Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Community College Students dig into Applied Research on a Glacier

A bridge building exercise is designed to take one from where they are, to where they want to go. As Wyoming EPSCoR transitions between two large projects, there is an activity spanning both that serves as a bridge and lovely example of applied student learning at the community college level. The Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition, or ICCE, is a course taught at Central Wyoming College, which is one of seven community colleges in the state. It culminates in a two-week trek into the Dinwoody Glacier in Wyoming’s Wind River Range on which students engage in active learning and applied research. The glacier, which is one of more than 100 in the range, becomes their classroom and nature their guide. Groups use ground penetrating radar, or GPR, to get a sense of what lies below the snow, they study the microbial ecology of scree fields and emerging landscapes that arrive due to the glacier’s receding. There is an archaeology team and one studying black carbon, as well as a geographical information systems, or GIS, group. Scientific American recently published a science brief on the project, the article can be found here.

During the semester students have the opportunity to learn mountaineering skills, ways to interact with scientific equipment, experiment design, and outdoor leadership through a partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

As we cross the bridge into Microbial Ecology research across the state, ICCE will continue to offer community college students an opportunity to actively research and apply their learning to real world issues. These hands on experiences may create another bridge, the transition from a 2-year school to the University of Wyoming.

Monday, September 25, 2017

UW Receives $20 Million Grant for Unprecedented Microbial Research Effort

When people look across Wyoming, they see the variety of terrain, vegetation and other life that make up the state’s landscapes, from plains grasslands and productive farmland to sagebrush-steppe deserts and alpine forests.
What they don’t see are the innumerable bacteria, fungi and other microbes in the soil, water and air that shape life in the Cowboy State.
Over the next five years, University of Wyoming researchers will take an up-close look at those unseen organisms at an unprecedented scale, thanks to a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). And, using cutting-edge techniques including DNA sequencing and computational modeling, the scientists hope to learn the distribution and ecological consequences of microbes, producing insights that will help Wyomingites address a variety of challenges -- from managing rangeland, forest and water resources, to reclaiming areas disturbed by mineral extraction, to improving crop productivity.
In the process, the university expects to stimulate significant economic and business opportunities across the state -- and engage people from elementary school pupils to community college students to business leaders in scientific discovery.
“This grant will allow us to conduct microbial research at a scale that isn’t taking place anywhere else on the planet,” says Bill Gern, UW’s just-retired vice president for research and economic development.
“This will enhance our research capacity and competitiveness along with the state’s workforce and economy, creating intellectual property that can be applied to economic sectors relevant to Wyoming, including the fast-growing field of data science, which has an enormous range of applications,” says Ed Synakowski, Gern’s successor.
The grant was among five announced today (Tuesday) through NSF’s EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program, which supports efforts to enhance research, science and mathematics education, and workforce development. The award comes on the heels of another five-year, $20 million NSF grant in 2012 -- at the time, the largest research grant in UW history -- that stimulated wide-ranging research into Wyoming’s water resources.
“These investments by NSF promise to yield fundamental understanding in research areas of regional and national importance while catalyzing new educational and training opportunities for students and researchers,” NSF Director France Cordova says. “This year’s EPSCoR awards continue to demonstrate the vitality of scientific inquiry and innovation, which is present in universities and research laboratories across the nation.”
UW President Laurie Nichols says the new grant leverages and complements Wyoming’s investments in high-performance computing and the university’s Science Initiative -- which aims to transform science education across the state while driving innovation and economic progress.
“This grant is an example of how the commitment of the Legislature and the governor to upgrade UW’s scientific infrastructure will pay dividends for the people of Wyoming and our quality of life,” Nichols says. “It touches on all aspects of the university’s three-fold mission of providing top-caliber educational opportunities for our students, conducting research to benefit the state and meeting the needs of Wyoming through service.”
This highly interdisciplinary award, bringing together researchers and educators from multiple UW colleges, is led cooperatively by principal investigators Brent Ewers, Cynthia Weinig and Alex Buerkle, professors of botany; Naomi Ward, associate professor of molecular biology; and Linda van Diepen, assistant professor of ecosystem science and management.

