Thursday, February 21, 2013

Measurements and Modeling: A Look into the Hydrologic side of Wyoming

In the next few months, you might notice a flurry of activity and an influx of equipment in the Snowy Range, especially if you aren’t one for sticking to the trails. If you stumble upon a stream with an equipment draped tower nearby, you may have found one of the watershed research sites for the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG). Though it may look like a jumble of metal and plastic, each piece of equipment is busy acquiring important data about water to help teams of researchers at the University of Wyoming better understand water in Wyoming and the West.

A water sampler
WyCEHG was established by a five-year National Science Foundation grant with the goal of providing water resource managers, stakeholders, and scientists with cutting-edge knowledge and tools to improve water management. As the headwater state for many of its neighbors, Wyoming has to ensure that water allocations are met and that Wyoming communities still have enough water. To do this, it is essential to have a complete picture of the natural water system, which is currently not well understood. WyCEHG brings together researchers from a multitude of fields to help create this complete picture along with two support facilities: the Facility for Imaging the Near and Subsurface Environment (FINSE) and the Surface and Subsurface Hydrology Lab (SSHL). This week we’ll look at SSHL and the hydrological side of WyCEHG.

“SSHL is not just a location where equipment is stored,” says Elizabeth Traver, the faculty manager of SSHL. “It’s kind of a research and training umbrella to help people figure out what instruments they need and get them out in the field.”

A tipping bucket
Since her start at UW in December, 2012, Traver has been busy helping researchers prepare for their field work. “I’m facilitating researchers, whether they’re undergraduate students or professors, with their research and equipment,” she says. “People are telling me what they need and I’m purchasing those items so that they’ll be here when they need them.”

While the bulk of WyCEHG research will happen during the summer months, some projects are already underway. In addition to on-going field projects centered on meteorological observations linked to tree respiration, soil water and the transport of water though our mountain systems and into streams, two emerging projects focus on snow. Snow is an essential part of the hydrologic picture in Wyoming where most river and ground water comes from snowmelt. One project looks at how much water is actually coming from snow by using a snow equivalency instrument.

                “Snow can have a little or a lot of moisture in it: light, fluffy snow compared to wet, heavy snow,” says Traver. “So what a snow water equivalency instrument does is it actually tells you how much water is in the snow that fell, because the water itself is what is important and not how deep the snow is.”

The other project is about snow isotopes, or the variants of chemical elements in the snow.

“You can take the isotopes in the snow and determine the possible origin of that snow based on the isotope relationships,” Traver says.

By developing a library of isotopes in rainfall, snow, groundwater and streams, the WyCEHG team will gain a better understanding of the ultimate fate of our rain and snow and address the critical questions: does it end up back in the air through evaporation, down in the ground or glowing through our rivers?

A map of the watershed in the Snowy Range Mountains
An undergraduate student has begun to collect snow samples from around the Snow Range Ski area, which he will study using isotope analyzers. While the bulk of winter research is centered on snow sampling, researchers are also preparing for the spring thaw. The area of focus for the summer is a small unnamed creek that drains into Libby Creek, which flows into the Little Laramie River downstream from Laramie.

“There are things that we want set up before the snow starts to melt because we want to be ready for the most important time of the year, water-wise,” says Traver. “We will be putting a whole bunch of instruments on the tower with the ones already out there. We’re just trying to get as much detail as we can from that one specific area.”

The ultimate goal of studying this one watershed in so much detail is to create a water model that can be used in other watersheds.

“The idea is, measure everything, put these parameters in the model and figure out which processes are most important,” Traver says. “Then we can go to a different watershed, measure just those parameters and see if our models will work.”

This type of approach, linking measurements and models, will ultimately help water resource managers, stakeholders and scientists understand what happens to every drop of water in the watershed. This knowledge will help empower them to make scientifically founded decisions about water use and allocation.
By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of WyCEHG

