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.” 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Collaborative study in Chile and the Canary Islands is a perfect example of STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Mathematics

Anaga Rural Park on Tenerife (a "rural park" is a designated protected area)
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

The MFA program at the University of Wyoming offers an Environment and Natural Sciences with a double major with a broad range of courses and independent research options. Jeff Lockwood, the head of the MFA program, is an entomologist; he is happy to give students opportunities to combine creative projects with environmental research, particularly through field work: “The long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship between Creative Writing and ENR has taken many forms, with one of the most fruitful being opportunities for travel.” This December and January, two MFA poets were able to travel abroad for in-depth seminars on hydrology and agriculture.
MFA poet Jeff Tatay and ecologist Lea de Nascimento
of La Laguna University at Anaga National Park
photo credit: Jeff Tatay 

Jeff Tatay, an experimental poet from Indiana, traveled to the Canary Islands to study some of the main environmental and natural resources issues on the Island of Tenerife. The trip, offered through the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, is part of a capstone course in the ENR program. Students worked with research ecologists from the University of La Laguna.

“As a writer and photographer, I was excited to not only fulfill course requirements by engaging in lectures and field observation, but to use my skills as a conservation writer-photographer to document the trip.” Jeff Tatay describes a constant flood of inspiration: “I never went anywhere without my camera, pen, Moleskine notebook and my iPhone to record interviews. I was busy all of the time and loving every minute of it.”
Water pipes carrying water across the village
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Bananas are big business on Tenerife, and the class used an exploration of the banana industry to learn about water management. Banana trees are picky about their water, and the demand for a tasty product limits the ability of growers to take advantage of conservation techniques like water recycling. A banana plant requires about 25 liters of water per day, all of which must be “high-quality:” purified at a water treatment plant or sourced fresh. On Tenerife, the solution has been water mining: using horizontal drilling to tap into water trapped in impermeable pockets in the volcanic crust. This method, Jeff learned, requires a complex system of pipes that are constantly in need of expert maintenance; on the other hand, the mountaintop source means that gravity can deliver water to the sea-level plantations that line the coast. 
Banana-packing plant
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Doug Wachob of the Haub School explained, “This particular trip was conceived by Bill Lowenroth, a botanist who does a lot of teaching at the Haub School, and a colleague of his at La Laguna University on Tenerife Island. Tenerife is a really interesting case study because it has a population of 900,000 residents, but between 2 and 3 million tourists visiting each year. They face water issues, waste management issues, development issues, transportation issues, and policy issues, since Tenerife is part of the Spain and the EU. Students get a firsthand view of all of these issues, and then come home to take a class, the end point of which is a project proposal for the islands. Students get to see how regulation and other factors complicate development projects. I think it’s an extraordinarily cool course.” 

Banana plants
photo credit: Jeff Tatay
Doug also said that the students stayed at La Laguna University and the Mayco English School during the trip. “The class was instructed by four different La Laguna faculty members, each with a special area of expertise: economics, business structure, natural resource use, culture, and policy.” Doug was impressed by the level of instruction: “ We visited parks, sites, forests, desalinization plants, banana packing plans, plantations: a whole suite of these things. The students were highly engaged and got an opportunity to engage with a large number of professionals.”

For Jeff Tatay, the trip was a unique combination of natural beauty and environmental investigation: “Reflecting on the trip, I remember the sea of clouds blowing in with the northeast trade winds, the hundreds of endemic plant species in the Laurel forest and coastal shrub-lands, pilot whales breaching less than a mile off from the black sand beaches, the fascinating people and those unforgettable bananas. I can’t wait to start transcribing my interviews and telling the story.”
The Canary Islands national flower, Canarina canariensis or the Canary Island Bellflower
photo credit: Jeff Tata
Tiede National Park on Tenerife, with Tiede Volcano in the background
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Coastal scrublands on Tenerife (the vegetation in the foreground is Euphorbia 
canariensis or Canary Island Spurge and is endemic to the island)
photo credit: Jeff Tatay

Ammon Medina, a first-year poet and memoirist from Utah, had the chance to travel to Chile with Bill Lowenroth for a class called “Sustainable Temperate Drylands.” Students studied the effects of sheep grazing on rangeland sustainability. Ammon was glad to study with a highly diverse class, with students majoring in animal science, soil science, ranch management, economy, and food and beverage systems.

Ammon has a strong interest in Latin American studies, and is planning a second trip to Ecuador this summer, to look at heritage agricultural techniques in sheep-farming communities. This class was an in-depth introduction to ecological and social concerns related to animal management: “I went on the course because I wanted to become more familiar with South America. As a writer, I have a specific interest in the immigration and labor. In this course, we visited a ranch here in Wyoming and got a feel for how they were run and then looked at how sheep ranchers were run in Chile. So I was able to see what kind of work we had immigrants doing here in Wyoming and how that compared to the work being done on ranches in Chile.”

Ammon and Jeff are both working on creative projects inspired by the trip. In addition to a set of poems, Jeff Tatay is working on a photo-essay. Some of his work is showcased in this post. Ammon is working on a chapbook of poems and photography: “The chapbook will look at the labor of the Peruvian immigrants and the workers on the ranches in Chile. I will also write about the relationship between the land, animals, and ranchers.”

Jeff Lockwood considers these programs an integral part of creative study here at UW and in the broader world. “My sense is that these ENR trips involving creative writing students provide fantastic opportunities for deep and valuable dialogue among students in the arts and sciences—and this nexus is exactly where some of the most exciting and important ideas are emerging in terms of environmental thought.” As a scientist, essayist, and novelist, Jeff considers naturalism and creative inspiration a perfect pair: “I’m tempted to adapt the words of Albert Einstein: art without science is blind, and science without art is lame.”

photo credit: Jeff Tatay
Written by Jess White