A New Age of Discovery
While the presence of bacteria, fungi and other microbes has been known for centuries, human understanding of the diversity of microbial life -- and its role in human biology, ecology and agriculture -- is still rudimentary, the UW researchers say. That is changing because of major advances in technology, particularly in DNA sequencing and high-performance computing.
“This is an age of discovery in microbiology,” says Buerkle, who studies genetic consequences of evolutionary adaptation. “Just as modern telescopes have given astronomers the ability to see the universe with amazing detail, our new genomic sequencing capabilities have opened a whole new world in the study of life.”
With this grant, UW will be on the cutting edge of using biotechnology to study the natural world. Specifically, the university’s technology in sampling microbes from Wyoming’s landscapes; sequencing the DNA of those microbes; and using computer models of microbial life will be at the forefront of science.
The grant will fund the next generation of equipment for UW’s Advanced Research Computing Center; create new on-campus centers for liquids handling, biogeochemistry and data science; and allow for the hiring of three faculty members, numerous postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, as well as facilitate undergraduate student research.
Sampling of Wyoming soil, plants, water and air will be done at hundreds of sites across the state -- from mountaintops to basin bottoms -- primarily on public lands and in cooperation with private partners. The “pipeline” of sample collection, storage and analysis will involve UW and community college students, K-12 teachers and others. And the resulting Data Science Center will reach across campus and around the state, creating unprecedented opportunities for students to engage in the cutting edge of genomics, the study of the entire DNA sequences of organisms and statistical analyses -- crucial components of the contemporary growth in the economy related to life sciences and data science.
Beyond opportunities in the technology sector, potential benefits for the state include improved knowledge of invasive plants and microbes; improving crop production; improving reclamation of lands disturbed by development; and, in general, managing lands more effectively.
“Any good naturalist can look at a field and see the plants there and understand the life cycle and the interrelated species that live there, but in that same field are hundreds of billions of microscopic living organisms we don’t know much about,” says Weinig, whose research involves evolutionary genetic analysis of adaptation in nature. “By learning about the microbes that are there, and what they do, we will be able to identify functions that might be improved for plants, grazing animals and other users of the land.”
“Once we know what organisms are there, including their genetic capacity, we can figure out how we can make use of them,” says van Diepen, whose research includes the role of soil microbes in restoring forests after wildfire, soil remediation of contaminated mine lands and microbial interactions with invasive plants such as cheatgrass.
Ward adds that the project "applies the same approaches used so successfully to understand the microbial communities associated with the human body.
“Human microbiome studies have provided clear evidence that some microbes are essential for our health, while others predispose us to disease,” she says. “In the same way, this new project will provide information on how some microbial groups support healthy ecosystems, while others are associated with environmental imbalances.”
Why Wyoming?
Wyoming is ideal for research of this nature and scope because of the variety of its lands, including elevation, temperature, moisture and land use, the researchers say. Rapid changes in elevation and soil type often occur over small distances, and these steep gradients will give scientists an excellent window to study the variety of microbes and their functions.
Wyoming also provides unusual access to pristine lands and waters, as well as systems disturbed by resource extraction, dams and water diversions.
The project will train members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes in sample collection and laboratory and statistical analyses of microbiomes from the Wind River Indian Reservation. This work by the two sovereign tribes will not only answer new questions about land management, but also aid in economic development.
In fact, the microbe that Buerkle says launched the biotechnology revolution was discovered in the Mushroom Pool of Yellowstone National Park’s Lower Geyser Basin in Wyoming in 1966. In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered that Thermus aquaticus, which survives in extremely high temperatures, made DNA testing much more practical. This fortuitous discovery led to the biotechnology industry, generating billions of dollars a year and creating scientific breakthroughs in medicine and agriculture.
Bioprospecting for other useful Wyoming microbes could lead to discovery and commercialization of new products, the UW researchers say. And there will be significant entrepreneurial opportunities as a result of associated data science capacity.
“This project will provide a mechanism to counteract the boom-and-bust cycles of Wyoming’s energy-based economy,” says Ewers, who researches how plants control the flow of energy and mass at small and large scales. “This is an opportune time for training and workforce development in data science, with the particular application here to microbial ecology.”

