Lynn Fenstermaker: Celebrating a Career  in Ecological Remote Sensing and NASA Space Grant Leadership

Lynn Fenstermaker: Celebrating a Career in Ecological Remote Sensing and NASA Space Grant Leadership

Lynn Fenstermaker: Celebrating a Career in Ecological Remote Sensing and NASA Space Grant Leadership

January 25, 2023

Lynn Fenstermaker
Remote Sensing
NASA Space Grant

Above: Always looking for NASA Mission relevant images, Lynn Fenstermaker took this photograph of the Neowise Comet with the Big Dipper above along the Lee Canyon Road in the Spring Mountains on July 18, 2020.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

Lynn Fenstermaker, Ph.D., recently retired from DRI after 32 years. Throughout her career as an ecologist and remote sensing scientist, she tackled large-scale questions about environmental stressors, including the impacts of climate change and wildfires on Great Basin and Mojave Desert ecosystems.

Her long list of career achievements includes serving as Director of the Nevada Space Grant Consortium and Nevada NASA EPSCoR, as well as two statewide research programs examining the effects of climate change: the Nevada Desert FACE Facility (NDFF) and the Mojave Global Change Facility (MGCF). She also acted as Director of the Nevada Climate-ecohydrological Assessment Network (NevCAN). Fenstermaker served on three national boards (National Space Grant Foundation, National Space Grant Council Executive Committee, and NASA EPSCoR Caucus) and a state board that governs the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems. At DRI, she served as Deputy Director of the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences.

Fenstermaker – who was recently admitted to her high school’s hall of fame – shared some of the biggest projects of her career, plans for retirement, and the advice she would give to young scientists following in her footsteps.

Fenstermaker and Knight

Fenstermaker (with Eric Knight, UNLV) collecting multi-spectral images with UAS.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: What first brought you to DRI?

Fenstermaker: When I first came to Las Vegas, I had just wrapped up all but the writing for my master’s degree in agronomy at the Pennsylvania State University. I took a job with the EPA’s Remote Sensing Lab, where I got involved in a lot of projects all across the country, from Montana down through Nevada. (Note: Fenstermaker worked on the EPA’s first ever GIS project, which modeled groundwater contaminant plumes to identify the sources of contamination. This project helped demonstrate how GIS could produce useful information for the EPA).

After I finished my master’s in 1986, I moved to Las Vegas to take a job at Lockheed, where I worked for a little over two years. While I was there, I got to know the director of the Environmental Research Center at UNLV and worked there for three years. When I decided to leave, I created my position at DRI, which was initiating a cooperative agreement with the EPA lab here in Las Vegas. So, I said “Hey, I would like to do this work, but I’d like to do it in collaboration with the other remote sensing scientists at DRI.” The EPA said yes, so I sort of created my own position.

I’ve been at DRI ever since, and that’s been 32 years. Which doesn’t seem possible because I’m still young on the inside.

team competing in national soil judging contest

Fenstermaker’s nearly all-female PSU team competing at the National Soil Judging Contest in Nebraska. Fenstermaker is second from the right.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: What encouraged you to stay at DRI for so many years?

Fenstermaker: I like the flexibility of being able to take on different projects. Everyone who’s been at DRI for some length of time knows that funding can be challenging – there were times when I scrambled for funding, particularly when we lost the cooperative agreement with the EPA lab. It was at that time that I decided to go for my Ph.D., so I was working full time in a soft money environment, keeping myself fully funded, taking classes, and working on a dissertation – It took me 11 years to finish my Ph.D.

After my Ph.D. I thought about going to a university to teach and do research while having a hardwired salary. But then I talked with faculty about all the university stressors, and I thought, “Well, at DRI there’s only one big stressor – and that’s keeping yourself funded.” So, I networked a lot, and I think having a collaborative spirit really helped me to get involved in various projects, as well as my organizational skills.

DRI: Tell me about the NevCAN project.

Fenstermaker: NevCAN’s goals were to develop standardized infrastructure with real time data collection to measure and analyze the effects of climate variability and change on ecosystems and disturbance regimes. We also wanted to better quantify and model changes in water balance and supply under climate change.

Essentially, it’s a series of meteorological stations with common sensors across two mountain ranges in Nevada. The stations are centered within each ecosystem type. And we’re looking at weather variability and climate at different elevations.

We measure incoming solar radiation (long and shortwave), and incoming precipitation, as well as factors that affect that including wind speed, wind direction, and air temperature at different heights. We also measure soil moisture and soil temperature, and within vegetation, we measure the fate of the water: how much is transpired from trees or evaporated from the soil surface, how much went into deep leaching and potentially could enter the groundwater at some point in time.

Unfortunately, when you’re looking at climate variability and change, you can’t just measure for five years and say, voila – no, it’s long-term monitoring. And a lot of the federal agencies don’t want to pay for long term monitoring.

NevCAN transect locations

NevCAN transect locations in Nevada’s Snake Range.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: Can you describe some of your other large projects, the Desert FACE Facility, and the Mojave Global Change Facility?

Fenstermaker: The Desert FACE facility fumigated an intact ecosystem with elevated CO2 to determine plant and ecosystem response to the increased CO2. We published a Nature paper in 2014 that was pretty much a summary of the project data. What was interesting about this is that overall, we saw retention of carbon in the soil, not in the plant matter.

The Mojave Global Change Facility looked at what would happen with soil disturbance, nitrogen deposition and increased summer monsoon precipitation. Because earlier climate models predicted an increase in summer rain in the Mojave Desert due to global warming, we simulated increased summer precipitation. The models have since changed, and both the models and weather data clearly show that this isn’t the case. Monsoon flow is not bringing more summer precipitation into the Mojave Desert.

We’re maintaining both sites for future research, because they’re really unique, one-of-a-kind research sites in the world.

female digging holes in the desert

Fenstermaker hand-digging holes for rain gauges at the Mojave Global Change Facility.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: Tell me more about your work as the Director of Nevada NASA EPSCoR.

Fenstermaker: EPSCoR is the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. It’s a program funded by Congress for states who receive less than 0.75% of all NSF research dollars, or less than 10% of all federal research dollars.

The history of this program is interesting. During World War II, there was a lot of buildup along the coasts of the United States. And a lot of industry was concentrating in these regions, and as universities started partnering with industry to build their programs, they got a lot of research dollars. Additionally, most of the NASA centers are located along the coast. There are only a few that are quasi- interior, like Glenn Research Center in Ohio, but the rest are in Virginia, Texas, California, and Louisiana. This is why the interior states largely got left behind. EPSCoR is a way of spreading out the funding to the interior states who do not have those industry collaborations or that rich history of developing unique research infrastructure capabilities. The states that primarily benefit are Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alaska, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The Nevada Desert FACE facility was a DOE EPSCoR project.

Director of Nevada NASA EPSCoR and the Nevada Space Grant Consortium

Fenstermaker served as the Director of Nevada NASA EPSCoR and the Nevada Space Grant Consortium.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: You also served as Director of the Nevada Space Grant Consortium. Can you talk a little about that?

Fenstermaker: NASA requires that in EPSCoR states, whoever is the Space Grant director also serves as that state’s NASA EPSCoR director. Space Grant is all about improving STEM education, so we run solicitations and review panels to make sub awards to Nevada faculty and students. Some of the most important solicitations we do are undergraduate research scholarships, graduate student fellowships, and student internships at NASA centers.

I convene a faculty review panel of at least three members, each one from a different Nevada System of Higher Education institution, to review all of the applications, then convene the panel and make the selection for who receives funding. I do the same for faculty awards. On the Space Grant side, we fund faculty to improve higher education or pre-college education. For both of those we have a hands-on training component for either college students or pre-college students. One of the successful programs has been a program where a UNR faculty member mentors at an engineering high school in Reno, and they build a human-powered rover to take to Huntsville, Alabama, to participate in national competitions. And every time they’ve gone, they’ve won one or more awards.

On the pre-college side, in addition to the hands-on training for students, we also fund teacher training. The DRI Science Alive team has been quite successful at applying for these funds.

So, I oversee all of that, and go to the national meetings: I’ve served on the National Space Grant Council Executive Committee, which is the group of directors from across the country that connects the Space Grant program to NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement. I’m handing over the role of Secretary of that Committee to Eric Wilcox, the incoming NV Space Grant and NV NASA EPSCoR Director.

DRI: What are your plans for retirement? 

Fenstermaker: I’m going to exercise more, and I’ll continue to work part time. I’m going to try to wrap up things with NevCAN and with the Desert FACE and Mojave Global Change Facilities so they can remain intact and be passed forward.

I also started watercolor painting a couple of years ago, which is fun. And I’ll keep hiking and bicycling.  Basically, I’ll be figuring out this transition as it happens.

DRI: What advice do you have for young researchers or young climate change scientists?

Fenstermaker: Not to have too high of expectations — I always compared myself with people that were putting out 200+ publications over the course of their career, and that’s just not who I am. It’s important to learn who you are and accept yourself, recognize your strengths, as well as where to challenge yourself — and to network. Communication is critical.

Don’t strive for perfection, or you’ll really disappoint yourself or fall behind. Just strive to meet your obligations and do it reasonably well. Also, you’ve got to schedule personal time, as well as work time. For example, if you’re going to a conference in a cool area, schedule a couple of days before or after and do a little sightseeing, take a significant other with you and make time for family and yourself so that you don’t burn out.

soil presentation for 4H

A young Lynn Fenstermaker presented 4-H projects on soil conservation, geology, fossils, and insects.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: Is there anything else you think is important?

Fenstermaker: A few more words of wisdom: Watch for windows of opportunity, because a lot of things I got involved in came from communicating with people who opened a window of opportunity for me, and I said yes.

Overall, DRI has been a great place to work, particularly at the Southern Nevada Sciences Center. It feels like family. It’s a great organization because you have the flexibility to go in a lot of different directions with your research, and work collaboratively across disciplines and across institutions, which is really rewarding.

DRI Opens Doors to Careers in Scientific Research with Student Internship Program

DRI Opens Doors to Careers in Scientific Research with Student Internship Program

DRI Opens Doors to Careers in Scientific Research with Student Internship Program

Jan. 24, 2023

Water Treatment
Water Filters

The first in DRI’s Behind the Science Blog coverage of our fall 2022 Research Immersion Internship Series.

This fall, DRI brought eleven students from Nevada’s community and state colleges to the Las Vegas and Reno campuses for a paid, immersive research experience. Over the course of the 16-week program, students worked under the mentorship of DRI faculty members to learn about the process of using scientific research to solve real-world problems. This unique internship program welcomes all students, not only those pursuing majors in science, who are in their first or second year of enrollment at local state and community colleges.

Students for the 2022 fall semester joined from the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, and Truckee Meadows Community College.

“Hands-on experience in science, working directly with experienced mentors, is one of the best ways to help students explore careers in scientific fields, and DRI’s internship program opens up this opportunity to more students across Nevada,” says Meghan Collins, M.S., who leads the internship program. “We’re thrilled to have continued support from MGM Resorts and the Hearst Foundations in order to bring more potential future scientists to DRI.”

The students wrapped up their semester-long internships on Dec. 20 by presenting lightning talks about their research to the DRI community. Their research spanned multiple scientific disciplines, from Nevada’s endangered species, to improving access to drinking water quality in Ghanaian communities, to monitoring Earth’s urban climates from space.

