Friday, May 5, 2017

Own It! Awards

On April 18th the legacy of women in STEM at the University of Wyoming was celebrated at the second annual Own It! Awards presented by Wyoming EPSCoR and WIMSE. This newly founded event acknowledges the strides women have made in STEM research, scholarship, and education on campus and in the community.

As you walked into the Enzi STEM center, it was obvious scientists had taken over the building. Newspaper parachutes were falling from the second story floor, children surrounded the augmented reality sand box, while others took turns identifying animal bones. One group was even bedazzling safety goggles. This year the Own it! Award included an interactive discovery center before the ceremony began. The atrium was filled with different groups demonstrating their science and sharing it with faculty, staff, families, and children. From zoology to engineering; attendees had the chances to explore STEM disciplines from across campus. 

The ceremony opened with comments from President Laurie Nichols. She welcomed attendees and presented the first ever Antell Diversity in STEM award to Judy Antell. Dr. Antell was founding director of the University of Wyoming's American Indian Studies Program. Even after 'retiring' in 2014, she partnered with Wyoming EPSCoR to direct UW's High Plains American Indian Research Institute, or HPAIRI. The vision she has held for over two decades is becoming a reality with the opening of UW's American Indian Center in Fall of 2017. Her commitment to making a place for Native American people has left a lasting legacy here at UW. 

After receiving nominations from across campus, the nomination committee met to rank each nominee based on their work and contributions in the STEM field. Award winners stood out in for their mentorship, research, engaged outreach, and overall grit.

Awards were given in a variety of categories including:
Undergraduate student: Cena Miller
Graduate student: Jimena Golcher-Benavides
Entrepreneur: Jaycey Lindsey
STEM professional: Elizabeth Traver
Non-traditional student: Sophia Kwende
Faculty Pre-tenure: Randa Jabbour
Faculty Tenure: Merav benDavid

In addition to the Own It awards, Kelly Walsh high school student Kyra Smith was honored with the National Center for Women in Information Technology with the Aspiration in Computing Award

With the success of last year’s event, women in the UW’s STEM community were eager to carry on the tradition. The event underlines the importance of visibility in STEM fields for women, highlighting the disparities that increase as women complete their studies and enter the job market. Palentologist Dr. Ellen Currano worked to draw attention to the minority of females in STEM fields by developing the Bearded Lady Project. The film, which premiered this year, was developed to change the face of women in science by using false beards. Currano shared her story of challenging stereotypes in a fun and creative way at last year’s event and is continuing to Own It.

The legacy Wyoming EPSCoR has founded with the Own It! Awards we be carried on and will continue to support and enrich the women in the STEM community for years to come.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Let's Talk about Water

After three flights and hours of tight connections as well as seats, Linda Leilinfeld arrived in Laramie. One of her first comments was on the night sky, flying in offered her a familiar memory –landing in Cuba in the 1980s. Originally from New York, this worldly woman had arrived in Wyoming for a Let’s Talk About Water event, an evening of dialogue and film designed to facilitate a conversation around the social justice issues relating to who has access to the west’s water and why. Linda is the creator and director of Let's Talk about Water and has traveled across the country helping sponsor events such as this one.
The Multicultural Association of Student Scientists (M.A.S.S.) received a grant from the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUASHI) to put on the event. M.A.S.S. is a student organization that promotes student recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in science at U.W. They host and participate in a variety of social and academic events on campus. They were interested in hosting this event due to their own focus on social justice issues, as well as Wyoming's dependency on water resources. They also teamed with the Haub School of Environmental and Natural Resources in the creation and promotion of the film screening.

The event was kicked off with an award winning film "Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West" This film takes a look at the Colorado River Pact and the value of water in the west. The film invites a variety of stakeholders to the conversation and with each perspective sheds light on news ways of rethinking water conservation. Wyoming is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River and is one of the seven states that depends on it's water. 

To continue the conversation after the film screening, M.A.S.S. opened a panel discussion. The panel included U.W. climatologist Dr. JJ Shinker, Colorado Riverkeeper John Weisheit, U.W. Associate Professor of Law Dr. Jason Robison, Johnathon Bowler, and Howard Dennis. The interdisciplinary group offered insight to the themes of the film based on their own backgrounds. M.A.S.S. students look forward to continuing the conversation across campus with more events such as this one. Ultimately bringing people together to talk about a water, a resource we all depend on, will allow us to step forward into a future of water conservation.  

Friday, March 24, 2017

Wyoming Researchers Explore the Future of Food, Energy, and Water

The University of Wyoming will partner on two different research projects under an EPSCoR Track 2 grant awarded by the National Science Foundation.

The first project under this grant will study the effects of carbon mitigation scenarios on the upper Missouri River Basin. UW will collaborate with researchers from the University of Montana and the University of South Dakota to explore the implementation of a new energy system called BECCS, which stands for Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.

Bioenergy is classified as crops that are grown for fuel purposes, such as corn used in ethanol.
Carbon capture and storage is a technology that takes carbon that is released into the atmosphere by power plants and compresses it into a liquid form. Once in this form it can be stored underground miles below the surface.