UW Press Release - from Institutional Communications, Chad Baldwin

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Only Good Use for a 20-Gauge is Shooting Trees - a fieldtrip reflection

Graduate and undergraduate students spread out across a hillslope as the morning twilight begins to light the valley – armed with shotguns, a drone, and pole pruners. Sounds like the opening of a story told around a campfire. But this is another day in the life of WyCEHG scientists who are going out to measure water stress of trees in the Happy Jack area near Laramie.

Daniel Beverly, an affable PhD Student and his equally friendly field partner a Bernese mountain dog called Aldo are leading the day’s fieldwork. He measures tree stress along a hill’s gradient. Just off trail from the parking lot, the slope is covered with instruments humming away during field season. Wires run across streams, solar panels provide energy to boxes containing multiple wires and curiously shaped objects. While this is a relatively heavily used trail – instrumentation is tucked away. Hummingbirds dart across the slope that pops with midsummer color of yarrow, daisies, yellow paintbrush, sage, and flax flowers.

Calm prevails until the stroke of the hour, every third hour (unless you are a large friendly dog who seems calm throughout the day), when field techs and graduate students jump into action. Coffee and reading are set aside, sample bags are stuffed in pockets, and people begin hiking to the top of the hillslope to collect leaf matter from the sample trees as they work their way down to the valley. Collection methods vary from shooting branches with a 20-gauge shotgun to sawing branches with arborist tools. Volunteers are eager to remove branches using the shotgun, and some have quite good aim. Once a usable sample is removed from each tree, it is bagged and brought down to the field station for processing. The first measurement was recorded at 5:00 am, and this cycle will continue beyond the setting of the sun. This measurement strategy allows the researchers to observe diurnal changes in sap flow.  

Tree sap is the fluid transported in xylem cells of a tree which creates pressure within the tree. In addition to water, sap contains minerals and nutrients. Those presence and quantity of nutrients can determine the health of the tree, but for today’s purposes the sap content in the top third of the tree is what will reveal stress. Drought stress can be seen by applying pressure to a sample of leaf and stem material in a pressure chamber. Once the pressure on the sample becomes great enough to force liquid out of the stem, a quantity is recorded. This occurs for each sample throughout the day. The higher the pressure required to release liquid, the more stressed the tree. On this overcast cool day, Beverly does not predict high pressure readings. Aldo seems quite content to be in the field under these conditions, though it seems the researchers are hoping for a more dramatic temperature flux. 

The team will come back throughout the field season to establish a picture of seasonal stress and the vulnerability of this forest. With a changing climate, researchers will have tools to respond to the forest’s needs and better prioritize species protection. If you find  yourself on the east side of the headquarters trail at Happy Jack, wave hello to the WyCEHG scientists who may be just off the trail collecting data and helping us better understand our local forests. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

GLEES turns 30!

Guest Post by Elizabeth Traver

On Friday 28 July, the Rocky Mountain Research Station celebrated the 30th birthday of the Glacier Lakes Ecosystem Experiments Site, or GLEES.  It is located off the Brooklyn Lake Road in the Snowy Range, about 35 west of Laramie.  It was established in 1987 and, since 1989, scientists have been gathering data on everything from water chemistry to soil and air temperature, from relative humidity to solar radiation and wind speeds and directions.  In addition, permanent vegetation plots have been periodically sampled for more than 25 years offering an long-term resource for researchers.

On that Friday, Forest Service folks offered talks on the history and significance of the GLEES site, while others gave mountain tours and talked about the lake cores and vegetation plots as well as the ongoing field research for the National Atmospheric Deposition Program and stream flow measurements.  Another offered tours and talks about the ~100’ scaffold tower that holds a large number of sensors including though which are part of FLUXNET a system of 800 Ameriflux towers that measure a  variety of atmospheric components around the world.  GLEES tower is the windiest and I think the highest in elevation.

