Thursday, September 27, 2012

Faces of science: The outdoors, the Olympics and science

This is the second of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond.
Have you ever wondered what Olympians do after the Olympics? Some probably relax, others probably look for new interests, but Laramie’s Olympic skier, Sarah Konrad, is a scientist. Sarah works in science labs at the University of Wyoming helping to conduct various research projects about the environment. Currently, Sarah works in Dr. Neil Humphrey’s geology lab constructing sensors to measure glacier movements. Glaciers happen to be Sarah’s area of specialty.
“I was into the outdoors long before I was a scientist,” Sarah says. “And that interest naturally progressed towards geology and glaciology.”
Rock climbing and mountaineering initiated Sarah’s interest in glaciers and now she helps to understand the way glaciers work in Greenland.
“The more we understand about how glaciers work and how they respond to different changes in the environment, the better we can understand how fast the water held in the glacier ice will get into the ocean and affect sea levels,” Sarah says.
Understanding how fast glaciers are melting is an important part of understanding climate change and its effect on people and where they choose to live. People disproportionally live near the ocean and this population will be the first to notice sea level changes. This problem is part of the reason Sarah loves being a scientist: it challenges her to think about solutions.
 Sarah’s favorite part of being a scientist is being able to think about things, such as climate change, creatively and understanding how things work. One of her current projects outside of Dr. Humphrey’s lab is creating a book about all the energy resources in Wyoming. This wouldn’t be any book, however. It would be a road-side guide to Wyoming’s energy resources that would use surface infrastructure (such as wind turbines or pump jacks) to explain everything in straightforward terms how Wyoming’s energy production works. Right now, Sarah is looking for funding to help her research Wyoming’s energy field.
While Sarah is a scientist, she continues to be a phenomenal athlete. “Science and sports complement each other really well,” Sarah says. “I’ll be out on a long run or bike ride, and it’s some of my best thinking time.”
Sarah Konrad at the Torino Olympics in 2006
While she was an Olympic athlete, Sarah realized that although skiing was her passion, she longed for the intellectual stimulation provided by scientific work.
 “I’m curious and I like a challenge,” Sarah says. “Those three years I was training for the Olympics I didn’t do any science at all and I missed it so much! I mean, I’d still read and have some sort of intellectual stimulation, but I really like having more involvement and having some sort of outlet for figuring things out. It was a relief getting back into science. It felt really good to get the balance back.”
Sarah balances her love for both science and physical activity by dividing her day between the two. Part of the day she works in the lab, and the other part she trains for her next athletic goal. Over the summer, Sarah trained for a two-day event, the Steamboat Stinger in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Most people do one or the other of the events, but Sarah decided to do both the 50 mile mountain bike race and the 26-mile marathon trail run.
“The real challenge was doing them back to back,” Sarah says.
Sarah’s athletic passion keeps diversity in her life, which she says is the key to both science and any career. “Take college electives to heart,” Sarah advises new college students, especially women. “Because even if you think you know what you’re going to do, it’s just such a good time to be exposed to new things.”
Exposure to new things is what opened the doors to the field of geology for Sarah. She started out as engineering major, and happened to take a geology class, which changed her whole career path.
“Until you’ve been exposed to an awful lot of things, you can’t judge what you want to do because you don’t know what choices are out there,” Sarah says.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo credits: USBA

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