DRI’s Behind the Science Blog will highlight each research team’s accomplishments over a series of five stories.

Applications for fall 2023 internships will open in spring 2023.

In this story, we learn about Erick Bandala’s student interns and their quest to find solutions for communities struggling with a persistent and overlooked problem: the health impacts of high concentrations of fluorides in their drinking water.

Female scientist testing water samples in lab

Left: Intern Shaezeen Vasani tests the efficacy of three different experimental materials in removing fluoride from water. Right: The experimental set-up in Erick Bandala’s lab. 

Credit: DRI.

flouride water samples in flasks in lab

Student Interns Help Erick Bandala Develop a Water Treatment Prototype for Fluoride Removal

Student Researchers: Jennifer Arostegui, Rocio Cortez, Shaezeen Vasani

Faculty mentor: Erick Bandala, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Environmental Science Additional Mentor: Adam Clurman, Student Worker in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences

Fluoride is largely known as a toothpaste additive – the American Dental Association recommends fluoride toothpastes because they help prevent cavities and strengthen tooth enamel. Many communities around the world add fluoride to their drinking water supply for the same reason. But when people consume too much fluoride – more than the 0.7 parts per million recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – a number of health problems can arise.

“Normally, we hear positive news about fluoride – that it has been proven to rebuild and strengthen tooth enamel,” said intern Rocio Cortez. “However, a high concentration can pose a great danger.”

The Risks of Fluoride Over-Consumption

Fluorides are actually compound elements where the element fluorine combines with other substances, usually metals. They naturally occur in Earth’s rocks and soils, following rain and erosion to make their way into watersheds. Nearly all water contains some level of fluorides, but the geologic history of a region can sometimes lead to far higher levels than average.

Once inside the body, fluorides move through the bloodstream and concentrate in areas with higher calcium, including teeth and bones. Persistent exposure to higher levels can cause dental fluorosis, which discolors teeth and increases the risk of tooth decay. However, some communities are exposed to such high levels of fluorides that skeletal fluorosis can occur, which results from the buildup of fluorides in bones. This leads to joint stiffness and pain, brittle bones, and bone fractures.

“At high levels, fluoride starts to replace calcium in the teeth and bones,” said faculty mentor Erick Bandala. “And we have found places – for example, in Ghana – where the fluoride concentration may be as high as 50 milligrams per liter, which is far higher than the guideline of 1.5 milligrams per liter set by the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Closer to home, Bandala’s research team found wells in central Nevada’s Walker Lake Indian Reservation where the fluoride concentration is around 5 milligrams per liter, nearly three times the WHO guideline.

Excess fluoride can be removed from water with the aid of specialized filters and reverse osmosis, but many communities don’t have access to the proper technology, or the expertise needed to maintain it. Recognizing this, Bandala set out to identify inexpensive, readily available materials that can be used as water filters.

“We are developing materials that can remove contaminants from the water using the concept of circular economy,” Bandala said. “This means that we want to use material that for someone is considered a waste and turn it into something that can be used for water treatment.”

Researching Water Filters for Fluoride Removal

For their internship project, the students examined the potential efficacy of three different materials for removing fluorides from water. The first material, calcium hydroxyapatite (or “bone dust”), is derived from cattle bones. The second, sulfuric biochar, is created from pine wood that had been infected by beetles. The third material, phragmites, is a common invasive plant found in wetland areas.

“For our experiments, the materials were under a process called chemisorption,” said intern Jennifer Arostegui. “This process uses high pressure and high temperatures.”

Chemisorption causes new chemical bonds to form, allowing fluorides to bind to the experimental material and be subsequently removed from the water. The students tested various concentrations of each material over the course of approximately 70 different tests. Their results showed that unheated calcium hydroxyapatite was the most effective at filtering fluoride from water, followed by sulfuric biochar and then phragmites.

Another experiment examined each material to determine whether it was hydrophobic (water repelling) or hydrophilic (water attracting) and compared this to their results for fluoride removal. The students found that this wasn’t a critical factor in determining how effectively the experimental materials scrubbed fluoride from the water.

testing materials in lab

The interns tested how efficiently three different materials removed fluoride from drinking water: calcium hydroxyapatite, sulfuric biochar, and phragmites. 

Credit: DRI.

Embracing the Research Experience

The student researchers benefitted from their hands-on experience in the lab as well as immersion in the DRI community. They shared some of their highlights and surprises, as well as how the internship helped guide their future studies and careers.

“This experience was eye opening,” said intern Shaezeen Vasani, a student at the College of Southern Nevada studying physical sciences. “Every day I learned something new and could not wait to come back in to continue my project. Every time I thought I learned everything, something new would be brought to my attention.”

Vasani said she was surprised by the scientific process, especially when experimental results varied from her expectations. “While running tests, our numbers should have been decreasing but instead it was increasing for some of the materials,” she said, referring to the fluoride concentrations with treatment. “We later learned from our mentor that this could be due to the chemical properties in some of the materials and their interaction with our project’s contaminants.” 

For intern Arostegui, the highlight of the internship experience was the ability “to actually get involved and introduced to a laboratory outside of school. In our group, we learned how to use a spectrophotometer, use reagents/stock solutions, and weighed/prepped our own samples.”

She says she was surprised to be part of a research team that respected her as a collaborator. “The biggest surprise for me was being referred to as a ‘scientist,’ ‘researcher,’ and even ‘engineer’ by my mentor and colleagues,” she said. “I have only seen myself as a student.”

Arostegui is studying environmental management at the College of Southern Nevada and has a specific interest in water resources and says that the internship encouraged her to continue studying hydrology and geology. “This was such a positive experience to be a part of,” she said. “I am forever grateful.”

Prior to the internship, intern Rocio Cortez had focused her undergraduate studies on business administration. Now, she says her career goals have shifted. “I have put in some thought into pursuing a graduate degree that relates to STEM,” she said. “In addition, it has also made me want to volunteer and look for opportunities similar to this internship.”

“When I first started the internship, I really did not know what to expect,” Cortez said. “Through every step of the way, my teammates and I received guidance and support from our mentor… I would like to thank DRI for having this internship and opening its doors to students outside of STEM.”

More Information

To learn more about the DRI Research Immersion Internship, go to

Estom Yumeka Maidu Student Teaches DIY Air Filtration Techniques to Help Reservation Communities During Wildfire Season

Estom Yumeka Maidu Student Teaches DIY Air Filtration Techniques to Help Reservation Communities During Wildfire Season

Estom Yumeka Maidu Student Teaches DIY Air Filtration Techniques to Help Reservation Communities During Wildfire Season

January 17, 2023

By Robin Smuda, Climate Reporter Intern

Air Filtration
Reservation Communities
Wildfire Season

Wildfires affect all in their way, from the places burned as fuel to the areas filled with smoke. Across the western U.S., climate change is leading to warmer, drier conditions and contributing to longer, more active fire seasons. In the Great Basin and other parts of the western U.S., indoor air filtration during wildfire season has become a problem. Many houses have no particulate filtration systems, and this is especially true on reservations. Possible solutions can be expensive and materials can be hard to obtain, but Piercen Nguyen and his colleagues Meghan Collins and Jade Nguyen of DRI have a proven solution.


Piercen Nguyen, DRI workshop intern and member of Enterprise Rancheria, Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe, is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and became interested in the health impacts of wildfire smoke while working on a project for the Center for Genomic Medicine at DRI in Reno, Nev. Studying lung cell damage from prolonged episodes of wildfire smoke, he saw the physical effects of smoke on lung tissue.

According to Nguyen, the standard way of studying lung tissue involves using liquid smoke extracts introduced to the tissue. However, the team at DRI took a more realistic approach by “generating wildfire smoke and pumping it directly into an exposure chamber containing lung tissues,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen explains that they found that a type of cancer cell seemed to be resilient to wildfire smoke. They also found that wildfire smoke from different geographic areas has unique consequences on lung cell functions. This research had him thinking about the effects of smoke on communities. Back home in California, Nguyen’s community has been damaged by fires in the past, and his community members have been exposed to fire smoke heavily over time. People who rely on evaporative cooling systems have had to choose between overheating or breathing clean air, Nguyen said. Working with this project and seeing the effects of smoke on lung tissue sparked the idea to develop a usable solution for these communities.

Fire is an issue that hits very close to home for Nguyen. “There are tribal members, who have lost homes like, one person in my tribe lost their home twice to wildfires,” Nguyen said.


In the western U.S., fire has always been a part of life, but decades of fire suppression have led to unhealthy fuel buildups, and changes in climate such as increased drought and heat are contributing to longer and more active fire seasons. These effects of climate change touch the whole region. Wildfire smoke is harsh and dangerous for communities even if a fire is not threatening them. Communities have an exacerbated problem of poor air quality in these times, and some people need extra air filtration equipment for their homes.

Tools like the AirNow map show the dangers of fire and smoke in real-time. And regions like Northern Nevada have issues with fire danger and pollution from larger fires in Western areas. Recently the danger of this smoke has grown and stayed hazardous during summer and fall.

As seen in the graphics below, EPA air quality data from the summer and fall seasons of 2020 and 2021 in the Reno and Douglas County areas of Nevada show PM 2.5 reached “moderate” to “hazardous” levels for longer than any other period on record. PM2.5 is particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and is generated by various sources including wildfire smoke.

air quality data in reno

A tile plot generated from the EPA website shows a long period of “moderate” to “hazardous” air quality in Reno, Nev. during the summer and fall of 2020 and 2021. These were the most severe periods of poor air quality on record for this region, dating back to 1999. 

Data Source: EPA.

air quality data in douglas

In Douglas County, Nev., PM2.5 data has only been collected regularly since 2013, but patterns support what has been observed in Reno. Residents of Douglas County experienced long periods of “moderate” to “hazardous” air quality during late summer and fall of 2020 and 2021.

Data Source: EPA.


Tribal housing infrastructure is very susceptible to issues like wildfire and smoke. Standing buildings are usually old designs that can have issues like lead paint and toxic flooring. They can be manufactured homes or trailers that are long past expected use. Elements like extreme cold and heat waves are an issue throughout the Great Basin, but many reservation homes are only equipped with woodfire stoves for heating, and swamp coolers, window units, or nothing for cooling.

On the Stewart colony of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, most homes have nothing or swamp coolers for cooling air.

“So, people have to choose between either dealing with the heat or if it’s smokey outside, you know, just dealing with the smoke,” Nguyen said.

Using only low-cost materials that are easily found at a home improvement store like Home Depot, Nguyen learned how to make a simple air filtration system alongside the swamp coolers that were built into many reservation homes.

The do-it-yourself (DIY) filter system has been around a while, Nguyen remarked. The type of system he learned to build has been shown to be both effective and safe by the U.S. EPA {US, 2022, Research on DIY Air Cleaners to Reduce Wildfire Smoke Indoors}. The cost is under $50 and uses a box fan, cardboard, tape, and two air filters.

This design was made and chosen for keeping cost and complexity low. We also talked about manufactured air purifiers. Nguyen said most will work for smoke, just one must research the filter and have money for the cost.


