Friday, May 15, 2015

2015 Undergraduate Research Day at UW

On May 2, Wyoming EPSCoR co-sponsored the sixteenth annual Undergraduate Research Day at the University of Wyoming. The conference was designed to showcase student research, provide an opportunity for undergrads to practice public speaking skills, and develop the research interests that will inspire future STEM-related careers.  Students presented research in a wide variety of areas including engineering, agriculture, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. 
Presenter Blake A. Balzan,
from the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management

I spoke with Beth Cable, an Education, Outreach and Diversity Coordinator at EPSCoR and one of the organizers of this year’s event.  She was impressed by the passion students demonstrated towards their work: “Building a presentation about what interests you – what lightbulb went off – I think that’s what engages the audience.” 

Presenters offered many creative projects, from an examination of “LGBTQ Identity and Romantic Relationships in Glee,” to an exploration of the impact of diet on Alzheimer’s disease.  

Wyoming earth science and hydrology also made a strong showing, with presentations on fauna in Yellowstone, Wyoming river ecology, and a geological analysis of Wyoming’s Granite Mountains. 

I asked Beth if she has any advice for students who want to showcase their research in 2016.  She emphasized the importance of following directions during the registration process.  Careful work makes you seem responsible, and it helps you practice for more rigorous conference and journal submissions down the road.  As Beth pointed out, “professionalism goes a long way.” 

It’s also important to provide organizers with a clear, concise abstract.  The abstract is your “elevator pitch” to your audience, the preview that appears on conference schedules and websites.  With that in mind, be as direct and engaging as possible.  Put focus on your research question and offer a “big picture” summary that will resonate with readers outside your discipline.  Most of all, make your audience curious about what you’ve learned. 

Beth said that the students were a very impressive group, and that she was very excited to see the hard work they’d been doing all semester.  She’s looking forward to organizing next year’s conference and reading the next set of proposals from dedicated student researchers. 

Gregory Galli, from the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, with Dr. Suki Smaglik,
Professor of Chemistry and Geology at Central Wyoming College
EPSCoR would like to thank the students and faculty who made this year’s Undergraduate Research Day a resounding success! ​

Friday, May 1, 2015

Seeing Underground with Geophysics

Being able to “see” underground is the basis for the study of geophysics. Within the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG), geophysics helps scientists understand what is going on underground—making WyCEHG a unique interdisciplinary research center.
Model of seismic refraction datasets, created by Brady Flinchum


Graduate students Ryan Armstrong and Brady Flinchum are part of the Geophysics team at WyCEHG. Ryan is exploring changes that are happening underground in the Snowy Mountain Range in southeast Wyoming, which may be caused by vegetation changes like beetle kill. Brady is gathering information about density and porosity below the surface.

Ryan in the field (photo courtesy of Ryan Armstrong)
In the future, their research can help give WyCEHG a clearer picture of how water travels from the Snowies down into the surrounding areas. 

Ryan is making an underground geologic map of the Snowies using electromagnetic data. He collects data by measuring the speed at which electrical current travel through the ground.

This type of data helps researchers “see” the shape of features on the earth, which in this case it is a mountain. The data can also help researchers understand what the mountain is made of, since different types of rock conduct electricity in different ways.

Geophone (photo courtesy of Brady Flinchum)
While Ryan uses electrical currents to map the ground beneath our feet, Brady uses a technique called seismic refraction which uses vibration to better understand the earth. Brady’s team uses an instrument called a geophone, which is a magnet attached to a spring. When the ground vibrates, the vibration travels through the spring and the magnet. Then the geophone converts the vibration into voltage that can be measured by researchers.

Brady’s team places geophones throughout the area and then hits the ground with a sledgehammer. The geophones measure the speed of the vibrations from the impact.  Vibrations travel at different speeds depending on the density, porosity, and rock type. High velocity translates to more dense rock; low velocity can indicate porous rock like sandstone. These data sets provide cross-sections of the area, allowing Brady to create a three-dimensional image.

Interpreting this data takes careful examination. Geophysicists often see data that can be caused by many different factors.  It can be difficult, for example, to tell underground water and ore apart.  As Ryan says, “We’re seeing many contrasts between different bedrock properties, and we’re trying to tease those differences apart and see how we can use that information.”
Sledgehammer (photo courtesy of Brady Flinchum)

Every researcher involved in watershed modeling also runs into the problem of scale.  For example, the Laramie range dataset shows smaller geological features that might not translate to a larger-scale map.  Something that shows up in one place, like the striking granite hills of Vedauwoo, may not appear a few miles down the road. 

“Big picture” information is a major part of geophysics research, particularly for projects covering a large area.  These different data sets help form a detailed picture of a complex region. As Brady says, “It’s pretty neat because we’re both seeing similar stuff in our data.  Since I cover a smaller area, I’m essentially on one rock type. The weathering process and changes in underground water content are more important than the overall geological structure. Our goal is to use geophysical methods to learn more about the hydrologic and geomorphic processes within a few hundred meters of the surface.”

Brady in the field (photo courtesy of Brady Flinchum)
When asked how he became interested in Earth science, Brady said that a near-drowning experience during a Hawaiian surfing trip introduced him to the grandeur of nature. “I remember getting out of the water and looking at the ocean and thinking, ‘Wow, the Earth is so powerful.’”

His interest in geophysics stems from learning about Wyoming’s role in the water system: “We’re at the headwaters of the Midwest. The snow that falls on these mountains feeds the rivers.” 

Posted by Jess White