Sunday, October 28, 2012

Faces of Science: Engineering, snow storms and transportation systems

This is the forth 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. 

Dr. Young in Gulfoss, Iceland last May.
                The first significant snow storm of the year blanketed the town yesterday, reminding us all of the importance of knowing road conditions for winter travel. Wind, snow and ice create treacherous conditions, and accurate information is essential for safe travel. Most people probably don’t know that the road condition alerts and warnings around Laramie come from a collaborative effort between the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and an engineer at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Rhonda Young provides data analysis and algorithms to the WYDOT Traffic Management Center in Cheyenne to help them provide better information to travelers.
“We keep trying to provide information faster and have it be more reliable,” Dr. Young says.
Dr. Young is a professor in Civil and Architectural Engineering at UW. Her area of expertise is transportation systems, specifically in operating rural facilities in extreme weather conditions. With snow almost nine months a year and high winds year around, Laramie is the perfect place for Dr. Young’s research interests.
When she began her research, Dr. Young found that the digital road sign on I-80 east outside of Laramie read ‘slick in spots’ for eight and a half months straight.
“That doesn’t really mean anything,” Dr. Young says. “People aren’t going to change their travel or make any decisions because the sign says that.”
Dr. Young also found that signs reading ‘high winds’ have little meaning, especially for travelers who are unaccustomed to the high wind gusts Laramie sees. In order to help WYDOT provide travelers with more meaningful information, Dr. Young uses engineering and math to evaluate road conditions. She provides this information to the Traffic Management Center so they can post messages on highway signs that tell travelers more exact information. Dr. Young’s work in developing algorithms makes the Traffic Management Center decisions more data driven so they are faster to respond, provides more useful information, and makes the response more consistent from storm to storm.
“We still have trouble because people who aren’t from here don’t really understand what it means to be driving when it’s gusting sixty miles per hour, but at least they have some information to rely on,” Dr. Young says.
Her work, nonetheless, has helped WYDOT ensure safety for Laramie travelers year around. Their efforts help travelers weigh the risks of travel and make appropriate decisions. This impact on society is what Dr. Young was looking for in high school when she started thinking about a career.
Dr. Young found out about civil engineering one day when she walked into her high school career counselor’s office.
“I just sort of stumbled upon it,” Dr. Young says. “Most engineers are engineers because their dad was an engineer. Especially on the male side of it, it’s much more of a family history thing, and I didn’t have that.”
What Dr. Young did have however, was an interest in transportation systems and a solid understanding of math and science. Civil engineering synthesized her strengths and interests while allowing her to benefit society.
“I liked the idea of civil engineering still being related to society,” Dr. Young says. “You can talk to people about it.”
Dr. Young pursued a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and then worked in the field for 12 years. She wanted to be a teacher, but she found that when she was in school, her favorite teachers were the ones who had worked professionally first. Her experience in the public sector has informed her classroom instruction and helped to present the softer side of engineering to her students but showing them the importance of relating engineering problems to public concerns.
“You take your engineering answer to the public and then you can’t understand how they can’t just love what you’ve done,” Dr. Young says. “It is sort of sobering to be like, ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way,’ when the public sees the problem differently.”
Working in the public sector verses the private sector allowed Dr. Young insight into working with and benefiting communities, much as she does today with her current research.
“The political process of the public sector slowed things down, we didn’t get as much built, but it was more about making sure communities were livable and bike-able,” Dr. Young says.  “It fit more with my values than just building, like in the private sector. In the private sector you calculate and you get an answer, but what does that mean? There are lots of different sides to the story.”
Dr. Young presents all these sides in her classes. She wants her students to realize how many options they have as civil engineers, where they can work as anything from an engineer on a rapid transit train in the city all the way to being the city engineer in a little town or 10,000 people.
“That’s pretty rare for engineering in general to allow you to pick what kind of lifestyle you want,” Dr. Young says.
Because of the diversity of options, most civil engineers find jobs after graduation whether it’s in the public sector, private sector or academia. The opportunity to pick the kind of lifestyle you want and the ability to help society are huge benefits of the field, especially for women.
At UW there are very few women studying civil engineering because of the architectural engineering degree which attracts more women, but nationwide there are a lot of women in civil engineering, especially in transportation systems.
As an instructor in the field, Dr. Young says that confidence is key for students, especially female students.
“There is a recognition that female students bring a certain skill set to the class and the field, whether it’s thinking about a problem differently or keeping things organized or asking different sorts of questions,” Dr Young says. “But usually they are quite good students and they are quite assertive.”
While women are very successful both as students and as professionals in civil engineering, it is important that they be aware of how they personally deal with problems and working environments. This is a lesson Dr. Young learned after leaving the public sector and starting in academia. Women tend to be team players, she says, but she had to learn to be protective of her time, especially when she was going through the tenure process.
“The tenure process is really strange because it’s a black and white mark that says ‘we’re either going to hire you for life or we’re not,’” Dr. Young says. “So, they put you through seven years of really testing you.”
This environment was drastically different than the encouraging, positive atmosphere of the public sector, because it tends to be more critical. Being critical is necessary because the department has to ensure that you can do everything due to the weight and high status that comes with the tenure decision.
Dr. Young also faced an odd environment when she began at UW because there had never been a tenured woman in the UW College of Engineering.
“It was a little bit strange for me because I thought, ‘where did they all go?’,” Dr. Young said.
Today, there are several tenured women in the college, included Dr. Young. She was the third tenured woman in the college and the first in the Civil and Architectural Engineering Department. During the tenure process, Dr. Young had her first son, which many people questioned, but Dr. Young showed that balancing, hard work and determination can overcome any perceived barrier and any doubt people may have about you. 