The price and availability of air filters are major issues for rural Tribal Communities, due to the distance many people would need to travel to buy supplies and the economics of the areas. This means many communities are staying at risk of wildfire smoke (and wildfires themselves).

For the last year, the researchers have been doing workshops on different reservations in Northern Nevada and Northern California to teach people how to build low-cost filtration systems for their homes. They received a grant in May of 2022 from the DRI Lander Endowment that allows them to provide the materials to these communities for free. So far, they have held 10 workshops that have helped 93 people build their own air filter systems.

In this workshop, DRI researchers provided materials to make a DIY air filter that utilized two filters to make a wedge shape. However, Nguyen adds that in a pinch, you can simply use a single filter fastened to a box fan and still get effective results. He adds that for safety reasons, it is crucial to use a box fan built in 2012 or later as manufacturer safety regulations have since been updated.

Watching a workshop at the Washoe Tribe’s Community Center at Carson Colony on September 15, 2022, the process was very easy.

Nguyen showed the group how to build an air filter using a box fan, a decent size cardboard sheet cut from the fan’s box (~1.5ft. on each side), two MERV 13 filters, and a few yards of Duct Tape or similar brand of tape. Triangular pieces were cut from the cardboard, and then all was assembled. So simple that personal touches were naturally added: showing the graphic from the box or not; what tape color, and where the cable should come out for their house.




tapping air filters together

Step 1: Tape two filters together using duct tape.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

bending air filters into triangle

Step 2. Stand the filters on end, and tape them to a box fan in a triangular arrangement.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

fitting cardboard on top of filters

Step 3: Cut a triangular piece of cardboard to fit the top of the air filtration system. Attach with tape. 

Credit: Robin Smuda.


Whether you live in a house, apartment, or another type of housing, if your home does have an air filtration system, it is important to know that filter quality is important. Filters are labeled by particles filtered: one is weakest, and 20 is strongest. The EPA recommends a better filter for filtering out smoke. However, you cannot just add thicker filters to your wall AC unit or central air system because that could damage the system. Additionally, two other rating systems are commonly used to classify filter quality: MPR and FPR. In these cases, it is recommended to use FPR 10 or MPR 1500 or better.

Filters work physically collecting certain size particulates, and filtration systems are designed for specific filter sizes. When we inspected the filters in our homes, Nguyen and I both found that our filters were the weakest possible – like looking through a sheet of paper — and probably not helping effectively during fire season.

There are a few different filter types available. HEPA filters are the gold standard and can remove most smoke particulates. However, availability can be an issue even in large population centers. Nguyen explained that during periods of heavy smoke, places like Home Depot run out and he has had to try and order cases that are on backorder.

Air filters also need to be replaced regularly. According to Nguyen, they should be replaced every three to six months, or possibly more often during periods of heavy smoke. He recommends checking air filters every month during fire season, and potentially replacing them monthly if you notice a visual change such as discoloration from the particulates being filtered.

“People have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the workshops,” Nguyen said. He added that several people expressed their excitement to use the DIY air purifiers to improve the air quality for both themselves and loved ones who may experience conditions like asthma or COPD. Workshop attendees also remarked to Nguyen and colleagues how helpful the DIY air purifiers were in combating hazardous downwind air quality resulting from the Northern California Mosquito wildfire event in the months of September and October 2022.

air filtration workshop in classroom

Piercen Nguyen, member of Enterprise Rancheria, Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe, teaches a workshop on air quality and air filtration.

Credit: Provided by Piercen Nguyen.


Robin Smuda is a Wašiw person and a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Currently, they are a reporter intern with Native Climate at DRI and studying Cultural Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Robin is planning on studying Ethno-Archeology and Indigenous Studies in grad school, with a focus on the transition from pre- and post-contact in the Great Basin.

What can prehistoric ceramics of the California deserts tell us about the past?

What can prehistoric ceramics of the California deserts tell us about the past?

What can prehistoric ceramics of the California deserts tell us about the past?

Jan. 5, 2023

Prehistoric Ceramics 
California Desert District

A Q&A With Archaeologist Greg Haynes

DRI archaeologist Greg Haynes, Ph.D., recently completed a synthetic report on the prehistoric ceramic artifacts of the Colorado and Mojave deserts for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) California Desert District (CDD). The CDD manages the 11 million-acre California Desert Conservation Area, which holds cultural artifacts dating back thousands of years. Following a century of research on the prehistoric people and cultures of the Colorado and Mojave deserts of California, this is the first large-scale synthesis focused on ceramics and what they can tell us about the past.

Haynes’ report provides guidance for understanding prehistoric ceramics, identifies research questions for their study, and aids in the evaluation of ceramic-bearing resources for the National Register of Historic Places.

DRI sat down with Haynes to discuss this project, which he calls “one of the highlights of my career.”

DRI: Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to DRI?

Haynes: I’ve been a professional archaeologist for about 35 years. I have a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology and my research focus is on the prehistoric archaeology of western North America. The hunter gatherer populations in the Great Basin, Mojave Desert, and the small-scale agricultural societies on the Colorado Plateau, namely the ancestral Pueblos or Anasazi. I was on staff at DRI as an Associate Research Scientist in archaeology between 1992 to 1998 and returned in 2019.

DRI: And how did you come to be involved with this particular report?

Haynes: The project is focused on creating a new synthetic context for prehistoric ceramics in the deserts of Southeastern California. I was awarded the project in large part because I have a professional background in the area, and I had a nationally recognized ceramic expert in the American Southwest on my team, Dr. Karen Harry, a Professor of Anthropology at UNLV.

map of mojave desert region

Left: Map of the Mojave Desert region. Right: Great Basin Brown Ware with incised decoration along rim, from the northeastern Mojave Desert.

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

great basin brown ware decoration

DRI: Why is it important to catalog and identify ceramic artifacts?

Haynes: What the BLM wants to do, and what most archaeologists want to do with ceramic artifacts, is use them to identify cultural and temporal affiliations. Which groups made or used a particular site — that is, you find a pot sherd (piece of ceramic) and you want to infer what archaeological cultures made that ceramic and therefore used or made the archaeological site you’re looking at. They also want to know what time periods those ceramics date to. And many ceramics in the American Southwest are tied to a radiocarbon or tree-ring chronology, so they’re tightly constricted in time and space.

DRI: How are ceramics dated using radiocarbon dating methods or tree-ring chronology?

Haynes: In fact, they can’t be radiocarbon dated. They have to be in direct association with something that can either be radiocarbon dated or be dated through tree rings. For instance, if archaeologists find a pot in a house, and the house has a wooden roof beam over the top of it, the roof beam can be dated through a tree ring chronology (or dendrochronology). And by association, they therefore date the pot at that particular time period.

DRI: And radiocarbon dating only works for things that were previously living, right?

Haynes: Yes, that’s right. Now, there’s another type of dating nowadays called optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL). And that you can use to actually date the ceramic itself, and as springboard projects develop from this particular one, I hope to learn more about OSL and perhaps use our own OSL lab here at DRI.

The important point though, is that the ceramics in the Colorado and Mojave deserts of Southeastern California, are primarily plain wares — they don’t have a lot of diagnostic features on them. And you need diagnostic features to be able to identify different types of pottery, and therefore the people who made them, as well as track them through time. Additionally, most of the pottery you find sits right on the ground surface. And if they are buried, there’s almost no association with organics that can be radiocarbon dated, tree rings, or stratification — that is, buried deposits that are layered so you can see how things change through time. So, they stump people. This inspired the BLM to seek a new synthetic context for these things, and new research directions about how we can use ceramics to tell us about precontact people and time.

DRI: When ceramics are found in the desert today, are they still collected and put into collections?

Haynes: In general, they’re not collected at all. And one reason is that there are hundreds of collections with tens of thousands of ceramic artifacts in repositories across the U.S. The BLM identified 16 repositories in the Western US that hold prehistoric ceramics from lands administered by the California Desert District. And while there is no absolute number of how many pieces of pottery are in those collections, it is tens of thousands — maybe even over 100,000.

example of a Tizon Brown Ware body sherd

An example of a Tizon Brown Ware body sherd from Arizona. The brown color is derived from residual mountain clays and the temper is visible on its surface.

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

DRI: And how old are some of the artifacts that you documented in this report?

Haynes: They don’t date much before about A.D. 1000. Most of them date no earlier than A.D. 1100 or 1200.

DRI: Would ceramic artifacts last much longer than that?

Haynes: Ceramic artifacts certainly would — they’re fired stone, essentially. Clay molded into something and then fired until they’re essentially pieces of stone.

DRI: When you’re making these associations between the ceramics and the people, how does that work?

Haynes: Well, there are different attributes on the ceramics, like surface colors. For instance, a particular type of ceramic called Lower Colorado Buff ware was known to be made by ancestral Yuman-speaking populations and they have particular types of colors because of their clay sources (buff, orange, or red). And you can also do that with temper (small chunks of rock or other material mixed into the clay to give it some texture, so it doesn’t break apart when it’s being fired and used). The types of clay you might find in Lower Colorado Buff ware is different than the clay in other types of pottery like Tizon Brown ware, which is also found in the Mojave and parts of the Colorado deserts of California, and colored brown. And that’s because it’s made from residual, igneous clays formed in the mountains as opposed to alluvial clays formed on the valley floor near rivers.

example of Lower Colorado Buff painted ware

An example of Lower Colorado Buff painted ware from along the Colorado River. It is a red-on-orange bowl sherd with decorated elements on the interior of the vessel.

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

DRI: And what can we learn from these artifacts?

Haynes: Well, what the BLM wanted to learn is, can these plain wares in the Mojave and Colorado deserts of southeastern California actually tell us who was at a site and at what time? That can be done to some extent, but it can’t be done with a lot of detail. So, if you find a site that has a whole bunch of Lower Colorado Buff Ware you can say, okay, the people who lived here were ancestral Yuman-speaking folk, but these same ceramic artifacts have not been tied to a very good chronology. You can’t tell when the site was occupied based on the ceramics, unfortunately. And people have tried to do that for years, but there simply has not been enough radiocarbon dating or stratified deposits associated with those ceramics to track them through time. OSL offers an opportunity to do that, but it has to be fairly widespread — it would take a lot of ceramic artifacts to develop a well-established chronology for plain ware artifacts.  

DRI: What do you mean by “wares”?

Haynes: A ware is a type of ceramic that is made by a particular prehistoric people.  If you were an archaeologist, however, we could debate what a ware is for quite a long time. I’ll just leave it at that simple, big idea.

DRI: I think you touched on this, but why are the ceramic resources in the Colorado and Mojave Deserts difficult to characterize and differentiate?

Haynes: It’s because they don’t have a lot of distinguishing attributes on them, like painted motifs. For instance, if you find a painted circle or a square on a piece of pottery that’s made in one location, but you don’t find it in the next region over, that may be related to cultural differences. For plain wares, there’s not a lot of decoration, they’re just plain wares, very utilitarian. So that’s what makes them difficult and the fact that they have not been tied to a well-established chronology. And we’re often working with just little fragments of ceramics, rather than large pieces or entire vessels.