After all the tours and talks, everyone headed to the Forest Service cabin located just outside Centennial which has room to house collaborating researches and has both wet and dry labs as well as a site-specific herbarium.  We all enjoyed the cook-out and cake and mingled with both current and retired FS researchers and several from U W who have done many projects within the GLEES area.

Panoramic view of GLEES. Aerial photo (L) and this photo: Josh King, University of Wyoming

Friday, July 14, 2017

Observing some creativity in STEM

On a bright sunny summer day, SRAP – Wyoming EPSCoR’s program for high school students explored the more creative side of STEM alongside fabulous Wyoming artist Katie Christensen, the University of Wyoming Art Museum Curator of Education and Engagement. Their challenges were to see landscape and sky scapes in a new and more critical manner, as well as explore their own creativity.

The morning began before the gallery space was open to the public for the day. SRAPers could be found getting up and close with works from the museum’s collection, exploring brush strokes and palate selection of various pieces. The first activity was to gallery surf, from piece to piece. Katie shared that the average time an individual spends with a piece of art can be as short as three seconds. Students were encouraged to take in the space quickly and find one piece that resonated with them. From there, they were challenged to spend 10 minutes with a single piece of artwork.  

A hush fell over the gallery space. Unsure whether students were daunted by the task or just settling in, I took my place among the work and began to look at my piece, Abandoned Ranch Road by Linda Lillegraven. As the minutes ticked by, I looked at the brush strokes, observed the way Lillegraven represented sage and summer wild flowers along a road that disappeared across the prairie towards a mountain range that felt familiarly Wyoming. Upon the timer buzzing, I felt a struggle to pull away from the piece; it felt like leaving a conversation with someone before it was truly wrapped up. Other students remarked the same.

From this deep looking exercise, students went outside for some of their own observation, reflection, and creative expression. Students were prompted to look at the sky and clouds and to paint their observations in watercolor following a process similar to that of developing a lab experiment. It was a challenge for some who may not have previously seen the connections between art and science, yet others embraced the challenge with gusto. They painted en plein air for a time before returning to the studio where final touches could be applied to their work.

 Paintings varied from realistic to abstract, but each student created and reflected. The art museum made available plentiful materials and hints on how to achieve various desired effects for the pieces. In all it was a nice opportunity to find connections between the logic and creativity that is science.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

HPAIRI's Next Steps

I fought to keep our land, our water and our hunting grounds – today, education is the weapon my people need to protect them.” – Chief Washakie

James Trosper - being interviewed by World Wisdom
The Shoshone Chief’s prophecy serves as a reminder of the power education can bring to a people. Beginning this summer, Native American students and the High Plains American Indian Research Institute, HPAIRI, will have a physical home at the University of Wyoming in an American Indian center, which will bring new life to the Chief’s words. Laramie will again be home to a place that honors the Native American tradition through research, culture, and learning as the land on which the center sits once belonged to the Northern Arapahoe.  The center and HPAIRI will be led by Washakie’s great-great grandson, James Trosper, who takes the reins from tireless advocate Judy Antell. Antell leaves the University of Wyoming three years after coming out of retirement to serve as HPAIRI’s first director. She is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, and the founding director of the American Indian Studies program.

Under Antell’s guidance, HPAIRI established a reciprocal relationship between the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone people, of the Wind River Reservation, and the University of Wyoming. This relationship enabled the exchange of information and ideas and today the Institute serves as an information clearinghouse and as a facilitator for researchers wishing to work on the reservation. It maintains a catalog of resources and information on research completed on the Wind River Reservation, and provides a campus voice for the tribes’ interests. Wyoming EPSCoR became involved with HPAIRI in 2012 through funding the creation of a web-based inventory of UW research conducted with tribal communities and co-funding the establishment of a gathering place on campus for Native students.

