Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Critical Hydrology Research in the Critical Zone

Bryan with the undergraduate research team about to depart for Pennsylvania
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Shuman)

With support from EPSCoR, Paleohydrology Professor Bryan Shuman took four UW undergrads to Pennsylvania this past summer to study the long history of drought in the area. With a study area of hundreds of square miles and timeframe of thousands of years, the team sought to answer questions about the hydrological past and illuminate the future.

Ground-penetrating radar allowed the team to see the ancient shorelines of these lakes, establishing a water record dating back millennia. The team pushed plastic tubing into the lake bed to collect sediment core samples. This technique allows researchers to grab a cross-section of silt layers. 

Undergraduate researchers hard at work collecting samples on the lake
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Shuman)
  As Bryan explains, “Because this is a history of drought in natural reservoirs – when water levels were high, when they were low – we can learn about hydrology and climate change over several timescales.” Lake sediment can also be used to plot forest fires, since researchers can measure fossil charcoal deposits from burned trees. “Everything washes into these lakes over time. They’re like time capsules, big memory cells that record environmental change.”

Why Pennsylvania? Ocean temperatures in the Atlantic influence conditions throughout North America. The Atlantic coastline also boasts several Critical Zone Observatories, which study the interactions between life on the earth’s surface, microbes underground, and water flowing through the ground. These complex processes generate soil, contribute to erosion, and determine what plants grow and which animals survive. The “critical zone” is the zone where this vital interaction between geology, hydrology, and biology takes place.

The EPSCoR grant offers Bryan’s team access to these Critical Zone Observatories, and two of these sites are in Pennsylvania. The team is interested in the role water plays in these interactions, especially as it changes over time. “It’s great to take students out in the field and have them see these things for the first time. Being out in the field is such a different experience from sitting in the classroom. Learning is so much more tangible when you can pull samples out of the ground.” 

Undergraduate research team with core samples
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Shuman)
The team found evidence of drastic rises in Pennsylvania water levels. “The magnitude of that change is kind of equivalent to going from the amount of rain we have on the Great Plans to the amount of water we have on the North Coast right now. Not making it a desert, but in terms of ecosystems and plants, that would be a pretty big shift. If you were to make Pennsylvania like Illinois, that would have a big impact on the water resources that people depend on and the plants they grow.”

So far, the results seem to indicate a large increase of water in the North Atlantic region, a pattern Bryan says is similar to most of the places in the US that he has studied. The pattern extends to Wyoming, which you might be surprised to learn is much soggier than it was a few thousand years ago. “There’s definitely precedent for Wyoming being drier than it is now.” The team confirmed an overall pattern of water increase, but also found evidence of droughts lasting not just a year or two but centuries.

Bryan believes that hydrological history in the state is crucial to awareness of water conditions now and in the future. “Water’s important. We need water, and we don’t know how constant our water supply is. Looking at the past gives us a chance to see how much it can change, and what that means for the land around us.”

Posted to Wyoming EPSCoR by Jess White

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Drawn to Biodiversity" Workshop Combines Observation with Creativity

Bethann sketching in the great outdoors
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Long before iPhones and waterproof cameras, scientists would often sketch their observations of nature. Last Saturday, the UW Biodiversity Institute held a workshop called “Drawn to Biodiversity” in which students received a short course on the use of visual notetaking and observational drawing.

Wyoming EPSCoR was a sponsor of the Drawn to Biodiversity workshop. According to Liz Nysson, Wyoming EPSCoR Coordinator, “It is important to merge art with traditional scientific fields. It allows researchers to observe the world differently, and communicate their discoveries in unique and compelling ways.”

Bethann Garramon Merkle, a graduate student in UW's MFA program, taught the course, which drew on her own experience as a science writer and illustrator. Her writing and illustrations appear in a syndicated column, Drawn to the West, in the Laramie Boomerang, as well as in American Scientist, Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, and EdibleMISSOULA.

Rosehips from Bethann's sketchbook
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016

Bethann is experienced at helping others see the beauty of nature through art. On her website, CommNatural, she offers clients expert assistance with creating and publishing arresting visual and textual material. Her original artwork combines vibrant watercolor with agile pen-and-ink line drawing, a technique that captures the spontaneity and intricacy of the natural world.

Bethann designed the Drawn to Biodiversity workshop to cater to every skill level, since she believes that anyone can draw. “Drawing as we think of it today is based on a set of techniques developed during the Renaissance. These techniques absolutely can be learned, practiced, and improved - by anyone.”