Another important point about the ceramic context is that you will not be able to learn much about the ceramics in terms of culture and history unless you examine attributes that change through space and time – like one single attribute, how it changes or varies through time and where you find it. So, one thing you could look at are changes in rim morphology or shape over space and time. Or you could look at the distribution over space and time of stucco (something put around the base of a pot, presumably to strengthen it). Or you could source these ceramics using specialized techniques to identify their geochemical signature or fingerprint, and see how far and wide, through space and time, that geochemical signature or fingerprint can be found.

rim morphologies
example of a Lower Colorado Buff plain sherd

Top: Rim morphologies: a. straight walled; b. chimney neck; c. outward/gently recurved; d. outward flaring/exaggerated recurved wall; e. inward/gently recurved wall; f. inward flaring/exaggerated inverted wall.

Bottom: An example of a Lower Colorado Buff plain sherd from along the Colorado River. It has a thick stucco applied to its exterior.

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

DRI: And by fingerprint, you mean a particular type of clay?

Haynes: That’s correct. You can do the same kind of analysis with what’s called burnishing, where the inside or the exterior of the pot is blackened, and then it’s polished. Where do you find burnishing, through space and through time?

DRI: Did you learn anything new or surprising while preparing this report?

Haynes: Part of the project was to go to a number of ceramic repositories and look at some of these collections. And I chose four museums to go to because they had by far the most ceramics. When you look at collections like that, you run across some incredibly interesting things that are just startling. For instance, I was at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum in El Centro. I was given this bag of prehistoric ceramics and they were Lower Colorado Buff ware, and I thought, “These are really weird — something’s wrong with them.” It was like the pottery itself had decorative waves in the clay, but they were clearly natural. So, I put the bag away because I was just confused by it. And I looked through other bags and looked at different pottery sherds. And the last day of the last hour, I came back to this bag because I’m just completely stymied by it. And I opened it up and looked at it and it dawned on me that this is an unfired pot. They had molded this either around the inside or the outside of a pot, but never fired it. And so, it was just natural clay shaped into a vessel that had somehow preserved on the surface.

LCBW vessels

Examples of LCBW vessels on display at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum (TOP: red-on-buff globular jar [olla] with chimney neck, medium to large; MIDDLE: flower pot recurved rim jar, medium to large, with stucco application; BOTTOM: globular [water] jar with chimney neck, medium to large).

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

DRI: So, it just kind of baked in the sun naturally?

Haynes: Exactly. Another bag of pottery I was looking at was in the San Diego Museum of Us and it was from a collection obtained from the Cronese Basin, just west of Baker, California. I looked at these potsherds, and they were really grey and crumbly. And they were painted with black designs. I looked at them and thought “This is weird. I don’t know what this is.” So, I put it away. And I came back to it. And it dawned on me that whoever made this piece of pottery in the Cronese Basin was trying to mimic an Anasazi black-on-grey ware. They were trying to mimic a pottery vessel made perhaps hundreds of miles away. It was startling.

That was really one of the highlights of my career here at DRI.

DRI: And how will this report be used by the Bureau of Land Management?

Haynes: It’s been distributed to all the BLM field offices in the CDD and used as a synthetic overview. It also builds consistency for recording these artifacts in the field. When archaeologists go out and conduct inventory for regulatory compliance purposes under the National Historic Preservation Act, it aids them in recommending a ceramic-bearing site eligible or ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, it can also be used by investigators to contextualize the ceramics in Southeastern California. And then offers a chapter on new research directions for their analysis.

DRI: Any final thoughts?

Haynes: Well, it was a tough project for two years. But it was incredibly fun to do — one of the highlights of my career.

We’re (the project principals) planning an invited symposium in 2024 in Riverside, California to discuss these plain wares with other archaeologists and other specialists, as well as Native American tribal members.

More Information

The technical report is the property of the BLM-CDD and will become available in the future on their website.

Tim Minor: Celebrating a Career in GIS and Remote Sensing

Tim Minor: Celebrating a Career in GIS and Remote Sensing

Tim Minor: Celebrating a Career in GIS and Remote Sensing

DECEMBER 21, 2022

Tim Minor
Remote Sensing

Above: Minor piloting a drone; he is a FAA-certified Remote Pilot in Command.

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

Tim Minor, M.A, recently retired from DRI after 31 years. His successful career as a geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing scientist brought him to DRI in 1991; he served as Deputy Director of DEES from 2012 to 2018, and Interim Executive Division Director of DEES from 2018 to 2021.

Minor’s work uses satellite and drone imagery to map and analyze invasive species, surface disturbance, ground water resources, and mountain watershed water quality, among many other applications. He is a FAA-certified Remote Pilot in Command, and he taught introductory and advanced courses in GIS applications and image processing methods.

DRI sat down with Minor to discuss his long career as a scientist and competitive runner, his career highlights (featuring a Ghanaian marathon), and his advice for young scientists (including his own son, Blake, an associate research scientist in DHS).

Tim Minor and Mary Cablk

Minor conducting field work with DRI biologist Mary Cablk, whom he frequently worked alongside.  

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

DRI: What first brought you to DRI?

Minor: Well, I grew up in Pacific Grove, California, and went to Monterey Peninsula College, and then got a scholarship to come to the University of Nevada. I only stayed two years, finished off my degree and went back to grad school at U.C. Santa Barbara. I got an offer to come up to Reno in 1989 to work for a mining company that needed a geologic remote sensing person. While I was working for them, I started meeting some people from DRI, and I just thought it was an amazing place.

There was a guy named Jonathan Davis who was a mentor of mine. He was one of my teachers at UNR and I was really looking forward to working with him, Dave Mouat, and some of the other amazing people at DRI. I didn’t know quite how that would work, but things just kind of fell in place. I got a job at DRI in 1991.

The sad part was that I was really looking forward to working with Jonathan Davis — his wife worked with me at my mining company — but they were involved in a horrible car accident a couple of months before I got to DRI; Jonathan was tragically killed. We have a Jonathan Davis scholarship in DEES in his name.

DRI: And you’ve been at DRI ever since?

Minor: Yep, I stayed at DRI for 31 years. I think one of the things that really helped me is that in the GIS/remote sensing field, there are opportunities to work on a lot of diverse projects. I started off working on an air quality project, and then I started doing a lot of stuff with water, biology, and vegetation. And it just kind of took off from there — it was very rewarding.

You know, I have a master’s degree, not a Ph.D. So, despite everyone calling me doctor all these years, I’m not. What I hope to have inspired here is that with your master’s, you can still go pretty far at DRI. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I became a director with a master’s.

I never really felt a ton of pressure to get my PhD. I was also still competing a lot – I was still running very seriously in the 90s and into the 2000s, so I had to make some choices. And I chose to continue to be a runner and have a career on that side instead of going after the Ph.D.

Newspaper clipping of Tim Minor running photo

A newspaper clipping from the Reno-Gazette Journal that covered Minor’s 1993 marathon race in Ghana. Minor finished in 9th place with only 3 hours of sleep in the preceding two days due to traveling.

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

DRI: Tell me more about your competitive running career.

Minor: I ran competitively for a long time, from the time I was 15 to age 51. I ran for Nevada as an undergrad and then I just kept going.

DRI: What inspired you to become a specialist in remote sensing?

Minor: I’ve always been a map freak. I think since I was four or five years old, I was the geeky kid in the back of the car telling my mom and dad where to go because I was looking at maps. I was just fascinated by spatial relationships. People talk about cognitive mapping and our brains and I just always loved thinking about, “Okay, where are we going, and how do we get there?” But I didn’t know what I could do with that. I remember as I got to junior college, I was like, “What am I going to really do? Is there anything you could do with this stuff?” And that’s kind of when remote sensing was starting to really take off and become a science unto itself. And then of course, GIS came along later, but the key for me was taking remote sensing classes at UNR back in the late 70s. And that got me even more excited about it and the possibilities. 

But what really helped me take off was UC Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara was way ahead of its time in terms of quantitative spatial analysis in geography. Every job I’ve gotten has been a UCSB connection, even at DRI.

DRI: What are some of your career highlights?

Minor: The biggest highlight goes all the way back to ’93 through ’98, when I was working on the Hilton Foundation projects with World Vision doing water development in developing countries. In 1993, I went to Ghana, West Africa and participated in some of the initial fieldwork that was involved in trying to develop better drinking water access for small villages in the central part of Ghana. And it was the most amazing experience.

I started off things with a bang in ‘93. I got off the plane and slept that night, and then the next morning ran a marathon. There was a marathon going on in the capital of Accra and one of my colleagues who was already there had signed me up. I thought he was just joking and I didn’t even know it was a full marathon, it was a little crazy. I couldn’t drink the water at the aid stations, so they had to drive around and give me water, but they got lost. So, it got a little hot as you can imagine. But talk about total immersion right off the bat. I just fell in love with the country and the people.

I love everything that came out of that. I showed my daughter, Emily, the pictures from Ghana and shared my experiences. And when she graduated from high school, she went over and worked in an orphanage in Ghana and just loved it herself. So, it was a really cool family legacy thing. As for the project itself, you know, sometimes in research, you wonder “What is this really doing for people? How is it impacting society? How is it impacting people and helping them?” Well, something like drilling a water well in a small village that can totally change the quality of the water and the quality of the life was pretty impactful. Without a doubt that was the best thing I was ever involved in.

DRI: Tell me more about the project in Ghana.

Minor: Well, it was unique in that it was a partnership, with Ghanaians basically running the program there. So many times with some of these projects in developing countries, you have people who want to do well but it ends up getting a little cloudy. We saw programs where other European countries had come in and tried to build mechanized wells, but the problem was that when they broke down, nobody would come to fix them. So, they were just gathering cobwebs and dust. The World Vision’s trick was to build simple hand pump wells, and they taught the villagers how to repair them. Our role was basically putting the x’s on the ground — we were telling them based on our geophysics and our remote sensing and our hydrologic knowledge, this is probably the best place to drill. Other projects would often just drill in the center of the village without any real forethought about the best hydrological position. And because it was hand pumps, water tables had to be relatively shallow, right? They couldn’t be super deep wells.

DRI: Are these wells still in use?

Minor: Very much so, yes. Braimah Apambire is involved with this project and he’s done some amazing things. And so yes, a lot of those wells and things are still active and still going. It’s pretty cool.

Tim Minor and students at UNR sitting at a table

Tim Minor speaking with students at a STEM camp held at the University of Nevada, Reno in September. 

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

DRI: How have things changed since you first started your career?

Minor: Well, let’s start with the science itself. Back in the day — and I really feel like an old geezer when I talk about this — computing power wasn’t what it is now. And I share this with my son Blake, who is a hydrologist at DRI in DHS – he’s got an office 50 feet away from the cube I’m in now. And it’s a little surreal that he is an assistant research scientist at DRI, but he’s been working at DRI for almost nine years because he started as an undergrad. I always joke with him that he has no idea how good he has it, with Earth Engine and the processing power he has at his fingertips. What takes him a few minutes to do now literally used to take me days.

The advancement of computer technology, the cloud and all the other computing power that’s out there, it’s just absolutely revolutionized the science of remote sensing, GIS, and spatial analysis. To watch that over my 41 years of working has just been unbelievable.

I love where DRI has gone. I’ll be very frank because I was on the Diversity Committee, but I’m encouraged to see that we’re finally reaching some diversity goals that I think we could actually feel good about. We’ve still got a ways to go, definitely. I really respect my longtime female colleagues at DRI — they’re very much pioneers in what they do. I think it’s so fantastic that we are finally getting there. You know, it’s just taken a long time.

