the water resources that people depend on and the plants they grow.”

So far, the results seem to indicate a large increase of water in the North Atlantic region, a pattern Bryan says is similar to most of the places in the US that he has studied. The pattern extends to Wyoming, which you might be surprised to learn is much soggier than it was a few thousand years ago. “There’s definitely precedent for Wyoming being drier than it is now.” The team confirmed an overall pattern of water increase, but also found evidence of droughts lasting not just a year or two but centuries.

Bryan believes that hydrological history in the state is crucial to awareness of water conditions now and in the future. “Water’s important. We need water, and we don’t know how constant our water supply is. Looking at the past gives us a chance to see how much it can change, and what that means for the land around us.”

Posted to Wyoming EPSCoR by Jess White

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Drawn to Biodiversity" Workshop Combines Observation with Creativity

Bethann sketching in the great outdoors
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Long before iPhones and waterproof cameras, scientists would often sketch their observations of nature. Last Saturday, the UW Biodiversity Institute held a workshop called “Drawn to Biodiversity” in which students received a short course on the use of visual notetaking and observational drawing.

Wyoming EPSCoR was a sponsor of the Drawn to Biodiversity workshop. According to Liz Nysson, Wyoming EPSCoR Coordinator, “It is important to merge art with traditional scientific fields. It allows researchers to observe the world differently, and communicate their discoveries in unique and compelling ways.”

Bethann Garramon Merkle, a graduate student in UW's MFA program, taught the course, which drew on her own experience as a science writer and illustrator. Her writing and illustrations appear in a syndicated column, Drawn to the West, in the Laramie Boomerang, as well as in American Scientist, Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, and EdibleMISSOULA.

Rosehips from Bethann's sketchbook
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016

Bethann is experienced at helping others see the beauty of nature through art. On her website, CommNatural, she offers clients expert assistance with creating and publishing arresting visual and textual material. Her original artwork combines vibrant watercolor with agile pen-and-ink line drawing, a technique that captures the spontaneity and intricacy of the natural world.

Bethann designed the Drawn to Biodiversity workshop to cater to every skill level, since she believes that anyone can draw. “Drawing as we think of it today is based on a set of techniques developed during the Renaissance. These techniques absolutely can be learned, practiced, and improved - by anyone.”

As a sophomore at the University of Montana, Bethann was accepted into the Wilderness and Civilization program, a one-year multidisciplinary minor program where students learn about conservation issues. “Before this program, I was almost entirely unaware of ecology, conservation concerns, and food system issues.” Field journal practice was a major component of the program. “I had taken every science and every art class offered in my small rural high school, but the W&C Program was where I first learned these two disciplines could be complementary.”
Amphibian lore from Bethann's sketchbook
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Bethann’s science illustration relates directly to her science writing. “In a pragmatic sense, drawing compels me to look very closely at a given subject - much more closely than if I only describe that subject in writing. I also have to problem-solve visually, which involves capturing color in a visceral way, drawing and re-drawing a form until I have accurately captured the shape.”

The workshop on Saturday provided students a “toolkit” of basic skills that they could use whenever they had an opportunity to draw from life. Bethann relishes “guiding a scientist” through the creative process of drawing, and giving them the tools to solve problems and see the world in a new way.

In addition to the hands-on workshop, Bethann gave a seminar talk for the UW Department of Zoology and Physiology, “Drawn to Science: Exploring the Historical and Contemporary Synergies between Drawing, Creativity, and Science.” You can listen to a Wyocast recording of the talk here. She is currently working on a project on ecological concepts in Caldecott-Medal-winning children’s books, as well as an adaptation of “The Tortoise and the Hare” with naturalistic illustrations. 

For Bethann herself, art is a meditative experience: “Making art, particularly when I am outside, causes time to warp in a fascinating way…It’s as if there isn’t such a thing as time at all.”

If you are interested in learning how to draw from nature, you can download a field drawing basics guide from her website here.