Friday, February 15, 2013

Faces of Science: Following Family Footsteps and Going Beyond the Horizon

Dr. Li with her daughter and husband on a hiking trip near Laramie.
Dr. Dongmei “Katie” Li has a unique perspective on being an engineer. Not only is she one of just two women professors in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at the University of Wyoming, she also knows what it is like to be in the shoes of an international student and a member of a minority group. However, while her experiences and perspectives may be different than many of her colleagues, Dr. Li became interested in engineering in the same way that many engineers do: through family.
Like many engineers, Dr. Li started in the field because of her father. From the time she was young she wanted to be a chemical engineer.
“My dad is in chemical engineering,” Dr. Li says. “I started (into engineering) with the motivation of wanting to help with the family business.”
This motivation led Dr. Li to pursue her B.S. in Chemical Engineering at Shandong University and her M.S. in Chemical Engineering at Tianjin University in China. From China, Dr. Li moved halfway around to world to earn her Ph.D. at Colorado University Boulder (CU Boulder).
 “I had trouble understanding my professors my first semester,” she says, laughing. “I was taking seventeen graduate level credit hours which was extremely overwhelming. I tried to make friends, but most of the time people had a hard time understanding me. The first semester was tough, but luckily math and a chemical background were there, so I could read the books and do the homework.”
Dr. Li stayed at CU Boulder for her post-doc, but rather than continue with fundamental research topics, she decided to take a more applied approach.
“I happened to have the opportunity to work on a project that was very applied. It was a collaboration between CU Boulder and Sandia National Laboratories, and was sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI),” Dr. Li says. “That project was very crucial for me because it made me enjoy science and research again after being burned out by theoretical research at the end of graduate school.”
Dr. Li’s graduate school experience helped her develop techniques for problem solving by relying on science and her post-doc project introduced her to the refreshing world of applied science. Both of these experiences were instrumental in preparing her for her first job as a Senior Process Engineer at Intel Corporation, where she was one of the only women and minorities- both of which created a challenge due to the culture of the company. At first, she was seen through stereotypes, consequently resulting in unnecessary barriers between her and a few coworkers who had a different background.
“No doubt it was frustrating at the beginning,” Dr. Li says. “But then I learned that I had to earn respect from people who had been there for a long time and made their way up from the bottom, without an advanced or even college degree.”
Dr. Li overcame the stereotypes by using data and logic. As in graduate school, she relied on her knowledge in the field to address the challenge of the company culture and to succeed in that environment. When she left Intel, Dr. Li carried with her the importance of being flexible because, as she says, it is important to be able to deal with the unexpected issues, which arise in every job.
“You can only plan to a certain degree,” she says. “The rest are things you can’t control.”
While Dr. Li started out in chemical engineering to help with the family business, she did not return to China and her father is now retired. Instead, she followed opportunities and experienced a variety of career options and cultures. Despite any difficulties, the diversity of the cultures she has worked in has been the best part of her career.
“I think my favorite part of my job at Intel had to be being able to have the opportunity to interact with people from diverse backgrounds in terms of their seniority in the company, education level and personal background,” Dr. Li says. “Now, being a professor I get to work with many students and collaborate with other professors on this campus, the Front Range (CU Boulder and Colorado State University) and nationwide. That is very enjoyable.”
Working with students, especially international students, is a highlight of her work at UW, especially because she knows what it is like to be in their shoes. Though she does not like to give advice, to foreign students she says, “No matter what you are facing, do one thing at a time, and do it well, and opportunity will come knocking at your door.”
To all students, she advises, “Don’t limit yourself. The world is fascinating. There are so many opportunities and I think being into science and technology opens doors you wouldn’t otherwise know exist.” 

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Dr. Dognmei Li

Monday, February 4, 2013

Faces of Science: Overcoming the difficultly of a path made in leaps and bounds

This is the sixth 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. 