In general, I like the diversity at DRI and how it’s evolved. I always thought that was one of our strengths, and one of our biggest selling points, our scientific diversity. One of the huge advantages I had as a GIS/remote sensing expert is all these different science disciplines use GIS and remote sensing in different ways. So, one day I would be working with the hydrologists, and the next day with the air quality folks, and the next day with the biologists. It’s just a really cool place for me to work and I think it’s one of the ways I was able to sustain my funding, by staying diversified. When I became a director, I told people all the time, “The key to us surviving at this place is diversification.” Both within your scientific discipline, but also thinking outside your discipline and how you may be able to work with others.

DRI: How has working at DRI impacted your scientific research and network?

Minor: The network’s been amazing. We used to joke about ourselves being the Santa Barbara mafia. We’ve always had this pretty good network, if you will, of all these people from Santa Barbara who have gone off and worked in all kinds of amazing places, and DRI just added to that exponentially. The connectivity and the networking I’ve been able to do across the world has been astounding. I’m just amazed at all the wonderful people I’ve been able to work with from countries like Brazil and Ghana, Israel and Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia, China. It’s just been phenomenal. It’s incredible how your network just expands worldwide. 

DRI: What advice do you have for young scientists?

Minor: Diversify. You know, I would tell people to do what I didn’t do – don’t be in such a rush. Do a little gap program. Go check things out. Go travel. And when you travel, maybe go visit a science center and see what they’re doing, it helps establish your future network. Learn a language. It’s fantastic, it helps with everything. Work on your math skills. Math and stats, those will take you a long way, especially in my particular field, statistics was so valuable. But the biggest thing is diversifying — get a minor in something. I think that’s what’s really important. Don’t be so siloed in with how you professionally identify yourself.   

DRI: Do you speak another language?

Minor: A little bit of French, and one of the goals I have now that I’m retired is to get much better with Spanish.

DRI: That’s a great goal. That also feeds into my next question: what are your plans for retirement?

Minor: Well, become better at Spanish, and travel. Just in the last eight months, we went to Europe and did a bike tour, and took my parents to Kauai. And then we went to Sayulita, Mexico to do a little surfing.

We have a trailer so we’re going to be doing a lot of camping. I used to coach high school cross country and track for nine years, and I may go back to coaching because there are many aspects of it I enjoyed. My wife Shannon and I are race directors for Moms on the Run, a local charity race that supports cancer survivors.  That keeps us pretty busy in the winter and spring.

Also, I’m doing the classic DRI semi-retirement, so I’m coming back January 3rd as an hourly. I’m very involved in the Integrated Terrain Analysis Program. I did a phased retirement, and what it taught me is I love science too much — I don’t want to just completely walk away. 

DRI: Is there anything else you think is important that we didn’t discuss?

Minor: Well, I’ve always had a goal to work with Blake on a project. It’d be pretty cool to work with my son.

It’s just been a fantastic adventure. All the things I’ve gotten to do, if I’m writing up my life story – DRI was such a catalyst for some amazing experiences. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a little scary when I ventured into the administrative realm. I got voted in as a deputy director, and then years later I was suddenly interim director. But I wouldn’t trade any of that because as a director I got to find out about all the other unique things people were doing, within our own division and across the institute. You know, things that you sometimes aren’t aware of when you’ve got your head down and are focused on your own research. It was just amazing to see what people were doing.

A new study shows that tailpipe emissions are declining, but brake and tire wear particle emissions remain a persistent – and unregulated – air quality concern

A new study shows that tailpipe emissions are declining, but brake and tire wear particle emissions remain a persistent – and unregulated – air quality concern

Air Pollution Near Roads is Changing

DECEMBER 5, 2022
RENO, Nevada

Air Pollution

Above: Rush hour traffic with thick smog. Even as emissions from engine exhaust decline with stringent regulations and the growing popularity of electric vehicles, other traffic-related pollution remains unaddressed. Of particular concern are the microscopic particles from brakes and tires, worn down from abrasion and degradation, which mix into the air we breathe and wash into our watersheds, creating hazards for human and environmental health. 

Credit: Photo by plherrera, iStock. 

A new study shows that tailpipe emissions are declining, but brake and tire wear particle emissions remain a persistent – and unregulated – air quality concern

Air pollution near roads remains a significant health concern in the U.S., with an estimated 60 million people living within 500 meters of a major highway. Even as emissions from engine exhaust decline with stringent regulations and the growing popularity of electric vehicles, other traffic-related pollution remains unaddressed. Of particular concern are the microscopic particles from brakes and tires, worn down from abrasion and degradation, which mix into the air we breathe and wash into our watersheds, creating hazards for human and environmental health.

In a new study published Nov. 23 in Environmental Pollution, researchers from DRI, UC Riverside, UNLV, and the California Air Resources Board take a closer look at these overlooked pollutants, known as non-tailpipe emissions. With funding from the California Air Resources Board, they placed air quality monitors near two southern California highways and found that air pollutants from brake and tire wear exceed those from engine exhaust.

“We knew that tailpipe emissions are coming down, and that non-tailpipe emissions have been steady or slightly increasing,” says Xiaoliang Wang, Ph.D., Research Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at DRI and the study’s lead author. “But I didn’t realize that it’s already crossing over – that was a surprise.”

California sampling map

Map of roadside sampling locations in Los Angeles, California — one of the most polluted areas in the U.S. 

Credit: Elyse DeFranco/DRI.

Tire wear particles contain rubber and microplastics, as well as thousands of chemicals, some of which are known ecological hazards. Previous research identified one of these chemicals as the primary culprit in the decline of Coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest. And brake pads contain metals and other materials known to be harmful to human health. Non-tailpipe emissions like brake and tire wear particles aren’t regulated the way engine exhaust is, and are expected to become the primary source of particulate matter pollution near roads.

“There is increasing interest in understanding how much non-tailpipe emissions – including brake wear, tire wear, road surface wear, and road dust – are impacting air pollution for people living close to roadways,” Wang says. “This has environmental justice implications as well because many low-income communities tend to live closer to roads.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a near-road air monitoring network that measures nitrogen dioxide (which causes respiratory tract damage and can trigger asthma), but fine and coarse particles that are more related to non-tailpipe emissions than engine exhaust are monitored spottily or not at all.

California has led the way in enacting regulations on exhaust emissions, as Los Angeles first began experiencing smog-choked air in the 1940s. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that scientists discovered that motor vehicles were the primary source of this smog, and that engine exhaust chemically reacts with sunlight and industrial air pollution to create what is known as “secondary pollutants.” This means that air pollution isn’t merely the combination of all added pollutants, but that as these pollutants intermix in the air, new pollutants are born.

Electric vehicles have eliminated tailpipe emissions by transferring their emissions to their power source, but are heavier than conventional gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles. This could mean more road and tire wear particle emissions.

“There’s still active research going on trying to understand what’s the impact of electrification of vehicles on non-tailpipe emissions,” Wang says. Previous research has noted that because electric vehicles don’t reduce non-tailpipe particulate matter emissions, they shouldn’t be considered as the single and only solution to urban air pollution.

Although this study focused on air pollution near roads, Wang notes that the pollutants don’t stay only near highways, but follow wind patterns to become part of the overall air pollution mix, and eventually get washed into storm gutters and out to sea.

The study team is continuing this research to better understand the chemicals in the air samples they collected and will publish a more detailed analysis of the sources. The information will be provided to appropriate environmental and transportation agencies to aid decision-making for air quality improvements.

More on this study:

Evidence of non-tailpipe emission contributions to PM2.5 and PM10 near southern California highways
Environmental Pollution

Study authors include DRI researchers Xiaoliang Wang, Steven Gronstal, Judith C. Chow, Steven Sai Hang Ho, and John G. Watson; UC Riverside researchers Brenda Lopez, Guoyuan Wu, and Heejung Jung; UNLV researcher L.-W. Antony Chen; and Qi Yao and Seungju Yoon of the California Air Resources Board.

New research examines the potential impacts of climate change on water quality in tropical reservoirs

New research examines the potential impacts of climate change on water quality in tropical reservoirs

New research examines the potential impacts of climate change on water quality in tropical reservoirs

NOVEMBER 21, 2022

Climate Change
Water Quality
Tropical Reservoirs

Above: The Infiernillo Dam (“Little hell”), also known as Adolfo López Mateos Dam, is an embankment dam on the Balsas River near La Unión, Guerrero, Mexico. It is on the border between the states of Guerrero and Michoacán.

Credit: Arturo Peña Romano Medina, iStock Photo.

A Q&A With Study Author Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

In a new study, DRI’s Erick Bandala, assistant research professor of environmental science, worked with scientists in Mexico to address an important research gap: how will a warming climate alter water quality in tropical reservoirs? With scientists predicting that half of the world’s human population will live in tropical climates by 2050, this knowledge will be critical for adapting to a warming world.

Bandala and his coauthors developed algorithms that can be used to predict changes in water quality under the projected temperature intervals provided by climate change models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

DRI sat down with Bandala to discuss this study and how it ties into his broader research goals.

DRI: What was the impetus for this research?

Bandala: What we’re trying to do in my lab is create technologies for climate change adaptation. Many people do research on climate change and how it will impact water availability, so there is a lot of information about how water availability will change. But something that we believe is less studied – and that is the focal point of our research – is figuring out how global warming may have an effect on water quality. This is significant because even if you have a lot of water, if the water doesn’t have the proper quality, it cannot be used, or you will need to treat it to make it usable. So, in this study, we looked at water quality parameters in a reservoir in Mexico to predict how they could change over the next 80 years or so.

But we also need to come up with solutions for how to improve the water quality so that people can use it properly without facing the risk of illness. This is what we’re trying to do in my lab. We want to come up with solutions that can help people improve the quality of their drinking water. 

DRI: And what kind of solutions are you looking at?

Bandala: Well, I’m very glad that you asked that because we are developing materials that can remove contaminants from the water. And we are using the concept of circular economy, which means we want to use material that for someone is considered a waste, and turn it into something else that can be used for water treatment. For example, we have used crop waste and even plastic waste, and converted them into something that can be used to remove contaminants from water. So, we aren’t only interested in the effect of global warming on contaminants, but also in creating something that can be used for the removal of those pollutants from the water while having a low carbon and environmental footprint.

ALMD and water quality sampling site's geographical location.

Figure 1 from the study shows the Adolfo Lopez Mateos Dam (ALMD) and water quality sampling site’s geographical location.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

DRI: That’s amazing. And how did the international collaboration with your co-authors come about?

Bandala: Well, I believe that science is not an isolated work, and less so now than ever. I think that in many cases the most help is needed in developing countries. You know in my home country of Mexico, they have a saying, “the fleas always go to the skinnier dog.” That’s very true because now many developing countries are suffering the biggest effects of climate change, and I want to help people in these countries deal with all these problems. We are developing processes, technologies, and materials that can be used for helping people in Africa, or Central America, or Asian countries that are facing huge problems with water quality.

DRI: Returning to the study, is there a reason why the study team chose to examine water quality at this particular reservoir, the Adolfo Lopez Mateos Dam in Sinaloa, Mexico?

