Thursday, October 4, 2012

A world of opportunities: Geology, collaboration and Wyoming

This story is the second of several stories featuring EPSCoR personnel and their roles in merging science, education, research and outreach. Dr. Steve Holbrook is a principal-investigator on one of two EPSCoR grants. This story focuses on that grant and Dr. Holbrook's work.

Dr. Steven Holbrook with some of his insturments for geophysics.

Dr. Steve Holbrook likes to change the focus of his work every decade or so, and this year, he is moving his work from cruises on the ocean to the wilderness of Wyoming. What do the ocean and Wyoming wilderness have in common? A need for geophysics.
“I like to reinvent myself every ten years or so,” says Dr. Holbrook, a co-principal investigator on the University of Wyoming’s $20 million EPSCoR grant, WyCEHG (Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics). “It feels really nice to be working in Wyoming. I’ve been here fifteen years and I’ve never worked in the state.”
Dr. Holbrook is a geophysicist at UW who uses seismic waves to see inside the earth. “My specialty is making images of the physical properties inside the earth,” Dr. Holbrook says. For the past twenty years, Dr. Holbrook has focused on marine seismology. In the ocean, sound waves are sent out and the way they bounce off the surface is recorded then turned into an image. These images look a lot like a road cut with layers stacked on top of each other.
“This EPSCoR project is a departure for me because mostly I’ve done marine seismology, but I am excited about this project,” Dr. Holbrook says. “I think that there is a lot of good science to be done that needs geophysics. The whole purpose of our project is to use geophysical imaging, not just seismometers, but electrical imaging, and magnetic and radar techniques to make images of the shallow subsurface that will help link surface hydrology of rivers to ground water hydrology.”
The $20million EPSCoR grant the University of Wyoming received in July was exactly the opportunity Dr. Holbrook was looking for to reinvent his research interests. The grant is focused on understanding near-surface and subsurface geology in Wyoming in order to determine the path water takes from the moment it lands on the ground until it ends up in streams, reservoirs and lakes.
“I like taking undergraduate students out on cruises but I only have a cruise every three years, it’s really expensive and I could only take three or four students out,” Dr. Holbrook says. “I wasn’t reaching a lot of students that way. This way, with near surface geology and the EPSCoR grant, it’s so easy. Now we have equipment, we have all these study areas right next door and Wyoming has important scientific issues concerning water that matter to people.”
Understanding how and where water ends up has important ramifications for water use in Wyoming and the surrounding states for which Wyoming is the headwater region. The water system is complex, however, and creating a clear picture of the system requires the collaboration of multiple scientific fields.
"The project is fun because it’s interdisciplinary,” Dr. Holbrook says. “I’m working with people that I had never met before we started this project and they’re all from different disciplines. Now we’re working together closely and I have to stretch myself. I have to think about ecology, plant physiology, evapotranspiration and things that I have very little idea about, but I’m learning and that’s fun!”
The collaborative aspect of the project is essential, because the research conducted by Dr. Holbrook and the scientists on the grant will complete a more complete picture of each research site.
“One of the most fascinating parts of the project so far is trying to decide on our focus sites,” Dr. Holbrook says. “We’re taking field trips as a team to determine each site. We have people from three different colleges and six different departments out in the field together. When we get to a site, we all get out and take turns describing what we see. Everybody sees something different.”
Dr. Holbrook, for instance, notices the geology, the outcrops of rock and what that might mean for the subsurface. Once the scientists decide on the site, Dr. Holbrook will use geophysical techniques to study the near-surface, or upper 100-200 meters beneath the ground.
“That’s deeper than you could dig a ditch, which is why you need geophysics,” Dr. Holbrook says. “The only way to figure out what is going on at those depths is to drill a hole, which is expensive and only tells you about what’s happening right at that one diameter, or you can use geophysics which gives you a larger picture of the area. Ideally, you do both.”
The collaborative nature of the project and the focus on geophysics will provide great opportunities for students at UW, especially because all of the equipment for the project is portable. The mobility of the equipment ensures that it can be used across the state at various research sites and that it is accessible to many people.
“It’s good for the students,” Dr. Holbrook says. “The equipment for the project will be heavily used for both education and research. We’re going to use this equipment to get undergraduate students exposed to geophysics earlier and we’re going to develop a new summer field course that brings together hydrology, geophysics and ecology.”
Not only will the WyCEHG equipment be used by students in the classroom, it will also be used by students working on the grant. Over the five year duration of the grant, between twenty and thirty graduate students will be supported along with twelve post-doctoral students and seventy to eighty undergraduates. The projects that students will work on are still being decided. Student involvement on the project is key to the grant. It will expose students to the collaborative, interdisciplinary aspect of science, and to the varied fields that are concerned with water and the environment.
“That’s a connection we’d really like to make,” Dr. Holbrook says.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and it has flown. The proposal for WyCEHG was sent to the National Science Foundation (NSF) less than a year ago. Seven months later, UW had $20 million to work with. At times for Dr. Holbrook, it’s hard to believe that all of this is real.
"I’m really still in the pinching-myself phase. I can’t believe it’s only been fifteen months since I started on the proposal and here we have a project really getting started,” Dr. Holbrook says. “It really feels like something that’s going to matter. We’re going to set something up that’s going to last.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of the University of Wyoming

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