Friday, March 29, 2013

On a mission to make a difference: Wyoming EPSCoR’s Project Coordinator

 Earlier this year we started a series of blogs about the EPSCoR office. The follow is part four of the series and focuses on Project Coordinator Rick Matlock. 

Rick Matlock has been with Wyoming EPSCoR since 2002.
Raging snow storms and a rural setting were not exactly Rick Matlock’s idea of a great college experience. Rick, who today is the Project Administrator at Wyoming EPSCoR, could not wait to leave Laramie and its winters behind.
“When I first moved here, I lived in the dorms,” Rick said. “I moved up here from New Mexico and the blizzards were just enormous the first couple of years. I just despised it. And, it was a small town, with absolutely nothing to do. I just despised that too.” Rick laughs at this now and adds, “But the way to live in Laramie is to accept your surroundings and to be part of the outdoor scene.”
And that is exactly what Rick has done. While today he enjoys snowboarding, snowshoeing, hiking and fishing in the surrounding mountains, those activities were not what brought him to the University of Wyoming. He came instead to pursue a degree in psychology, in order to reach his goal to help people.
“When I first got out of high school, I wanted to be a helping-people-person,” Rick says. “I wanted to help the seriously mentally ill and depressed.”
After finishing his degree, Rick worked in the medical field in a variety of areas including an inpatient psychiatric unit, a home for at risk youth and the local crisis center. While these experiences were rewarding, each in their own way, they also took their toll on him and after almost twelve years, Rick found himself  burnt out.
“I kind of found out that this wasn’t really my calling,” Rick says. “So, I decided to try to put my psychology degree to use somewhere else.”
He came to UW and worked at the graduate school administrative office wanting to start into academic advising.
“I enjoyed that experience,” Rick says. “But then the job opened up to run the undergraduate program here at EPSCoR and I decided to take it.”
Rick is in charge of EPSCoR programs, such as our Undergraduate Research Fellowships and Undergraduate research day, which support students going into the science fields, but he makes sure things run smoothly for our grant projects.
“What I do now is, I administer or organize the various aspects of the EPSCoR goals,” Rick says. “It is making sure that everything is staying on track, making sure the EOD (education, outreach and diversity) components are coming together, and making sure we stay on track with the budget.”
While he is no longer helping people in the way he originally set out to do, he is helping to make a difference in the lives of future scientists through his work with our undergraduate programs. This work is inspiring for several reasons.
“The most rewarding part is working with a diverse group of people,” Rick says. “I am able to work with scientists I wouldn’t ever normally meet and I get to work with a lot of great students through undergraduate research. I am amazed by all the different things the students are doing.”
As a student in college, Rick couldn’t imagine ever saying this, but today he loves living in Laramie. “It’s got the best of everything, essentially.” 

