Thursday, February 18, 2016

Student Researcher Makes Great Strides with WyCEHG

Student Researchers Annette Hein and Nadia Fantello
When Annette Hein was still at Casper College, she won a ten-thousand-dollar prize for her essay on “the origin of complexity in the universe.” Using a honeybee as an example, Annette described the manifold layers of analysis that might go into a complete description of one tiny animal. Nowas an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming, working with Dr. Andy Parsekian in UW’s Geology and Geophysics lab, Annette’s success in science has continued to grow . Last December, Annette gave a presentation on her own research at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco. “It’s an experience not a lot of students get, so I feel very lucky!” 

Dr. Parsekian’s research interest is climate change in arctic climates, and he is currently studying water flow in the Snowy Range. Geophysics research here in Wyoming is helping researchers understand hydrology in cold places. Most people are familiar with medical imaging technology – EKGs, MRIs, ultrasounds and X-rays – that use different kinds of energy to “see under the surface.” Geophysicists can use these same technologies to create images of the earth, but Dr. Parsekian’s team takes pictures of much bigger areas: “We flew a helicopter with a camera attached to it across the Snowy Range to detect water levels.” 
Annette delivering her talk at AGU

Annette was able to look at data collected by graduate students on the geological makeup of the Snowies. “The bedrock there has all these little cracks and fractures in it. Groundwater can be found in those fractures, and sometimes it travels from place to place.” Annette explains that as water moves underground there are a lot of questions about where it might go. “If there’s a lake, it might be sinking into the ground slowly, or getting recharged. I was trying to map out where the groundwater was concentrated and where it wasn’t, so I could see how the groundwater connects to water we can see on the surface.”

Annette was working with resistivity data, which measures the way electricity flows through the ground and uses that information to analyze properties like density and chemical composition. “The basic idea I started with was, ‘If rock is wetter, it ought to be more conductive.’” Soon, Annette found out that interpreting her data would be much more complicated than she thought. “I was surprised by how many different factors you had to think about. You couldn’t just start with the approach of, ‘Oh, this is conductive, it must be wet!’”
Student Researchers Annette Hein, Nadia Fantello,
and Drew Thayer in the field with NMR equipment

Annette was able to use nuclear magnetic resonance sounding (NMR), which can detect groundwater, to check some of her interpretations. “The two sets of data disagreed a lot more than I liked. I felt like I had to be very careful to make sure that any statements I was making actually could be backed up. I learned a lot about making sense of complex datasets, which is kind of the definition of a lot of geophysics. I love figuring things out and bringing things together to make a picture that isn’t obvious when you start out.”

Dr. Parsekian also talked about the importance of Annette’s research to Wyoming. “Seventy percent of our water falls on ten percent of our landscape, and that’s in the form of snow falling on mountaintops. This research is critical to understanding where our water comes from, especially in a headwater state like Wyoming that provides water to so much of the rest of the country. Annette came upon a project that is totally self-directed, which is certainly not typical for undergrads. This is an example of participating in knowledge production very early on.”   

Annette was placed in the lab by Wyoming EPSCoR’s Community College to UW Transition Program, which paid her a stipend. She’s currently working on another paper about a technical issue related to NMR. “Unfortunately, if you try to do the measurements near power lines or generators or anything that produces electromagnetic fields, the instrument picks that up and it will drown out the signal you’re really trying to get. I learned that there are ways to remove the noise from the measurement and get the signal you’re interested in.” This spring, Annette will travel to Denmark to talk to professors at Aarhus University who are also researching these signals.

Dr. Andy Parsekian
Annette’s next step is grad school. “I want to work on water resource issues. I feel like that’s only going to be a bigger issue in the next couple of decades, so hopefully I can make a contribution. It’s great to help give people a more positive attitude towards science and get interested in science. I have friends who say, ‘I could never do that!’ And they’re very smart people, but they just have this view of science as something that they could never be part of. Even if people don’t want to get into the nitty gritty, I hope they feel like science is awesome and exciting and positive.” 

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