Photo Credit: Global CCS Institute
By implementing BECCS in the future, there is the potential to combat the high CO2 levels in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change. This technology is still fairly new and untested, which allows for the opportunity to further research.

This project will investigate the effects this energy system may have on social, economic, and environmental aspects of the area. Through modeling and extensive field research, scientists hope to better understand how to produce clean energy without creating conflict with food security.

Another component of the project is diversifying the STEM workforce. The schools are looking to involve Tribal Colleges in the area to reach out to Native American student populations.

The second Track 2 project will see University of Wyoming researchers working in a collaborative group to study different methods to convert biomass into various materials for energy and food and water production. The team is led by Jackson State University, and will include University of Delaware and University of Mississippi.

Photo Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration
The researchers from the four campuses will focus on biomass to oil and biochar. Biofuel is not only clean but also renewable. Biochar has the potential to be used as an inexpensive energy source that benefits environmental quality and soil fertility. Through this research, scientists may find methods of using the biomaterials that were traditionally thought of as wastes for energy and food production, as well as water resource conservation.

The team of scientists from the University of Wyoming, led by School of Energy Resources Professor Maohong Fan, is interdisciplinary, with researchers spanning three different colleges specializing in a variety of disciplines within engineering and agriculture. Specifically Professors Maohong Fan, Hertanta Adidharma, Gang Tan, Khaled A. M. Gasem, Maciej Radosz, and Jian Cai in the College of Engineering and Applied Science; Professor Urszula Norton in College of Agriculture; and Professor Gang Tan, John Boman, and TeYu Chien. Social scientist Professor Boman will inform the team about social and economic impacts of this technology on the state.

An outcome of this project is a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of bio-resources for application in developing energy, food, and water sustainable technologies. The team is also looking towards recruiting new faculty, graduate and post doctorate researchers, and undergraduate students to develop a diverse workforce.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What's Underneath Medicine Bow Peak?

Medicine Bow Peak has become a familiar landmark for those of us who live in Laramie. In the summer, avid hikers take on the trail to catch a glimpse of the amazing views from the peak. Yet we rarely think about the Earth that lies beneath us, and the clues it contains to help us better understand our world.

University of Wyoming soil science masters student Zoe Ash-Kropf spent her summer digging beneath the mountain to conduct research on permafrost in the area.

Zoe and her team navigate the Medicine Bow Peak trail down to their site.
Permafrost is frozen soil that typically occurs in the northern hemisphere tundra, but it has also been documented in the Rocky Mountain Region in high alpine areas.

"Permafrost has the ability to sequester, or store, carbon for a long amount of time. When it thaws, the carbon is released from the soil and back into the atmosphere," Zoe explains.

The release of carbon from the soil plays a critical role in the carbon cycle and in climate change. Studying the amount of carbon released and where permafrost occurs can give scientists more information on how this effects climate change.

Originally from Oregon, Zoe received her undergraduate degree in crop and soil science from Oregon State University. Her curiosity about permafrost drove her to apply for the Graduate Assistant position at the University of Wyoming working on the project.

"Soil science is the ultimate interdisciplinary science; it includes biology, geology, and chemistry, and that's what really got me into it," Zoe says.

Zoe takes measurements out in the field.
Zoe has worked on the project with two advisors; Dr. Karen Vaughan and Dr. Linda Van Diepen. Through the project the group has found a variety of clues that indicate the past presence of permafrost. Patterned ground and soil profiles revel how rock beneath the surface has moved.

"When permafrost thaws it moves things around, which can change rock orientation below the surface," Zoe explains.

But the development and the mineralogy of the soil are not the only area of exploration for the project. There are also microbial communities that can live in permafrost.

"The microbes living there also play an important role in carbon release," Zoe says.

Zoe and her team gathered around a soil pit in search of clues indicating permafrost. 
Zoe is interested in further research on the mineralogy of the soil, and would like to look into how wind blown silt plays a role in the permafrost soil profile.

"We didn't find frozen soil, but it is almost more exciting, because we know it used to be there, but its turned into so many more research questions," Zoe says.

This unique fieldwork opportunity has been full of surprises and new discovers for Zoe and her team. One day Zoe and a friend returned to their site to take bulk density measurements. To take this measurement they had to dig soil pits, which proved to be very difficult in the rocky terrain.

"It was cold and windy, we were miserable, so we laid down in this dried up pond near our site. It turned out to be a great shelter from the wind," Zoe recounts.

Eventually the team would be able to overcome the complications of taking bulk density measurements by creating a new method better suited for the soil. They even plan on publishing a paper describing this new method to better help others who may be facing some of the same problems.

Zoe looks forward to getting back out into the field this summer to uncover the answers to their new research questions. She is looking for an undergraduate research assistant to help with field work, lab work, and data entry for the project. If you are a student interested in soil science and would like to learn more about applying visit: 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Communicating Science through Storytelling

"What is the difference between information and wisdom?" Morgan Heim, film producer turned professor, asked the class. We sat silently trying to formulate a coherent answer. "Now I know what my students feel like," one of the professors in the room joked.