Trosper’s involvement with HPAIRI and the new Native American center spans 20 years and was sparked by the energy, conversation, and ideas generated at the Indian Education Office on campus. That involvement also allowed him to appreciate the power of and advocate for student voice in the formation of a center. Meetings with college students and young people on the reservation allowed Trosper to hear students’ hopes fears and aspirations for the future. These meetings guided the vision for a center on campus. He knew it needed to be a community space that would help ease the transition to college for Native students who often feel isolated in the more individualistic university setting.

Sitting around a table with these two is something special; it is a lesson and gift. They share aspirations for the program, invite the listener into their vision, and speak of the future warmly and with affection. Listening to their mutual respect is unique. Upon inheriting the role of directorship from Antell, Trosper explained the value and wisdom elders can contribute to a program as a gift to the future. He intends to continue to honor Antell and her vision for HPAIRI as it develops a physical presence on campus. In addition he will infuse some of his own detail in the larger picture. Today there is a center; it is a home on campus from which to build community. There is a kitchen table around which students can share a meal and conversation. It is the coming together of people, fellowship, and stories that knit a community and that we hope will allow the University and HPAIRI to honor Chief Washakie’s words.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Carving Out A Sense of Place

The Annual EPSCoR Essay Contest was held at the end of the spring semester. This year's writing prompt was "Carving Out A Sense of Place" and saw over 20 submissions on the topic. For the first time, the undergraduate and graduate students wrote on the same prompt. The winner in each category received a $500 honorarium and the essays will be highlighted in EPSCoR's fall newsletter. But readers, rest assured you do not have to wait to enjoy their work - Scroll down for each essay.

Undergraduate Essay, Sans Water Sans Life was written by recent Global and Areas Studies and Spanish graduate Tyler Julian from Sheridan, WY.

Water dictates life in the western United States. Transplanted Wyoming writer, Gretel Ehrlich, spends a chapter of her memoir writing about water, arguing, “It carries, weightlessly, the imponderable things in our lives: death and creation. We can drown in it or else stay buoyant, quench our thirst, stay alive.” It is in this sense that I, too, have come to understand water. Water to Wyoming is a dangerous, carving element. Too much water and the red Wyoming clay gives way, washing out roads and buildings; too little and the clay cracks and the thin layer of dust is blown away in all directions. Still, a good, wet spring rejuvenates our sagebrush plains, filling irrigation ditches and swelling rivers with clear, clean water. In this way, Wyomingites recognize the challenge and promise of water and view it with apprehension. The State Constitution explicitly outlines water rights, many of us cannot swim, old-timers never visit the coasts for fear of the oceans, and it is rare for summers to pass by without news of drownings. It guides our lives as it presents the front of either death or creation. In a yet unpublished poem of mine, I wrote of a dried up creek in summertime:

Crossing over Elkhorn Creek,
sans water,
sans life,
the highway unfolds ahead,
sans traffic,
sans emotion,
            From day to day,
finding solace,
takes a different road;
this highway,
welcoming yesterday,
is like Elkhorn Creek today,

Possibly reflecting unconsciously on Ehrlich’s words, I found her Wyoming solace, restorative and life-giving, thinking of water as I drove along I-90. The highways of Wyoming, surprisingly freeing in there openness, did not cut it for me that day, and the hope that a full streambed offers seemed just out of grasp as I grappled with a profound melancholy. Still, there is a hope in this poem, in the empty creek. I realize as I reflect on the poem now, you cannot drown in an empty creek, and the promise of the water to come sustains the hardy life of our isolated state. We will eventually quench our thirst, God and nature willing, when the rivers fill, and that is a wonderfully hopeful expectation. Water has a certain level of control over us out here, but all we have within our control is our attitude towards life. I am choosing one of hope as I wait for the spring storms to fill the ditches of my life.

Graduate Essay Oasis Among the Clouds was written by Cody Perry who recently received his PhD from the College of Education in Curriculum and Instruction. Cody is from Otis Colorado. 