Drawing Workshop for the Biodiversity Institute in August
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

STEM Summer Programs at UW

Energy Summer Institute students learn about temperature testing
on Prexy's Pasture

The UW campus isn’t just for college students during the summer. From May to July 2016, an estimated 600 middle- and high-school students will come to the University of Wyoming’s Laramie campus from all 23 counties across the state. Summer programs include the Healthcare Careers Summer Camp, Engineering Summer Program, Energy Summer Institute, Summer Research Apprentice Program, Women in Science, Summer High School Institute, Wyoming Energy Camp, and Upward Bound Math & Science. Most programs are offered at little or no cost to participants and serve students entering grades 6-12. 

Activity at a camp in conjunction
with the Teton Science School
Megan Candelaria coordinates a number of STEM programs for Wyoming students at UW through the new WYSTEM program. Megan grew up in Sundance, Wyoming. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Math from UW, and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in Math Education here.

As the WYSTEM coordinator, Megan works to bring together groups on campus and throughout the state who do K-12 outreach, making sure students, parents, and teachers can take advantage of STEM learning opportunities. “Since last year, we’ve generated a list of the summer programs provided by UW. I also work directly with students, and I’m currently working with the Wyoming State Science Fair to provide opportunities for STEM education to all students. We also bring six to eight groups of middle- and high-school students to campus each semester to do STEM activities.”
Students visiting campus for a STEM activity event

A summer program alum herself, Megan describes a thrilling experience: “I attended one of the camps on this list. It’s probably one of the reasons I ended up coming to UW. I was part of the Weather class, and we actually got to go up in the flight research plane for the Atmospheric Sciences Department. We got to sit up front with the pilot and put our hands on the controls. The most excitingly terrifying thing ever!”

These programs are designed to capture student interest in STEM fields, and Megan underlines that this is vital to Wyoming’s future. “Building a STEM pipeline is really important to workforce development. We want to give our students the information and the motivation to continue to learn about STEM careers and hopefully go on to make Wyoming a better place.”
Activity at a camp in conjunction with the Teton Science School

Read on for a list of the diverse programs available at UW this summer:

Program Date
5-Mar:State Math Counts
17-May:Women in Science
July 10-15:Health Careers Summer Camp - 10th/11th grade
July 17-22:Health Careers Summer Camp - 8th/9thth grade
July 24-29  Field Based Environmental Science at Spear-O-Wigwam Mountain Campus
June 12 - 17:Wyoming Energy Camp
June 12 - July 22:WY EPSCoR Summer Research Apprentice Program
June 13-July 21:Upward Bound
June 19 –June 24:Energy Summer Institute
June 19-25:Engineering Summer Program
June 21-23:Wyoming 4-H Showcase Showdown
June 5-25:High School Summer Institute
March 6-8:Wyoming State Science Fair

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Student Researcher Makes Great Strides with WyCEHG

Student Researchers Annette Hein and Nadia Fantello
When Annette Hein was still at Casper College, she won a ten-thousand-dollar prize for her essay on “the origin of complexity in the universe.” Using a honeybee as an example, Annette described the manifold layers of analysis that might go into a complete description of one tiny animal. Nowas an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming, working with Dr. Andy Parsekian in UW’s Geology and Geophysics lab, Annette’s success in science has continued to grow . Last December, Annette gave a presentation on her own research at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco. “It’s an experience not a lot of students get, so I feel very lucky!” 

Dr. Parsekian’s research interest is climate change in arctic climates, and he is currently studying water flow in the Snowy Range. Geophysics research here in Wyoming is helping researchers understand hydrology in cold places. Most people are familiar with medical imaging technology – EKGs, MRIs, ultrasounds and X-rays – that use different kinds of energy to “see under the surface.” Geophysicists can use these same technologies to create images of the earth, but Dr. Parsekian’s team takes pictures of much bigger areas: “We flew a helicopter with a camera attached to it across the Snowy Range to detect water levels.” 
Annette delivering her talk at AGU

Annette was able to look at data collected by graduate students on the geological makeup of the Snowies. “The bedrock there has all these little cracks and fractures in it. Groundwater can be found in those fractures, and sometimes it travels from place to place.” Annette explains that as water moves underground there are a lot of questions about where it might go. “If there’s a lake, it might be sinking into the ground slowly, or getting recharged. I was trying to map out where the groundwater was concentrated and where it wasn’t, so I could see how the groundwater connects to water we can see on the surface.”