Every scientist’s experience and career path is different. For Dr. Indy Burke, director of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, the path was made in leaps and bounds rather than with careful, cautious steps. As Dr. Burke began her career as an ecosystem ecologist she was offered rare opportunities because she was a woman.
Dr. Indy Burke.
“At the time, there were very few women ecosystem ecologists,” says Dr. Burke. “Less than a handful.”
Dr. Burke started her PhD at Dartmouth, but when her adviser there, Dr. William Reiners, moved to Laramie to fill the Department Head position in Botany at tUW, she decided to change her graduate institution to UW as well. From UW, Dr. Burke went to Colorado State University for her post-doc and that’s when her career began to fast forward.
A year into her post-doc, she was offered a faculty position at another university. CSU countered their offer.
“CSU said, ‘Don’t go. We don’t have any women in our College of Natural Resources,’” Dr. Burke explains. “So, I got a job because I was a woman entirely. I didn’t have to compete for the job and that really interfered with the college relationship for a long time. I felt that I really had to over-earn respect.”
In addition to the challenge of strained collegiate relationships, Dr. Burke’s area of expertise did not quite match with her new position.
“I was a rangeland ecologist hired into a forestry department,” Dr. Burke says. Her area of interest is soil nutrient dynamics.
To overcome the difficulties of this opportunity, Dr. Burke worked to be the absolute best she could be.
“I was just really, really focused on trying to bring in more money than anyone else did, write more grant proposals, publish more papers, be a better teacher, and do more outreach,” Dr.  Burke explains. “It was clear to me that I needed to demonstrate that I was excellent.”
In addition to her academic accomplishments, Dr. Burke earned respect in many other ways. In the course of furthering her science career, she married another faculty member in the college, began to raise a family and served on several national and international science boards, including the National Academy of Sciences Committees and Board.
“Being one of the only women ecosystem ecologists for at least the first 15 years of my career gave me the opportunity to get invited to do things before I was really ready in my career, in a way that can actually depress productivity,” Dr. Burke says.
This level of service detracted somewhat from the time she could spend her own research, writing and publishing as well as her personal life.Nonetheless, while the first few years of her professional career were difficult, she has overcome every obstacle. She has published over 150 peer reviewed articles, book chapters and reports, earned numerous large research grants and received prestigious teaching awards.
“I felt that I had to balance all that pressure of representing all women,” Dr. Burke says. “It seemed as though I represented the gender for the whole college (and science field). Fortunately, I have an extremely supportive husband, who is highly productive as a scientist and could do even more than his share at home.”
Today, Dr. Burke balances research, service and family in a different way. As the director of the Haub School and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she has the opportunity to focus her energy on areas of interest outside research.
 “We have one land grant university in the state of Wyoming. We have one four year institution in the state of Wyoming,” Dr. Burke explains. “When there is a natural resources issue, stakeholders and the decision makers look to this university. So, we have a real opportunity to do the relevant science and synthesize the science to inform decision makers in the debate.”
In addition to her work with science and outreach, Dr, Burke is focused on the future of science through working with students.
“Around 2000, I started to get very, very interested in teaching,” Dr. Burke says. “I felt as though my work was more likely to change the world if I affected people, rather than if I published another paper.”
Part of her teaching passion is encouraging young people from diverse perspectives and backgrounds to pursue science degrees and careers. Part of encouraging students is making them aware and helping connect them to the opportunities available.
Dr. Burke with her horse this summer in front of the Fontanelle Fire. 
“The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources provides some great opportunities for students of all kinds,” Dr. Burke says. “I think that getting students into the field and overseas is one of the most important things you can do for anyone interested in the environment.”
The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources provides students with field research opportunities as well as helps connect students to faculty and internships for research experiences. Encouraging students to participate in research, to develop their curiosity and institution, and to empower them to succeed in the science fields is important.
“I feel as though young women get told about challenges and young men get told about opportunities,” Dr. Burke says. “Every career is challenging. Every life situation is challenging. I don’t think emphasizing the challenges is the way to do it. I feel like showing your enthusiasm is the most important thing you can do.”
To all students, especially young women, Dr. Indy advises, “I would say that the best scientists are not those who are good at memorizing formulas or facts or definitions. The best scientists are the people with creative skills and talents. If what you’re interested in is questions and being creative, then science really is the place for you.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of Dr. Indy Burke

Friday, February 1, 2013

Advice from the WiMSE Career Panel

The Women’s Center at the University of Wyoming is striving to encourage young women to pursue degrees in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields and to support college women already in these areas of study. As part of their effort, they have been organizing Women in Math Science and Engineering (WiMSE) lunch events throughout the academic year. The first WiMSE event of 2013, on January 30th, was a career panel featuring women graduate students, post-docs, professors and professional academic lecturers. These inspiring and motivating women shared their stories about navigating their chosen career paths as well as the positives and negatives of their experiences. Each woman had something valuable to share with young women and men alike. Here are some of the highlights from their stories:

*What you study in graduate school may not, and does not, have to be what you do in your career, so don’t worry if it does not seem to be exactly what you want to do.

*Spend time in the “real world” after completing your undergraduate degree. Explore and learn more about what you really enjoy doing.

* In anything you do, learn from your colleagues and grow by gaining new skills, which will assist you in finding and working in exactly the area that interests you the most.

*Don’t let math stop you from pursuing a career in science. Math is a skill that you can build up bit by bit. 

*Explore options! A new perspective on or experience in science or your field of interest can clarify your path.

*The path forward is not always straight. It is ok to take turns and see where they lead you.

*Volunteering can be a way to take a fresh start in science. It is so much easier to start a new job or enter a graduate program if you get a foot in the door and meet new people. Volunteering can be that foot in. 

*Let your success and your passions go hand in hand. Stay connected to and aware of your feelings. Eventually you will walk into what you end up loving.  Stick with it and stay tuned in.

The next WiMSE event will be held February 6th from 12-1 in room 221 of the Wyoming Union. This is a career and internship preparation session. Bring a friend and join us for a free lunch. You can find out more information at or RSVP at We hope to see you there for another great session about women in STEM. 

By Wyoming EPSCoR staff