Bandala: The main reason for choosing that site was because it had reliable water data available – it’s very complicated to get access to a good and reliable data set. Also, many of the models that have been developed in the past are for cold water bodies, and this is a warm one – the differences are significant just because of the increased water temperature in the dam. 

DRI: The study showed that there was a temperature threshold where the bacteria in particular really thrived, and then above that temperature, it declined. Why is that?

Bandala: Well, bacteria are living organisms, so they have a preferred temperature range to grow in, just like everyone else. If you go too low or too high, then the reproduction or the growth of the colony will decline because it’s too hot or too cold. Now, we were very interested in microbiological contamination because this is one of the main issues in developing countries like Mexico, where many people are drinking water without the safeguards that are required. And because of that, we have very high mortality, mainly in children five years old or less. So, we wanted to understand how bacterial contamination might change under different climate scenarios.

DRI: What do you think are the biggest implications of this study?

Bandala: Well, I believe the study is probably the first one that I know of where we are really including the effects of global warming and calculating how the water quality in a water body will vary over time. In the past, I have published other papers trying to do the same, but honestly, as you said, it is highly complicated and we just partially achieved that goal. This time, I think we were really good at getting a nice model that will give us some good insight of the actual trends for a warm water body. Most of the studies are made in Canada, the U.S., or Europe, where the temperatures of the water may be in the range from 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In this case we were about 70 degrees, so it’s a completely different scenario. And that makes them not only challenging, but also interesting to address.

DRI: And do you have any studies that will continue this line of work?

Bandala: Well, we’re planning to use remote sensing to corroborate the information that we created for this paper. So, if that works, it may mean that you don’t need to jump into a big data set, but can simply collect information from satellites for the analysis. Hopefully, that will be the next thing.

male Hispanic scientist work in lab pouring water into a test tube

Erick Bandala, Ph.D., continues to work in his lab on developing materials that can remove contaminants from water.

Credit: Tommy Gugino/DRI.

More on this study:

Modeling the effect of climate change scenarios on water quality for tropical reservoirs

Published Sep. 5 in the Journal of Environmental Management

Jim Hudson: Celebrating a Career in Cloud Physics

Jim Hudson: Celebrating a Career in Cloud Physics

Jim Hudson: Celebrating a Career in Cloud Physics

NOVEMBER 17, 2022

Cloud Physics
Cloud Condensation Nuclei
Atmospheric Science

Above: Throughout his career Jim Hudson, Ph.D., worked in planes such as the NCAR C-130 on several projects during his time at DRI.

Credit: Jim Hudson/DRI.

Research Professor Jim Hudson, Ph.D., the Institute’s longest-serving employee, recently retired from DRI after 51 years studying cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) – tiny particles around which cloud droplets form. Hudson originally came to DRI as a graduate student in 1970, following the completion of his Master’s degree in physics at the University of Michigan. Here, he worked under the direction of cloud physicist and Director of Atmospheric Sciences Patrick Squires and graduated with his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Physics from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1976.

Hudson’s long and successful career at DRI has taken him from his current home base in Reno to 31 aircraft field projects around the globe. He developed the continuous flow diffusion cloud chamber, isothermal haze chamber, and five CCN spectrometers. He has led projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA), Department of Energy (DOE), and others. He has co-authored 97 peer-reviewed publications in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Journal of Applied Meteorology, Tellus, Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics, Atmospheric Physics, Atmospheric Science Letters, Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of the Meteorological Society of Japan, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Aerosol Science and Technology, Atmospheric Environment, Journal of Atmospheric & Oceanic Technology, Idojaras, and Science, and delivered 146 conference presentations.

Although he officially retired in August 2021, Hudson is continuing at as an Emeritus Scholar at DRI. We sat down with Hudson to learn about some of his career highlights:

DRI: What inspired you to become a cloud physicist?

Hudson: I did not set out to be a scientist although I had a lot of science interests as a child and took all math and science courses offered in high school. Other interest were law and politics. When taking the Kuder vocational interest test in my junior year in spite of conscious efforts to score high in persuasion (for law or politics) I could not resist science responses.  Thus, I was dismayed that of the ten interest categories science tied with persuasion. Physical Science, biology, and chemistry in the first three high school years did not pique my interest but physics in the senior year with its more logical nature turned me to science. Despite feeling at the time that scientists are mere pawns to politicians and businessmen I majored in physics and mathematics in the Honors College of Western Michigan University (BA 1968).  An attraction of physics was great job prospects, but that crashed, especially for high energy physics that had attracted me to the University of Michigan.  Thus, in my last semester and summer there I drifted into aeronomy, which included a good deal of physics.  When I learned that clouds also have physics, I found a more interesting application of my background.  But the familiar down-to-Earth clouds were not studied at Michigan.  DRI in Reno was the place to study the clouds that concern weather.

Thus, I traded the study of atomic nuclei for cloud nuclei under a founding father of cloud physics, Patrick Squires.  At that time the main goal of cloud physics was understanding the onset of precipitation and perhaps controlling it. This leads to cloud seeding, which usually involved the ice phase, which was thought to be the origin of all precipitation until warm rain was discovered in the 1940s.  Being from Australia where the ice phase is less common directed Squires toward warm non-freezing clouds.

DRI: Which of your career accomplishments are you most proud of?

Hudson: In 2012 I finally realized that the DRI high-resolution CCN spectrometers often resolved two modes.  Although I and many others had known for decades that direct aerosol size distributions often displayed bimodality, I did not appreciate its importance until then.  Only then did I begin analyzing cloud microphysics (droplet and drop size distributions) in terms of CCN bimodality.  I have so far found opposite responses to CCN bimodality in stratus and cumulus clouds.  Bimodality seems to make more smaller droplets and less drizzle in stratus but fewer larger droplets and more drizzle in cumuli.

Jim Hudson and other male scientists

Jim Hudson, Ph.D. (left), poses for a picture with fellow scientists in September 1973 at a lab inside the Sage Building at UNR.

Credit: Jim Hudson/DRI.

DRI: What unanswered questions do you still want to solve?

Hudson: What’s known as the “indirect aerosol effect” continues to be the largest climate uncertainty. This is the interaction of air pollution with clouds and relates back to the 1950s discovery by Squires and Sean Twomey, that continental clouds differ from maritime clouds. They have more droplets, smaller droplets, and don’t precipitate as readily as maritime clouds. Why is that? Because there are more CCN over continents than oceans. Why are there more CCN over continents? That is a billion-dollar question. Are there significant natural continental sources or is it all anthropogenic?  This is such a difficult problem that most research dances around this question.  We actually know more about the unnatural sources, the man-made sources, than we do about the natural sources. The indirect aerosol effect is so important because to some yet to be known extent it probably counteracts the so-called greenhouse trace gas effect.  One does not need a degree to know that clouds are complicated.  We have known since the 1950s that CCN affect clouds though many have claimed that air motions (dynamics) are more important.  But when the effects of the clouds on the CCN are realized things get even more complicated.  Clouds thus are both a sink and a source of the CCN that in turn profoundly affect them.  This makes the foundation of science, cause and effect, especially challenging for clouds.

DRI: What are you working on as an Emeritus Scholar at DRI?

Hudson: I just want to further analyze the data I’ve collected over the last 30 or more years but now in terms of CCN bimodality.  Few atmospheric scientists delve into the extensive sets of aircraft data.  I’ve been in more than 30 cloud projects where we fly 10-20 research flights of 4-12 hours duration in a month or two.  Multitudes of data are collected throughout these flights, but only small fractions are analyzed or presented.  This is very time-consuming work much of which would be impossible if I were still employed.  These CCN cloud interactions are vitally important for the indirect aerosol effect and for fundamental cloud physics. I feel compelled to complete as much of this analysis as possible.

DRI: What has changed most at DRI during the course of your career?

Hudson: In the first, two or three decades of DRI partial contracts were not done.  In the 1970s there was actual pasting of letters and words onto paper.  Before the turn of the century proposals were hand delivered to parcel services.  Before the teens, Journals were printed onto paper and did not have supplementary material.

DRI: What advice do you have for future scientists?

Hudson: Look at the data. All of the data. Not just the data that you think is good, the data that fits your model. In all science, there’s always conflict between the theorists (modelers in cloud physics) and the experimentalists (observationalists). Peter Hobbs of University of Washington would say, “the modelers believe the data, and the observationalists believe the models.” Each are more aware of the pitfalls of their own area. I think he overstated that because he did not believe many models.  Conflicts between modelers and observationalists seem to be most intense in cloud physics. When I was in high energy physics 50 years ago there were articles about how theorists looked down on the experimentalists even though science is based on experiments.

DRI: Who have you most enjoyed working with at DRI?

Hudson: Of course, I did a lot of work with Squires in the beginning and then John Hallett for several field projects.  We must remember the engineers, who really built and maintained the CCN instruments, Gary Keyser, Rick Purcell, Norm Robinson, Dan Wermers and Morien Roberts. And then my students, Paul Frisbie, Xiaoyu Da, Hongguo Li, Yonghong Xie, Seong Soo Yum, David Mitchell, Subhashree Mishra, Samantha Tabor, Vandana Jha and Stephen Noble.  Fred Rogers was my fellow student under Squires.  In earlier years I worked with Dennis Lamb, Dick Egami, and Eric Broten.

male scientist in lab holding equipment

Jim Hudson, Ph.D., inventories the equipment in his lab space.

Credit: Jim Hudson/DRI.

Restoring our relationship with hímu (willow) requires human interaction rather than protection

Restoring our relationship with hímu (willow) requires human interaction rather than protection

Restoring our relationship with hímu (willow) requires human interaction rather than protection

SEPT 19, 2022

By Robin Smuda, Climate Reporter Intern

Native Climate

dá∙bal (dah-ball; big sage), ťá∙gɨm (tdah-goom; pinion pine), and hímu (him-oo; willow) are why Wá∙šiw (Washo) live here.

In between the high lush landscape of dáɁaw (Lake Tahoe) and the expanse of arid landscapes within the Great Basin, the Wá∙šiw have lived here and have lived with this community for countless generations. The continuation of life for the Wá∙šiw is based around plants that always stand: dá∙bal, ťá∙gɨm, and hímu. With them, survival is always possible, and they can help us understand our problems. But current viewpoints that prioritize protection over interaction with the environment are at odds with strong traditional relationships between the Wá∙šiw people and these plants.

washoe lands map

Wá∙šiw traditional homelands (shown in light and dark green) are located in the mountains and valleys around dáɁaw (Lake Tahoe), along what is now the California-Nevada border. Today, most Wá∙šiw people live in colonies and communities of the Carson Valley of Nevada (shown in black).

Credit: Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.


hímu, particularly the willow that grows in the valleys around the Lake Tahoe region (“valley hímu,” also known as coyote willow) is especially important to Wá∙šiw basket weaving for tradition and quality material. Baskets can be woven from most materials, but quality Wá∙šiw basketry wants and sometimes requires strong valley hímu for its strength and clean color.

Healthy valley hímu can grow long stalks independently, but human encouragement is the traditional way. Traditional growth patterns were propagated by planting hímu, pruning them, having fire consume or interact with them, shaping them to provide shade from hot sun-filled days, and more. The continued handling leads the plant to grow long and strong.