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Dr. Rhonda Young 



Friday, October 26, 2012

Wyoming EPSCoR Update

Hello everyone,
We hope your week has been going well! Our blog story for the week will be posted over the weekend, but in the mean time, we'd love to give you an update about our recent EPSCoR action.

 * October 11-14 two EPSCoR personnel, Beth Cable and Lisa Abeyta, along with Environmental and Natural Resources (ENR) at UW took 4 undergraduates and 1 graduate student to Seattle, Washington for the annual Society for Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos and Native American Students in Science (SACNAS) conference.
*On October 16 Dr. Christopher Emdin came to UW to share his philosophy on teaching science. We had a great turn out of current teachers, university faculty and education major students. Thank you Dr. Emdin for visiting us!
*This month the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics worked with local 3rd and 4th graders during a field trip to the Laramie Greenbelt. A masters student working with Dr. Scott Miller worked with the teacher to help students connect with nature in their own backyard.
* October 30-November 4 Beth Cable, along with ENR, will take 6 Native American students to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) conference in Anchorage, Alaska.
*The deadline for the EPSCoR/INBRE undergraduate research fellowship closed and this year's awardees will be announced later this fall.

We'll have more information and stories about these events in the coming weeks. Please stay tuned for this week's story about an engineer who helps keep Wyoming highways safe during winter travel.

Friday, October 19, 2012

World experience and work in Wyoming: The global importance of watershed management

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

Dr. Scott Miller and one of his graduate students.
Dr. Scott Miller was thirteen years old when he first experienced the consequences of poor land management. His parents sent him to Nepal on a backpacking trip, and one day he came across a village that had just been devastated by a landslide. It was monsoon season and the slope failure was due to deforestation. The village had been chopping down the forest to free the land for agricultural use.
“It was very striking to see the connection between forest management and severe consequences to people, including loss of life,” Dr. Miller says.
Dr. Miller’s experience in Nepal urged him to pursue an undergraduate degree in geological sciences. A few years after college he returned to Nepal to work on a dam project, but quickly realized that he needed more technical training, which led him to the field of watershed management. Today, Dr. Miller is a watershed hydrologist at the University of Wyoming.
“The fascinating thing about hydrology and water management is that we are always in a state of flux,” Dr. Miller says. “And, humans are intimately connected to water.”
The connection between humans and water is one of the major driving forces behind the $20 million EPSCoR WyCEHG (Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics) grant, on which Dr. Miller is a co-Principal Investigator with Dr. Steve Holbrook.
“What happens in Wyoming affects a huge number of people that are outside of Wyoming,” Dr. Miller says.
Wyoming is the headwater state for many western states. Good water management is absolutely essential because so many people and such a large ecosystem downstream depend on it. Understanding water in Wyoming is also important because there is a high degree of variability in the climate which dictates how and where water comes from.
“From a hydrological perspective, it is really quite fascinating to work in Wyoming,” Dr. Miller says. “The vast majority of our moisture that drives water in rivers and streams occurs at very high elevations. All of our downstream rivers are dependent on what happens up in the mountains. So, it is a really interesting place to work because of the significant changes in climate and hydrology as you travel from the plains up to the headwaters.”
So far, all of the research sites for the WyCEHG grant are located in mountains throughout the state. This setting is an ideal place for someone like Dr. Miller to conduct research because it is constantly challenging.
“I like being surprised by observations in the field or outcomes from models that I didn’t expect,” Dr. Miller says. “It is very stimulating to tackle something that is not really well understood.”
The water system in Wyoming is one area that fits this description, especially in terms of in-depth understanding because of the high variability. As a Watershed Hydrologist, Dr. Miller will be using his expertise to look at how water is moving through the geologic systems of the mountains and how altering surface processes change water movement.
“There are a variety of disciplinary ways to tackle water,” Dr. Miller says. “In my field usually what we do is go out and put instruments in rivers, measure the flow of water through rivers at various places, look at how much rainfall or snow is coming in, understand the meteorological signals and then measure things like soil moisture and ground water depth. Even with this approach we are still left with an incomplete picture of how water moves through a system because of the heterogeneity of the subsurface.”
To create a more complete picture of hydrological systems, watershed hydrologists build models which represent the actual processes occurring in nature. These models give scientists a spatial perspective of water movement, but they too are incomplete. The best way to create a complete picture is through interdisciplinary work across fields. Watershed hydrology, geophysics, plant ecology and various other fields contribute important information to water research.
“I feel, and this is the purpose of the grant, that by integrating all these different disciplines we will do a better job of getting a fuller portrait of how hydrological systems work,” Dr. Miller says. “The opportunity to have a significant impact is greater when you work in a team. It’s worth the effort to overcome the barriers to interdisciplinary work.”
The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration is an experience Dr. Miller learned and took to heart during a project in Kenya. The project was based on interaction between scientists and stakeholders, and relied on positive collaboration in order to benefit the community in which they were working.
“The place I evolved most rapidly as a scientist was when I was working in Kenya because of the cultural challenges, the positive outcomes of working across cultures and the high relevance of the research,” Dr. Miller says. “I advanced a lot, both as a scientist and as a human being.”
The research funding in Kenya was directed towards impacting people’s lives and livelihoods, which forced the scientists to focus on the most relevant aspects of water in order to help the local people. This emphasis on relevancy is mirrored in the WyCEHG grant, which will help inform water managers in order to help the people dependent on Wyoming’s water.
“We will hopefully be able to provide a better scientific framework for understanding what to expect in the next several years regarding water, which will allow for more appropriate planning,” Dr. Miller says. “If we can improve scientific understanding, we can improve decisions.”