Annette was working with resistivity data, which measures the way electricity flows through the ground and uses that information to analyze properties like density and chemical composition. “The basic idea I started with was, ‘If rock is wetter, it ought to be more conductive.’” Soon, Annette found out that interpreting her data would be much more complicated than she thought. “I was surprised by how many different factors you had to think about. You couldn’t just start with the approach of, ‘Oh, this is conductive, it must be wet!’”
Student Researchers Annette Hein, Nadia Fantello,
and Drew Thayer in the field with NMR equipment

Annette was able to use nuclear magnetic resonance sounding (NMR), which can detect groundwater, to check some of her interpretations. “The two sets of data disagreed a lot more than I liked. I felt like I had to be very careful to make sure that any statements I was making actually could be backed up. I learned a lot about making sense of complex datasets, which is kind of the definition of a lot of geophysics. I love figuring things out and bringing things together to make a picture that isn’t obvious when you start out.”

Dr. Parsekian also talked about the importance of Annette’s research to Wyoming. “Seventy percent of our water falls on ten percent of our landscape, and that’s in the form of snow falling on mountaintops. This research is critical to understanding where our water comes from, especially in a headwater state like Wyoming that provides water to so much of the rest of the country. Annette came upon a project that is totally self-directed, which is certainly not typical for undergrads. This is an example of participating in knowledge production very early on.”   

Annette was placed in the lab by Wyoming EPSCoR’s Community College to UW Transition Program, which paid her a stipend. She’s currently working on another paper about a technical issue related to NMR. “Unfortunately, if you try to do the measurements near power lines or generators or anything that produces electromagnetic fields, the instrument picks that up and it will drown out the signal you’re really trying to get. I learned that there are ways to remove the noise from the measurement and get the signal you’re interested in.” This spring, Annette will travel to Denmark to talk to professors at Aarhus University who are also researching these signals.

Dr. Andy Parsekian
Annette’s next step is grad school. “I want to work on water resource issues. I feel like that’s only going to be a bigger issue in the next couple of decades, so hopefully I can make a contribution. It’s great to help give people a more positive attitude towards science and get interested in science. I have friends who say, ‘I could never do that!’ And they’re very smart people, but they just have this view of science as something that they could never be part of. Even if people don’t want to get into the nitty gritty, I hope they feel like science is awesome and exciting and positive.” 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Collaborative study in Chile and the Canary Islands is a perfect example of STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Mathematics

Anaga Rural Park on Tenerife (a "rural park" is a designated protected area)
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

The MFA program at the University of Wyoming offers an Environment and Natural Sciences with a double major with a broad range of courses and independent research options. Jeff Lockwood, the head of the MFA program, is an entomologist; he is happy to give students opportunities to combine creative projects with environmental research, particularly through field work: “The long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship between Creative Writing and ENR has taken many forms, with one of the most fruitful being opportunities for travel.” This December and January, two MFA poets were able to travel abroad for in-depth seminars on hydrology and agriculture.
MFA poet Jeff Tatay and ecologist Lea de Nascimento
of La Laguna University at Anaga National Park
photo credit: Jeff Tatay 

Jeff Tatay, an experimental poet from Indiana, traveled to the Canary Islands to study some of the main environmental and natural resources issues on the Island of Tenerife. The trip, offered through the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, is part of a capstone course in the ENR program. Students worked with research ecologists from the University of La Laguna.

“As a writer and photographer, I was excited to not only fulfill course requirements by engaging in lectures and field observation, but to use my skills as a conservation writer-photographer to document the trip.” Jeff Tatay describes a constant flood of inspiration: “I never went anywhere without my camera, pen, Moleskine notebook and my iPhone to record interviews. I was busy all of the time and loving every minute of it.”
Water pipes carrying water across the village
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Bananas are big business on Tenerife, and the class used an exploration of the banana industry to learn about water management. Banana trees are picky about their water, and the demand for a tasty product limits the ability of growers to take advantage of conservation techniques like water recycling. A banana plant requires about 25 liters of water per day, all of which must be “high-quality:” purified at a water treatment plant or sourced fresh. On Tenerife, the solution has been water mining: using horizontal drilling to tap into water trapped in impermeable pockets in the volcanic crust. This method, Jeff learned, requires a complex system of pipes that are constantly in need of expert maintenance; on the other hand, the mountaintop source means that gravity can deliver water to the sea-level plantations that line the coast. 
Banana-packing plant
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Doug Wachob of the Haub School explained, “This particular trip was conceived by Bill Lowenroth, a botanist who does a lot of teaching at the Haub School, and a colleague of his at La Laguna University on Tenerife Island. Tenerife is a really interesting case study because it has a population of 900,000 residents, but between 2 and 3 million tourists visiting each year. They face water issues, waste management issues, development issues, transportation issues, and policy issues, since Tenerife is part of the Spain and the EU. Students get a firsthand view of all of these issues, and then come home to take a class, the end point of which is a project proposal for the islands. Students get to see how regulation and other factors complicate development projects. I think it’s an extraordinarily cool course.” 