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo by Leah Yetter

Thursday, March 14, 2013

SRAP Alumna Courtney Gettel: Snail tails, writing skills and college life

Courtney collecting samples this summer
Snails may not have been Courtney Gettel’s ideal creature to spend the summer studying, but what they may have lacked in excitement they made up for in learning experiences. Courtney, a freshman at the University of Wyoming majoring in Zoology, spent the summer working with snails and in rivers for her Summer Research Apprentice Program (SRAP) project. The snails became the means for adjusting to living away from home, preparing for college and working on paper writing and research skills.
“It was a great experience,” Courtney says. “I learned quite a bit. It was a good introduction to more-complicated-than-high-school stuff.”
Leaving home for the first time to go to college can be difficult, especially for family people. It was one thing Courtney was worried about as high school came to an end. Her transition from high school to UW however, was eased by her participation in SRAP.
“My family and I feel that SRAP was helpful in the transition to college because living away from home for those six weeks was a good amount of time to get used to it and to get used to the freedoms, but having the responsibilities,” Courtney says. “It made coming to college a lot easier.”
By the time SRAP ended, Courtney was ready to return home to Denver, but was looking forward to coming back for the start of fall semester. Along with her first taste of living on her own and getting through homesickness, Courtney’s love of science was solidified through her project.
Courtney worked in Dr. Amy Krist’s lab alongside graduate student Brenda Hansen. The focus of their project overall was determining if snails have a preference for food with better nutrients.
“My project itself was looking at the differences of nutrition within plants in different parts of a river,” Courtney says. “Specifically, we were looking at phosphorus levels in plants.”
Part of the work involved writing a research paper. For Courtney, this was both frustrating and a great learning experience.
“It was frustrating at times because I kept getting back these papers that just had ink all over them,” Courtney says. “But then I learned quite a bit, and actually it bettered my writing for coming into college.”
Hansen’s tough grading, while wearisome at first, has served Courtney well in college.
“I don’t know if it was specifically Brenda, but my writing was definitely much more prepared for college and I’m seeing that in my labs,” Courtney says. “Some people are having trouble figuring out the labs, but I feel like I have an advantage from working with Brenda, and her expecting me to write an almost paper ready edition of my project.”
Courtney at the Laramie River this summer.
Along with the research component, SRAP introduces students to the fun things to do in the area. It aims to balance work and play, which Courtney really appreciated.
“Our weekend programs were really fun,” she says. “We got to see a play and do a ropes course at Colorado State University. That was all really fun. Even the working part was pretty fun. I liked getting to work in the lab because that’s hopefully where I’ll be when I graduate.”
Although graduation is still a few years down the road, Courtney is interested in going to graduate school for Marine Biology or to veterinary school. For now, however, she is getting the hang of studying and time management, while enjoying the college life.
“College has been wonderful,” Courtney says. “I really have enjoyed it.”
To learn more about SRAP, please visit: Applications for the Summer 2013 program are due March 15th, 2013. 

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of Dr. Amy Krist

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SRAP Alumna Mariah Strike: Seeing the Big Picture

The girls from SRAP 2010. Mariah is in the middle on the right.

Sometimes seeing the big picture is easier said than done. In the middle of a lab project or sitting through a seemingly unnecessary class, it’s hard to believe that all the pieces will come together. But, as previous SRAP (Summer Research Apprentice Program) student Mariah Strike learned during her experience, everything does come together in the end. 

Mariah participated in SRAP in 2010 between her junior and senior years of high school. Originally from Pinedale, Wyoming, she is now a sophomore at UW majoring in International Studies and Environment and Natural Resources, with a minor in Spanish. This year she is not studying at UW however. She is spending the entire year abroad, studying in Spain. 

Despite the distance, we had the opportunity to talk over email. Our virtual interview not only showed Mariah’s passions for SRAP and her education, but showed how science can be combined with so many diverse interests.

What was your SRAP lab experience like? Did it help prepare you for college?
 My SRAP project had to do with soil respiration in sage brush. My professor was Dr. Kiona Ogle and my mentor was Colin Tucker. The best part of working in Dr. Ogle's lab was that I actually felt like I was accomplishing something. While I may have done a lot of lab work that didn't seem important at the time, by the time I was done with my project I felt like I had added to their research. I think this helped me to realize that in college it might not always seem like my classes are super important, but in the long run, they will contribute to my future. I think that SRAP prepared me for college in that I became accustomed to campus life as well as interacting with professors and graduate students.

What was your favorite part of SRAP?
My favorite part of SRAP was meeting so many incredible new people. During our 7 weeks in Laramie, I made so many great friends. A few of the friends I made also go to UW. In fact, one of my two closest friends from SRAP also goes to UW. We're still friends to this day. 

You have a unique combination of academic interests. What interested you in these fields?
I came into UW declared as an International Studies major. I had chosen this because I have always had a passion for traveling and learning about other cultures. Within my IS major, I have to choose a global track (culture, politics, economics, or environment.) I chose the environmental track which led me to my first ENR (Environment and Natural Resources) class. After taking this class, I knew that I also wanted to be an Environment and Natural Resources major as well. The majors actually fit together rather well, as does the Spanish minor. For my IS major, I have to take so many credits in a language anyway, so I decided I might as well get a minor. Besides, I love learning Spanish, and I always enjoy my Spanish classes. 