By Kali McCrackin
Photo courtesy of the University of Wyoming

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Faces of Science: Agricultural economics and the administrative side of science

This is the third 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.

Dr. Nicole Ballenger enjoys spending time with her horses in her free time
Scientific work takes a variety of forms, from biology to physics to agriculture. The diversity of fields offers a plethora of choices, especially for students looking to better the world. Dr. Nicole Ballenger was one such student during the global food crisis of the 1970s. As an economics major, she wasn’t sure how she could help amend the problems the world was facing, but when she combined economics and agriculture for her Ph.D., she found a way.
“Agricultural economics is the science of economics applied to agriculture,” Dr. Ballenger explains. “Agricultural economics requires knowing something about the science of agriculture and working with people who are agricultural scientists.”
Dr. Ballenger wrote her Ph.D. dissertation about how policies affected food self-sufficiency in Mexico, which led her to a career focused on trade relations, agricultural policy, and eventually administration of agricultural economics research. Using her understanding of economics, Dr. Ballenger informed agricultural policy.. Her interest in world hunger and other food problems became her passion, and that passion has driven her career.
“I think it’s good to pursue an area of science that’s related to something you really care about because that’s the way that you stay connected and that you continue to feel passionate about what you do,” Dr. Ballenger says.
Dr. Ballenger has worked for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA_, the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House, the National Research Council and UW’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Today, she is an associate provost at the University of Wyoming.
“It is tremendously interesting and fun to see how a university is run,” Dr. Ballenger says. “And being at this level of administration allows you to have some connection to every part of the academic mission of the university. In the previous jobs that I had, I didn’t get to work with students, and working with them is a great joy, especially when you hear from them a couple years after your class.”
For a significant part of her career, Dr. Ballenger worked in the government. Her path as a scientist is different from many, because she picked a path that led her to the administrative aspects of science rather than the bench side.
“I was having trouble imagining trying to raise a child and get tenure at the same time,” Dr. Ballenger says of her decision. “I think it was a time when academia was much less family friendly and I was in a profession that had very few women. Today, things are changing, and changing for the better.”
The administrative side of science is one that most people tend to forget about or overlook, but it is incredibly important for science and society. Scientists, especially women scientists, were instrumental in creating food safety regulations and diet and health recommendations, which we tend to take for granted today.
It’s because of contributions to society like these that Dr. Ballenger says, “Hopefully people who are on the bench side of things consider going into administration at some point in their careers because we need scientists in leadership jobs in academia, government agencies and the private sector.”
Dr. Ballenger’s career has been challenging, like all science careers are, but she found that the barriers many women face in scientific fields were not as big of an obstacle for her.
“I’ve been very lucky to have had a very successful career and in many ways I have found that being a woman is an advantage and it is an opportunity to stand out,” Dr. Ballenger says. “I was also fortunate to have a very supportive husband. He stayed home with our son and was the primary caregiver in those early years, which helped a tremendous amount.”
Dr. Ballenger’s career has been full of challenges, variety and diversity. Her opportunities and support structures were instrumental, but more importantly were her choices. Choices are the key to a happy, successful career, especially for students just starting university with their whole lives ahead of them.
“I would always encourage young people to explore and not close off their options,” Dr. Ballenger says. “Let your heart felt interests drive what you then decide to focus on. Don’t pick something just because you think it is lucrative, because at some point you will probably wish that you had picked something else.”
Along with passion, Dr. Ballenger has two other pieces of advice: Commitment and writing skills.
“You’ve got to work hard and you have to demonstrate your commitment and motivation,” she says. “You’ve also got to develop your writing skills. Those are going to help you no matter what you do. When you write well, it is a reflection of how your thought process is working. It mirrors the logic of your thinking and logic is essential in science.”
For girls in particular, Dr. Ballenger says, “Don’t get discouraged if your find things like math or analytical things challenging. You can do them, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t and gaining those skills will pay off for you. They will open doors.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Nicole Ballenger

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