As a sophomore at the University of Montana, Bethann was accepted into the Wilderness and Civilization program, a one-year multidisciplinary minor program where students learn about conservation issues. “Before this program, I was almost entirely unaware of ecology, conservation concerns, and food system issues.” Field journal practice was a major component of the program. “I had taken every science and every art class offered in my small rural high school, but the W&C Program was where I first learned these two disciplines could be complementary.”
Amphibian lore from Bethann's sketchbook
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Bethann’s science illustration relates directly to her science writing. “In a pragmatic sense, drawing compels me to look very closely at a given subject - much more closely than if I only describe that subject in writing. I also have to problem-solve visually, which involves capturing color in a visceral way, drawing and re-drawing a form until I have accurately captured the shape.”

The workshop on Saturday provided students a “toolkit” of basic skills that they could use whenever they had an opportunity to draw from life. Bethann relishes “guiding a scientist” through the creative process of drawing, and giving them the tools to solve problems and see the world in a new way.

In addition to the hands-on workshop, Bethann gave a seminar talk for the UW Department of Zoology and Physiology, “Drawn to Science: Exploring the Historical and Contemporary Synergies between Drawing, Creativity, and Science.” You can listen to a Wyocast recording of the talk here. She is currently working on a project on ecological concepts in Caldecott-Medal-winning children’s books, as well as an adaptation of “The Tortoise and the Hare” with naturalistic illustrations. 

For Bethann herself, art is a meditative experience: “Making art, particularly when I am outside, causes time to warp in a fascinating way…It’s as if there isn’t such a thing as time at all.”

If you are interested in learning how to draw from nature, you can download a field drawing basics guide from her website here.

Drawing Workshop for the Biodiversity Institute in August
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

STEM Summer Programs at UW

Energy Summer Institute students learn about temperature testing
on Prexy's Pasture

The UW campus isn’t just for college students during the summer. From May to July 2016, an estimated 600 middle- and high-school students will come to the University of Wyoming’s Laramie campus from all 23 counties across the state. Summer programs include the Healthcare Careers Summer Camp, Engineering Summer Program, Energy Summer Institute, Summer Research Apprentice Program, Women in Science, Summer High School Institute, Wyoming Energy Camp, and Upward Bound Math & Science. Most programs are offered at little or no cost to participants and serve students entering grades 6-12. 

Activity at a camp in conjunction
with the Teton Science School
Megan Candelaria coordinates a number of STEM programs for Wyoming students at UW through the new WYSTEM program. Megan grew up in Sundance, Wyoming. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Math from UW, and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in Math Education here.

As the WYSTEM coordinator, Megan works to bring together groups on campus and throughout the state who do K-12 outreach, making sure students, parents, and teachers can take advantage of STEM learning opportunities. “Since last year, we’ve generated a list of the summer programs provided by UW. I also work directly with students, and I’m currently working with the Wyoming State Science Fair to provide opportunities for STEM education to all students. We also bring six to eight groups of middle- and high-school students to campus each semester to do STEM activities.”
Students visiting campus for a STEM activity event

A summer program alum herself, Megan describes a thrilling experience: “I attended one of the camps on this list. It’s probably one of the reasons I ended up coming to UW. I was part of the Weather class, and we actually got to go up in the flight research plane for the Atmospheric Sciences Department. We got to sit up front with the pilot and put our hands on the controls. The most excitingly terrifying thing ever!”

These programs are designed to capture student interest in STEM fields, and Megan underlines that this is vital to Wyoming’s future. “Building a STEM pipeline is really important to workforce development. We want to give our students the information and the motivation to continue to learn about STEM careers and hopefully go on to make Wyoming a better place.”
Activity at a camp in conjunction with the Teton Science School

Read on for a list of the diverse programs available at UW this summer:

Program Date
5-Mar:State Math Counts
17-May:Women in Science
July 10-15:Health Careers Summer Camp - 10th/11th grade
July 17-22:Health Careers Summer Camp - 8th/9thth grade
July 24-29  Field Based Environmental Science at Spear-O-Wigwam Mountain Campus
June 12 - 17:Wyoming Energy Camp
June 12 - July 22:WY EPSCoR Summer Research Apprentice Program
June 13-July 21:Upward Bound
June 19 –June 24:Energy Summer Institute
June 19-25:Engineering Summer Program
June 21-23:Wyoming 4-H Showcase Showdown
June 5-25:High School Summer Institute
March 6-8:Wyoming State Science Fair