Banana plants
photo credit: Jeff Tatay
Doug also said that the students stayed at La Laguna University and the Mayco English School during the trip. “The class was instructed by four different La Laguna faculty members, each with a special area of expertise: economics, business structure, natural resource use, culture, and policy.” Doug was impressed by the level of instruction: “ We visited parks, sites, forests, desalinization plants, banana packing plans, plantations: a whole suite of these things. The students were highly engaged and got an opportunity to engage with a large number of professionals.”

For Jeff Tatay, the trip was a unique combination of natural beauty and environmental investigation: “Reflecting on the trip, I remember the sea of clouds blowing in with the northeast trade winds, the hundreds of endemic plant species in the Laurel forest and coastal shrub-lands, pilot whales breaching less than a mile off from the black sand beaches, the fascinating people and those unforgettable bananas. I can’t wait to start transcribing my interviews and telling the story.”
The Canary Islands national flower, Canarina canariensis or the Canary Island Bellflower
photo credit: Jeff Tata
Tiede National Park on Tenerife, with Tiede Volcano in the background
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Coastal scrublands on Tenerife (the vegetation in the foreground is Euphorbia 
canariensis or Canary Island Spurge and is endemic to the island)
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Ammon Medina, a first-year poet and memoirist from Utah, had the chance to travel to Chile with Bill Lowenroth for a class called “Sustainable Temperate Drylands.” Students studied the effects of sheep grazing on rangeland sustainability. Ammon was glad to study with a highly diverse class, with students majoring in animal science, soil science, ranch management, economy, and food and beverage systems.

Ammon has a strong interest in Latin American studies, and is planning a second trip to Ecuador this summer, to look at heritage agricultural techniques in sheep-farming communities. This class was an in-depth introduction to ecological and social concerns related to animal management: “I went on the course because I wanted to become more familiar with South America. As a writer, I have a specific interest in the immigration and labor. In this course, we visited a ranch here in Wyoming and got a feel for how they were run and then looked at how sheep ranchers were run in Chile. So I was able to see what kind of work we had immigrants doing here in Wyoming and how that compared to the work being done on ranches in Chile.”

Ammon and Jeff are both working on creative projects inspired by the trip. In addition to a set of poems, Jeff Tatay is working on a photo-essay. Some of his work is showcased in this post. Ammon is working on a chapbook of poems and photography: “The chapbook will look at the labor of the Peruvian immigrants and the workers on the ranches in Chile. I will also write about the relationship between the land, animals, and ranchers.”

Jeff Lockwood considers these programs an integral part of creative study here at UW and in the broader world. “My sense is that these ENR trips involving creative writing students provide fantastic opportunities for deep and valuable dialogue among students in the arts and sciences—and this nexus is exactly where some of the most exciting and important ideas are emerging in terms of environmental thought.” As a scientist, essayist, and novelist, Jeff considers naturalism and creative inspiration a perfect pair: “I’m tempted to adapt the words of Albert Einstein: art without science is blind, and science without art is lame.”

photo credit: Jeff Tatay
Written by Jess White

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Come to the Science Café!

Tonight at 7, the Berry Center Auditorium is hosting the Biodiversity Center's annual Science Café.

The event starts with refreshments at 7:10, followed by short science presentations at 7:30. Presenters provide a short summary of their current research projects, followed by a Q&A.

Participating programs include the Botany Department, the Department of Zoology and Physiology, WyCEHG, and the Program in Ecology.

Come meet and mingle with UW science students at this exciting and informative event!