What has your college experience been like so far?
My college experience has been incredible so far. As of right now, balancing everything hasn't been too hard. However, I only had my freshman year at UW before I left for my year-long study abroad. Therefore, I'm not exactly sure how hard it will be to balance everything when I get back. However, I am confident that I will be able to do it. I had a great first year in Laramie, and now I am spending my entire sophomore year in Granada, Spain. To say the least, it is an opportunity of a lifetime. 
Mariah (second from the left) with some new SRAP friends

Mariah will return to UW in the fall to finish her degrees. Her experience abroad will undoubtedly add to the lessons she learned from SRAP and will continue to help her succeed in all aspects of her academics and life.  

To learn more about SRAP, please visit: Applications for the Summer 2013 program are due March 15th, 2013.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of Mariah Strike

Friday, March 8, 2013

SRAP Alumnus Leo K. Perez Jr.: The Value of Learning Time Management

Going to college is not just about learning the specifics of your major. It’s also about learning how to be an independent, successful adult. For Leo K. Perez Jr., a sophomore at the University of Wyoming majoring in Petroleum Engineering, learning these important life skills began when he was in the Summer Research Apprentice Program (SRAP) as a high school student.
“SRAP gives you a little bit of an insight into what being on your own is going to be like,” Leo says. “In the program you’re pretty much independent and on your own. You have to take care of yourself and manage your time. I think that SRAP was pretty helpful and it helped me get a pretty good feel for the UW campus too.”
SRAP is an EPSCoR program which aims to encourage more underrepresented groups to pursue degrees and careers in science and to further their education after high school. The program gives students hands-on experiences in science labs at UW, where they conduct their own projects with a mentor and are paid to do so. Leo was in SRAP two years in a row, in 2009 and 2010.
“The first time I worked with Dr. Mark Gomelsky in Molecular Biology,” Leo says. “And then the second time I was with Kiona Ogle in the Botany department. That’s actually how I got my job. When Kiona went to Arizona, one of the grad students moved to a different lab and I got my job through him.”
Leo is an undergraduate lab technician in one of the Botany labs at UW. As a SRAP student, he studied water uptake and the ecosystem of sagebrush. The project has expanded since then, and now he is working on the broader grassland ecosystem.
While Botany and Petroleum Engineering do not exactly mesh well, Leo has found that his involvement in the lab has contributed to his education.
“I am learning the research process and how to run experiments, which could be valuable because I am thinking about staying at UW and getting my Master’s degree,” Leo says.
In his first two years at UW, Leo has been involved in a variety of academic as well as extra-curricular activities, including the collegiate Future Farmers of America (FFA). He has enjoyed having familiar faces from high school in UW’s FFA and networking with new people.
“College in general has been a lot of fun,” he says. “It was pretty difficult at first because I was adjusting to everything, including big classes, but I’m in the groove now and I’m doing pretty well with everything.”
As he reflects on the last few years, he looks again at SRAP. It introduced him to different fields of science but also to a group of new friends he would not have met in his hometown of Glendo, Wyoming.
“The whole experience in general was a complete blast!” he says. “You really get a taste of all different cultures. In Wyoming, you don’t get to experience that too much. Both summers in SRAP we had students from all over the country, so you really meet people from a lot of different backgrounds. I always thought that was pretty cool.”
This diversity and networking is exactly what EPSCoR aims for in SRAP and what SRAP encourages in the broader scientific community. 
The deadline for this year’s SRAP applications is March 15th. More detail and applications can be found at:

By Kali S. McCrackin

Monday, March 4, 2013

Investigating natural relationships: Tracing water pathways in the Snowy Range Mountain