Scientists are typically focused on the information they are able to gain to better understand our world. From collecting data to conducting experiments, they are constantly charged with gathering and processing information. Yet some of this can be lost in translation as they try to communicate their findings to the larger public. The Storytelling for Scientists video workshop, February 16th - 18th, was a three day boot-camp style event that offered scientists and other communicators tools to effectively tell their story through film.

Jane Zelikova and Morgan Heim, producers of the film End of Snow, led the workshop. End of Snow was an EPSCoR funded project that focuses on the effects of climate change in the Rocky Mountain Region the University of Wyoming calls home. A short from the film, The Snow Guardian, spent a few weeks at the top of National Geographic’s what to watch list, was featured in the Atlantic Magazine and was seen on CNN’s Big Idea. It has enjoyed over 2 million views since launching in December. After the success of their creative scientific collaboration, Jane and Morgan came back to the University of Wyoming to host a workshop to help scientists also begin using film to express the key concepts of their science.

Workshop participants ranged in experience and expertise. There were scientists, communicators, faculty, and students that were eager to learn more about video storytelling.
Sarah Konrad works on narration for her film in the Wyoming Public Radio studio.
Attendees learned how to develop a science story, how to capture and edit footage, and how to add narration to their films. Time was spent in the classroom learning techniques and then applied out in the field, the workshop’s boot camp design allowed for participants to learn a new technique, practice it, and then go out and apply it in a real world filmmaker setting.

Participants worked in small groups to produce a short 1-2 minute science film. Each group was assigned a topic at the beginning of the workshop. Topics included the language of science, women in science, odd science couples, and a day in the life of a scientist. Participants were able to receive direct feedback from Jane and Morgan as they went through the process of creating their own films.

The workshop was concluded with a screening party where groups could share their final products with the class. The 8 hour days paid off when participants could see the power and effect these films had on others.

In a world filled with information, scientific storytelling can allow us to impart wisdom.

Now scientists across UW have developed the skills needed to use video as a medium to not only better communicate their research, but to also show others why their research matters. An example of the final product from one group, Women in Science can be seen here

Friday, February 3, 2017

UW Fostering Diversity in STEM Fields

After a semester of working as the communications intern for Wyoming EPSCoR, it has been brought to my attention the underrepresentation of minority groups in STEM fields. As a female, and more importantly as a writer, it is important to me that we bring together people with diverse backgrounds. Although science is objective, it is also inherently human. We all perceive and observe the world differently and when we invite different viewpoints to the conversation we are more likely to innovate and develop the STEM fields.

On Wednesday morning, I was assigned the task of covering the Diversity in STEM presentation. This immediately brightened my day, it's always a treat to step out of the office to interact with students and faculty. The talk was part of a series of events happening during the week in correspondence with the MLK Days of Dialogue .

Teddi Hofmann, the K-14 Project Coordinator for UW's College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), led the program. One of the first statistics Hofmann presented was, CEAS currently has a female enrollment rate of 18%, which is close to the national average. I was shocked to learn this fact, but at the same time I was intrigued to see how we might go about solving this problem.

After talking with minority students at UW, Hofmann found part of the problem with fostering diversity in STEM fields was students had trouble finding good mentors within their fields of study. To combat this issue, Hofmann announced the launch of a new CEAS mentorship program for females. Starting in the Fall of 2017 female students will be paired with alumni mentors. These mentors will offer support and guidance to students in both their personal and professional lives. There will be one on one meetings as well as group meetings to enhance a sense of community.

The pilot program will begin on a small scale, with about 5 student/alumni pairs. Teddi is hopeful that if other colleges see the mentorship program that CEAS is implementing, that they will be inspired to start their own. The SWE is also beginning to develop a mentorship program between K-12 students and undergraduate/graduate students here at UW. Many younger female students are interested in science and math, but loose interest as they enter middle school or high school. The SWE mentorship program would offer a place for girls to build interest in STEM fields and to see the opportunities available in higher education.

Along with these mentorship programs, I was thrilled to discover all of the current organizations on campus that support minority students. These communities play a critical role in diversifying the STEM fields because they offer a place for students voices to be heard. Student leaders from Multicultural Association of Student Scientists (MASS), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) presented at the event. All of the groups are working on career development, outreach programs, and social activities that allow for the success of minority students.

The theme for this years MLK Days of Dialogue was the Fierce Urgency of Now. The presentation highlighted this by focusing on the developments we are already seeing here on campus, as well as a bright vision for the future. It was inspiring to see the students who spoke as representatives for their organization, because you could see how these groups had positively impacted their experience here at UW. While the statistics regarding diversity in STEM may seem disheartening, I realized it is not only about the numbers. It is about the people who are working to improve our communities. The heart of the solution is listening to their stories, so their experiences may be validated and heard.

Photos: 1, 2