“My great aunts, the Smokey Sisters, and other elder basket weavers like Marie Kizer and Florine Conway, harvested and tended to the willow in Dresslerville along the river and surrounding areas,” said Melanie Smokey, Wá∙šiw basket weaver. “They would talk to the willow and were proud of this area. They graciously accepted visitors who asked to harvest willow in the area. Once everyone gathered their bounty, then they would all go to the Senior Center where a pre-planned good meal was served in honor of the guests. They were proud of their Wá∙šiw má∙š, their lands. Their baskets didn’t just hang on a wall, their baskets were used to gather, to sift pinenut and acorn flour in, and to cook in. They wanted basketry to continue so they taught and encouraged young people.”

Without the human touch, knots, bends, and eyes (from buds of branches) can become common. These become hindrances for collection of the long stalks that are necessary for a strong product and create weaknesses in the weaving.

Valley hímu has become the main variant of willow used for weaving, despite other types being readily available, because of the ability to grow tall and straight. These willows create the structure of the basket. hímu that grows in the mountains (“mountain hímu”) grows low and bunched, providing shorter stalks that make for weaker baskets, which last for one season at most.

Mountain hímu that grows in the Tahoe Basin has been used for fishing traps or twine, and temporary burden baskets, explained Smokey. The hímu in Northern Nevada’s arid low valleys is stronger, straighter, and necessary for complete and keepable baskets.

The long stalks of valley hímu create baskets of maximum strength that hold together under use of fire for roasting or carrying heavy objects for years. The feeling and fact of strength from valley hímu is most apparent in baby boards, which carry the next generation, make the child feel safe, and last for decades.

hímu burden basket on top of table

A ~100 year old Wá∙šiw hímu burden basket that was used over 2 lifetimes. Basket was on display as part of Wa She Shu It’ Deh at Meeks Bay, courtesy of Melba Rakow.

Credit: Robin Smuda.


Valley hímu on Wá∙šiw lands are under stress from drought and heat. hímu that is tall and healthy enough for weaving is practically nonexistent in the wild in Carson Valley, according to local weavers. Wá∙šiw weavers have harvested usable stalks in limited amounts from the Nature Conservancy preserve at River Fork Ranch in the Carson Valley, but finding quality hímu in other areas is so difficult that gatherers protect locations from many people out of respect, for the land is not a guarantee.

“…my cousin Sue goes clear to Oregon to get hers because this lady grows it for her in her yard,” says Melba Rakow, Wá∙šiw Elder and employee of the Culture and Language Resources Department of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

In addition to drought and heat, the unnaturally long and powerful fires from years of current forest management practices and climate change harm valley hímu as they tear through the landscape. hímu is burned down, damaged, or in some cases preemptively destroyed with herbicide as they are seen as an agricultural weed and potential fire hazard.

Changes in the timing of the warm season may also be impacting the timing of hímu flowering. Wá∙šiw weavers have noticed that the timing of flowering is becoming more unpredictable. Analysis of weather data by Paige Johnson and Kyle Bocinsky from the Native Climate team found that in Minden, Nev., the first warm spell of the year (measured as 7 consecutive days where the minimum daily temperature rose above 28oF) has been happening earlier in the year. Their data shows that the first warm spell is occurring about 2.8 days earlier every decade, which amounts to nearly 3 weeks over the last 70 years.

graph of 7-day warm spells

The earliest 7-day warm spells recorded each year at a weather station in Minden, Nev. 

Credit: Paige Johnson and Kyle Bocinsky, Native Climate.


Some of the problems facing Wá∙šiw today are the ability to restart traditional valley hímu growing practices and access to land, water, and money needed to propagate them. Many of the best areas for hímu growing are controlled by resource production and natural conservation mindsets. Most parks and natural areas in the Carson Valley are designed to keep nature in its pure state. Ranches that surround the Carson River and lusher areas of the Carson Valley are focused on livestock production and control large areas of land and water.

Working and living with the land gets us to a healthier environment, says Herman Filmore, Director of Culture/Language Resources Department of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. The plants and land are sovereign beings, and we live with them, which includes human interaction and use. He explains that the idea of untamed wilderness Indigenous peoples lived in is detrimentally wrong. Plants were harvested and propagated on purpose. Landscapes were managed and areas were cleared. The difference is that human needs were not the only concerns.

Campsites were used and plants were cared for, but not always, as rest is important for the plants and the landscape, says Rakow. The overworking of land is something she has seen in her life. Ranchers in the Carson Valley used to have cattle graze one area and let that area heal for years before using the land again. Today, this is much less common.

Valley hímu near a creek

Valley hímu growth near an unkept creek. Note that the majority of the branches are broken or twisted and unusable for weaving. 

Credit: Robin Smuda.


These are long-standing problems, but solutions are underway. For the first time in a generation, valley hímu is now being worked with on Wá∙šiw land in mass. It is a return and reimagining of what was done before. Rhiana Jones and the Washoe Tribe’s Environmental Department have been working on a pilot project to grow hímu that will be accessible to the whole community. She and others have propagated hímu stalks on the Dresslerville Reservation in the Carson Valley using traditional methods of fire and pruning to encourage great-quality stalks.

While efforts to have valley hímu in our community again are growing stronger, much still needs to be done in order to restore our relationship with this plant and the landscape as a whole. hímu faces many of the same challenges that we do — less water, intense heat, destruction of the environment, and out-of-control fire. They are resilient, as they always have been. It falls on people to become reconnected and move forward with them for generations to come.

hímu cradle boards with roasting pans, baskets, and a cedar net

hímu cradle boards, 3 used roasting pans, lidded baskets, and a traditionally made cedar net on display at Wa She Shu It’ Deh at Meeks Bay courtesy of the Culture and Language Resources Department of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

Robin Smuda is a Wašiw person and a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Currently, they are a reporter intern with Native Climate at DRI and studying Cultural Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Robin is planning on studying Ethno-Archeology and Indigenous Studies in grad school, with a focus on the transition from pre- and post-contact in the Great Basin.

Heading to the mountains? The Living Snow Project needs your help

Heading to the mountains? The Living Snow Project needs your help

Heading to the Mountains?

The Living Snow Project needs your help
JULY 8, 2022

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Living Snow Project
Snow Algae
Citizen Science

Featured research by DRI’s Alison Murray, Meghan Collins, Jaiden Christopher, Eric Lundin, and Sonia Nieminen.

On a cool and breezy morning in late spring, DRI Research Professor Alison Murray, Ph.D. and student intern Sonia Nieminen hiked up a ski slope at Mount Rose Ski Area, outside of Reno. The ground, wet from snowmelt, squished and squelched beneath their feet as they crossed a hillside of soggy grass to reach a remnant patch of late-season snow.

They were out to find snow algae – a type of freshwater algae that thrives in late-season snowpack. Although snow algae is best known for being pink, it actually comes in colors ranging from yellow to orange, light-green, brown, light pink, or a bright watermelon pink.

“There’s a whole microbial community that lives in the snow, and snow algae is the food source that gets it all started,” Murray explained. “They are a primary producer, so they bring organic carbon into the snow that feeds a diverse community of bacteria, fungi, protozoans and other multicellular animals. For example, little rotifers, tartigrades, mites, and spiders also call the snow ecosystem home.”

snow algae search in snow patches
Alison Murray, Sonia Nieminen, and KOLO reporter John Macaluso look for snow algae among snow patches at Mount Rose, May 31, 2022.
Credit: DRI.

Murray, Nieminen, Meghan Collins, Jaiden Christopher, and Eric Lundin at DRI are studying snow algae as part of the Living Snow Project ( – a collaboration between DRI and Robin Kodner and her team at Western Washington University. The project aims to learn more about the ecology, diversity, and prevalence of snow algae in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains, with help from citizen scientists.

“The literature is pretty spotty on the biology of snow and snow algae,” Murray said. “A lot is known about just a few species of snow algae, but we want to see what else is out there, and learn more about the role that algae play in the snowpack in a changing climate.”

female scientist digs through patch of light pink snow

Alison Murray digs into a patch of light pink snow at Mount Rose Ski Area to collect a snow algae sample.

Credit: DRI.
To collect a sample of snow algae, Murray and Nieminen first looked for patches of discolored snow. They dug down a few inches with a shovel, and then opened a sample collection kit – a pair of rubber gloves and a small plastic tube filled with a small amount of preservative. They used the lid of the tube to scoop some snow into the tube, then gave it a shake and sealed it. Finally, they recorded their location and sample number using the project’s smartphone app.
Living Snow Project sample collection kit instructions
snow algae samples in a plastic tube
Female collects a snow algae sample
Top Left: Participants in the Living Snow Project receive sample collection kits with specific instructions on how to collect a snow algae sample.

Top Right: Snow algae samples are collected using a plastic tube filled with a small amount of preservative.

Bottom: Sonia Nieminen collects a snow algae sample at Mount Rose Ski Area.

Credit: DRI.
Just off the boardwalk at Tahoe Meadows, the team came across another patch of lightly pink pigmented snow and stopped to collect some samples. Snow algae spend the winter in the soil, Murray explained, and remain there until the wetness and light conditions of melting snowpack trigger the algae’s flagellated growth phase. The algae move to the top of the snowpack, where they develop sunscreen-like pigments that turn them shades of orange, pink, or deep red.
scientist collects snow algae
Scientist collects snow algae with rubber gloves
Sample tubes with snow algae inside on top of snow
Top Left: DRI scientist Alison Murray collects a snow algae sample at Tahoe Meadows.

Top Right: Sonia Nieminen collects a snow algae sample at Tahoe Meadows. Rubber gloves help to prevent the contamination of samples with any microbiota on the researcher’s hands.

Bottom: Samples tubes containing snow algae collected at Tahoe Meadows in Nevada during late spring 2022.

Credit: DRI.
In the sample tubes, the snow samples appeared muted shades of brown, yellow, and light pink. But back in the laboratory at DRI, Eric Lundin placed the samples under a light microscope, and the red pigments became easier to see.

“The algae appear red due to astaxanthin, a pigment that protects snow algae from UV radiation,” Lundin explained.

Next, he examined the samples using fluorescence microscopy and DAPI staining. DAPI is a  fluorescent dye that is attracted to DNA. Using fluorescence microscopy, the snow algae appear as red circular cells due to the autofluorescence of chlorophyll.

Finally, he looked at the samples using confocal microscopy, which uses specific wavelengths of light to induce fluorescence and shows the 3-D structure of the cells as a 2-D image. In these images, blue indicates the presence of DNA. Chlorophyll appears red, clearly showing the presence of snow algae. The snow algae cells are often coated with a layer of bacterial cells, and some debris too.

Snow algae cells illustration
microscope view of snow algae sample
Snow algae cells viewed with a microscopy
Top Left: Snow algae cells (red) from the Mount Rose sites were identified in the laboratory using a light microscope. Pollen grains are large and appear to have two “ears” on either side of the main pollen particle, that helps the pollen grains get transported by the wind, they are often referred to as Mickey-Mouse shaped.

Top Right: Using fluorescence microscopy and DAPI staining to examine a sample, snow algae appear as red circular cells. Pollen grains, if the nucleus is still intact, emit blue light due to the presence of DNA. Other material seen in the image is a combination of bacteria, plants, dirt, and extracellular material.