Wil Chapple with the distillation system at UW
Challenging traditional thought is part of what science is all about. For one EPSCoR undergraduate fellow, challenging historical assumptions about the natural water system is the focal point of his research.
 “We’re trying to understand plant-water relationships and determine if the water that trees are consuming is also the water that contributes to stream flow,” says Wil Chapple, one of the first undergraduate researchers for WyCEHG.
Wil started at the University of Wyoming as a history major, but today he is studying the history of glacial events in order to better understand the water system in the Snowy Range Mountains. There were three glacial events which shaped the types of soil in the Snowies. Wil believes that these different types of soil are part of the key to understanding the water system. His motive for studying the water system comes from a discrepancy between traditional thought and recent discoveries.
“There’s a traditional thought that current precipitation mixes with old precipitation and that trees consume this and that it is part of the stream flow,” says Wil.
Recent research from another university indicates that this may not be the reality. This research shows that plants may consume water stored in soil pores from past precipitation while new precipitation goes to stream flow.
“So, some of the water that comes in as precipitation might fill up that small pores in the dry soil earlier in the season and sit there, and later snow melt events might just rush right past the trees,” says Dr. Dave Williams, Wil’s mentor for the project. “During the summer, when the plants are taking up water, they might be slowly drawing on that water from soil pores and not from the snow melt.”
In order to study this phenomenon in the Snowies, Wil is collecting samples of snow to analyze the isotope signature of the precipitation.
One of Wil's research sites
“We’re using isotopes to trace water and how that water partitions differently depending on the history of the glacial events that created the soil,” says Dr. Williams. “If the soils have no effect on the way the water moves, then water that the trees are taking up and their isotope signature is going to be the same as what the signature is downstream.”
Isotopes are useful tracers because the origin, type and temperature of precipitation determines the isotope composition, thus precipitation events have different isotope configurations. The configuration of isotopes follow some patterns in that heavy water molecules characterize summer and fall precipitation compared to that of the winter and spring. The isotope composition of a compartment of water is determined by the ratio of heavy to normal atoms, which Wil will be analyzing to determine isotope signatures.
Wil will determine the isotope ratios using the Laser Spectroscopy Isotope Analyzer in the Stable Isotope Facility at UW. This equipment vaporizes water samples and measures the absorption of different wave lengths of light. Different isotopes absorb different light frequencies. By going back and forth between frequencies, it is possible to determine the ratio of heavy to normal isotopes in the water. Wil is preparing to analyze snow samples from the last few months, which have been collected every morning there is new snowfall.
As his research continues, Wil is also busy working on the proposal for this next stage of his project. This summer he aims to collect and analyze samples of soil, water from streams and lodgepole pine. With the deadline for the summer fellowship one week away, Wil is focused on showing what he has learned and where he wants to take his work.  
“It’s been a good experience so far,” says Wil. “I feel like I’ve only kind of dipped my toes in and hopefully this summer I will really get a taste of this research and field work.”
This project has given Wil a glimpse into the life of a water scientist and helped him get a feel for what graduate school might be like, but it has also allowed him to go beyond the theoretical knowledge of the classroom and into the application of science.
A second research site
“It feels good to apply my knowledge,” says Wil. “Last semester I felt like I really came out with a lot of tangible knowledge and it was refreshing.”
Part of this knowledge came from Dr. Larry Munn, who, as Wil says, is the soil guru of UW. Dr. Munn has spent most of his life studying and developing the knowledge about the distribution of soils from the different glacial events in the Snowies. His research has been instrumental in Wil’s understanding of the Snowies.
“We’re quite fortunate that Wil has been able to work with Larry,” Dr. Williams says.
As is the goal of all WyCEHG research, Wil’s project is a collaborative process. It brings together knowledge from various fields and experts, looks at the complexities of the natural water system and aims to shed light on how historical events shape the present.
“I think this project is really cool because it brings forth this long history of glacial events and how that’s shaping how water moves in the landscape,” says Dr. Williams.
Wil’s research will shed light on the water movement and add to the body of research challenging traditional assumptions about water systems.