My wife and I were sitting at home on a warm, calm, sunny day, without any obligations, homework, or work to tend to.  It seemed like months or even years since we could sit back and relax, but we would have regretted missing the wonderful weather.   We decided to go hiking in the mountains to take advantage of our free time and the lovely day.  The route I had scouted was recently damaged by wildfire and we wanted to see how the flora and fauna were recovering from the devastation.  I was not exactly honest with my wife about the terrain, length, and difficulty of the hike, which would soon prove to be an obstacle to completing our trek.  We packed some bottled water and granola bars and set about traversing the wild and wonderful mountains.  As we progressed we witnessed trees that had been twisted and charred by the fire.  However, we also noticed the glorious, bright wildflowers and grasses coming up as if nothing had happened.  These living organisms had received the rains and ample sunshine to show the resilience of nature.  As we hiked further and further, the terrain became more steep and treacherous.  My wife was not pleased with my subterfuge, but I kept convincing her to forge ahead.  We periodically stopped to rest and quench our thirst with cold, crisp water and satiate our appetites with the granola bars.  After each of these respites, we renewed our energy and resolve and pressed on toward the summit.  At one point, my wife was ready to give up and turn back, but some other hikers were coming down and told us that the arduous task was well worth the payoff at the end of the journey.  We hiked along dusty trails, climbed over granite boulders, and tread lightly over loose gravel as we continued our ascent.  The water we had consumed earlier reappeared as droplets of perspiration on my wife’s forehead and torrents of sweat on what seemed like my entire body.  As we climbed higher, the air became thinner and our thirst grew.  Our breaks became more frequent so we could consume the life-giving water we had brought with us. 

As we neared the end of our journey, the trail became harder to see and we began to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn.  However, as my wife became more adamant about giving up and I began to wonder if she was right, we saw a small wooden marker announcing we only had a quarter of a mile to go.  As we looked forward and up, that last stretch seemed to be the hardest part of our trip, but the prospect of reaching the top kept us trudging along.  We resolved to continue and encouraged one another with the sign and remembered the other hikers’ advice. Our muscles ached, our sweat poured, and the sun bared down upon us, but we slowly made the final push to the top.  As we crested the top of the final ascent, we saw that the entire summit was a granite behemoth that had been rounded by gale force winds.  However, there was a small stand of trees that was hiding a glorious oasis of fresh, clean water.  The small pond filled with glasslike water had carved out its own home in the center of the rock.  As we sat down and looked down the opposite precipice, we saw the burned trees interspersed with greens, yellows, blues, reds, and purples of the plants reestablishing their dominance of the landscape.  We dipped our toes in the frigid waters of the pond and slaked our thirst with the bottles of water we had brought with us.  While we realized our return trip would tax our physical stamina, we relished in the beauty of being at apex of our hike.  As we peered upon the horizon we saw a bevy of lakes, streams, and mountains that took our breath away and inspired myriad photographs.  We enjoyed our time at the top and drank up the sights, sounds, and serenity.  As I sat there resting, I remarked at the juxtaposition of damage and rebirth.  While we were surrounded by charred trees and sat atop unyielding fortresses of rock, we noticed the power of water.  The granite had been smoothed and eroded by the small pond as if a silk scarf had etched and molded a piece of steel. We also noticed the clarity and beauty of the water as if it had been meant for this place.  The difficulty and destruction of fire and rigidity of stone had yielded itself to the power of water.  I realized that this landscape and experience echoed life in general.  We often fight hardship, setback, and obstacles to realize that we have been shaped and molded by those same forces.  Just as the water softened the edges of the rock and gave life to the dead, our perseverance and a kind word can shape our lives into beautiful, powerful narratives of triumph.  It is not the fire that consumes us, but the aftermath of tragedy that shapes who we are and makes us our beauty something to behold.  While our journey had been difficult and exhausting, we had emerged victorious.  The water served as a symbol of the quiet, yet powerful forces that make our lives worth living and lend beauty and majesty to the difficult and rocky landscape of our lives.  Just as water carves out granite, our perseverance and grace can defeat the challenges before us and our trip helped us to realize the power, beauty, and resilience of life.  The water had carved out a home for itself and I had found a place that transcended effort, sweat, and obstacles to become an oasis among the clouds.