Bottom: Snow algae, some of which are surrounded by bacterial cells (blue) as viewed with confocal microscopy. Blue indicates the presence of DNA, and red indicates presence of chlorophyll.

Credit: DRI

Want to participate in the Living Snow Project?

For the second year in a row, the group has put out a call to action to the outdoor recreation community for help tracking snow algae blooms, recording observations, and collecting samples of snow algae from backcountry areas during the late spring into the summer. By enlisting the help of volunteers, the research team is able to cover much more ground than they could alone.

“We appreciate the help of anyone who is out in the mountains in the early summer – hikers, summer skiers, or anyone else – who can help us collect samples or just use their phones to log locations where snow algae is found and how prevalent it is,” Murray said.

Are you heading to the mountains and interested in participating in the Living Snow Project? Instructions for how to participate are available on the Living Snow website:


About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit

Meet Victoria Wuest, Graduate Researcher

Meet Victoria Wuest, Graduate Researcher

Meet Victoria Wuest, Graduate Researcher

JULY 5, 2021


Above: Graduate researcher Victoria Wuest filters wastewater samples for COVID-19 detection in the BSL-2 lab at DRI in Las Vegas.

Credit: Alison Swallow/DRI.

Victoria Wuest is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Science at DRI in Las Vegas, mentored by Duane Moser, Ph.D. She is a Master’s student in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Learn more about Victoria and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog!

DRI: What brought you to DRI? And who at DRI are you working with?

Wuest: I came to DRI to research environmental DNA (eDNA) in two warm springs of Southern Nevada, working under Duane Moser, Ph.D., and with Ali Saidi-Mehrabad, Ph.D. eDNA is DNA that is released from an organism into the environment, and can come from sources like shed skin, mucus, and feces.

In my previous job, I was monitoring endangered species at the Muddy River, one of the study sites for this research. Also, I had previously worked with many biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nevada Department of Wildlife who manage this project and both of its study sites — the springs of the Muddy River and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. I was familiar with the species, the hydrology of these areas, and the management concerns of these precious resources. I had worked with the fish before and care about their survival. I thought I could make a positive impact with this research.

DRI: What research projects have you worked on during your time at DRI?

Wuest: When I first came to DRI, I had the opportunity to study the ancient eDNA excavated from Mule Springs Rockshelter, NV. This research focused on the migration of peoples throughout the Great Basin using DNA found on quids. Quids are chewed and expectorated plant fibers, which essentially served as an unintentional cheek swab. These samples were haplotyped and dated. Some quids turned out to be older than 3,000 years. This was my first experience working with eDNA and was valuable in teaching me the techniques for my project.

On the project at the Muddy River and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, I have developed a method and markers for using eDNA for early detection of the invasive red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) and western mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). I have also been using eDNA to track the movements of two endangered species, the Moapa dace (Moapa coriacea), and Warm Springs pupfish (Cyprinodon pectoralis nevadensis).

scientists extracts DNA from water sample

Graduate researcher Victoria Wuest extracts DNA from water samples in the clean lab at DRI in Las Vegas.

Credit: Alison Swallow/DRI.

DRI: What are some of the management concerns at the Muddy River and Ash Meadows project sites?

Wuest: The management of both sites focuses on the recovery of the imperiled species that are endemic to the area. The Moapa dace population has grown from 459 in 2008 to over a thousand. Meanwhile, the Warm Springs pupfish has a very small population of less than 500 individuals. Both species are highly susceptible to disturbances and have very localized distributions. The populations of Moapa dace and Warm Springs pupfish are dependent on the restoration of the streams and removal and monitoring of non-native and invasive species.

Scientist samples stream water

Graduate researcher Victoria Wuest samples stream water in Beatty, NV for the detection of western mosquitofish. 

Credit: Duane Moser.

DRI: What are your research goals?

Wuest: My goal is to design markers, or specific, single-stranded DNA sequences, to detect red swamp crayfish , western mosquitofish, Moapa dace, and Warm Springs pupfish and publish these novel markers along with the novel sampling method. This method has the potential to be expanded to detect all the species in these systems with the future goal of tracking abundance. As I near the end of my degree program, I am proud that I have made progress towards using eDNA as a monitoring tool for these sites.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

Wuest: Like many ecologists, I enjoy being outdoors—hiking, hammocking, and kayaking. At Northern Arizona University, my alma mater, these activities were a fundamental part of my college experience and part of the reason I chose that university. It is also the reason I chose to pursue biology.

However, lately, when I truly need a break from science, I find myself turning to art. I enjoy refinishing furniture, knitting gifts for my friends and family, propagating plants, sewing, photography, and honestly any craft that allows me to solve problems by being creative. These activities allow me to take a break from my work while still being fulfilling.

scientist samples mainstem in water

Graduate researcher Victoria Wuest samples the mainstem Muddy River, NV for the detection of invasive species and the endangered Moapa dace.

Credit: Duane Moser.

Additional Information:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:

Field Notes From a DRI Research Team in Greenland: A Story Map

Field Notes From a DRI Research Team in Greenland: A Story Map

Field Notes From a DRI Research Team in Greenland: A Story Map

In May 2022, a team led by scientists from DRI in Reno, Nevada departed for Greenland, where they were joined by ice drilling, Arctic logistics, and mountaineering experts. Together, the team plans to collect a 440 meter-long ice core that will represent 4,000 years of Earth and human history.  

For much of their time on the Greenland ice sheet, the team will not have access to the internet or phone service — but they are able to send short text messages back to DRI from a Garmin inReach two-way satellite communicator. You can follow along with their journey on our Story Map, “The Return to Tunu.” 

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

MAY 23, 2022


Above: Brianda fly fishing in Northern California where the Klamath River and the Pacific Ocean meet.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

Brianda Hernandez Rosales is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno. She recently earned her Master’s degree in hydrogeology from the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). Learn more about Brianda and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog!

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Hernandez: I first learned of DRI during my time at Mt. San Antonio College, during a research trip to Capitol Reef National Park. The chief scientist of the park was a hydrogeologist with a degree from the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at UNR and mentioned his affiliation with DRI. I decided to check out DRI when I had access to the web. I started following the research that was being conducted at DRI and knew that I wanted to somehow make my way to Northern Nevada once I was ready to tackle a graduate degree. Luckily, my research interests aligned with the work of Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D., allowing me to attend UNR and join DRI. It was the best decision I made way back in June 2017 during that hot afternoon overlooking the Capital Reef basin. 

DRI: What are you studying?

Hernandez: My focus of study is hydrology/hydrogeology. I am interested in water security issues in the West, particularly in underrepresented communities. Using science to help build climate resiliency among these communities is another interest and passion of mine, as well as science communication.

Brianda Hernandez Rosales headshot

Brianda Hernandez Rosales is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Hernandez: My graduate research focuses on assessing the feasibility of rainwater harvesting for food production in Peach Springs, AZ on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. Rainwater harvesting is the concentration, collection, and storage of rainwater to be used at a later time. It has been practiced for centuries in arid and semi-arid environments around the world, however, this practice has been overlooked in the United States as a means to ensure water security in rural areas. Rainwater harvesting can be used to diversify water portfolios and attain food security in vulnerable communities.  

COVID-19 and supply-chain issues have exposed the need to assess food security in areas that are considered “food deserts” and rainwater harvesting can be a way to combat those issues, particularly in the Southwest, since monsoonal rains are available for capture during the growing season. This project has been inspirational for me because it can be scaled to any degree and applied to any rural community interested in harvesting rainwater to grow food. I’ve learned that this practice can be applied not only in rural communities but across the United States to reduce the strain on other water supplies. On this project, I work alongside Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D., Christine Albano, Ph.D., and Susie Rybarski at DRI.

In addition to my graduate research, I also worked alongside Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., and Alexandra Lutz, Ph.D., during summer 2021 on providing content for the COVID-19 Toolkit website through Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project. I researched the impacts on water quality during drought in the West to help inform Tribal Extension agents, tribal ranchers, and farmers as well as tribal members about these looming issues.

Hualapai Community Garden

Brianda documenting the crops currently grown in the Hualapai Community Garden in Peach Springs, AZ with support from the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program (FRTEP) agent for the tribe, Elisabeth Alden.

Credit: Alexandra Lutz.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Hernandez: My overall goal at DRI is to conduct good, reputable science that is accessible to everyone. I think having access to great science is important, now more than ever. My short-term goal is to finish my degree in May 2022. My long-term goal is to continue working with folks at DRI and the NWAL team to assist in the important work that is being done to ensure climate resiliency among the communities that need it most.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

Hernandez: Like many people at DRI, I am a lover of the outdoors! You can find me climbing boulders in the Tahoe Basin, Bishop, California, or throughout the West. I also enjoy mountain biking on any dirt, fly fishing at any body of water, and simply just camping with friends in the mountains or the open desert. We live in such a beautiful area here in the West, it’s nice just to explore.

When I am not outside, I enjoy reading books about people who do things outside (e.g., adventure memoirs, anthropology books) or science books. I also enjoy listening to music, eating delicious food, and drinking wine while having great conversations with family and friends.

pebble wrestling

“Pebble wrestling” in Rocky Mountains National Park.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

Additional Information:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

MARCH 24, 2021
Data Modeling
Above: Dennis Hallema of DRI studies natural catastrophe impacts, such as the longer-term impacts that wildfires have on flood risk after a fire has passed. The hillside shown here burned in California’s Loyalton Fire during August 2020.
Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald.

Dennis Hallema, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor of hydrology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas. He specializes in data modeling and natural catastrophe research. Dennis is originally from the Netherlands and holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Earth Sciences from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a Ph.D. in Continental hydrology and society from Montpellier SupAgro in France. A new addition to the DRI community, Dennis started working for DRI remotely from North Carolina in November 2021 and relocated to Las Vegas in March.

dennis hallema
Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.
Credit: Dennis Hallema.
DRI: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to DRI? 

Hallema: I started at DRI in November of last year, so I am still fairly new here. If you had to describe me with two keywords, it would be hydrology and wildfires. I specialize in consulting on natural hazard impacts – not so much the natural hazards themselves, but the longer-term impacts that they have on things like flood risks. My methods are AI (artificial intelligence) focused – so, machine learning. When I applied for this job at DRI, there was really a need for a person who could do research on all of these aspects combined – a person that crossed the bridge between traditional hydrologic modeling and who could also apply newer methods like AI.

My background is in hydrologic modeling and fire science. I first did this work for the USDA Forest Service, where I was a research fellow with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). That was my first big fellowship. I did that job for a few years, and that’s where I really became an expert in wildfire impacts on hydrology. Before that, I worked in Quebec City, Canada, on different jobs in hydrologic modeling of snowy landscapes, so I have experience doing snow modeling as well.

DRI: What are some of the ways that wildfires impact hydrology? Can you give us an example?

Hallema: I have studied this across the whole entire country looking at various regions where fires have an impact on runoff. The higher up you go in mountainous areas, you see very profound impacts. We can divide the impacts into primary perils and secondary perils. In the case of a wildfire, primary perils are the immediate damage. People lose their property, there are health impacts, there can be loss of life.

Secondary perils are what come later, after the fire has passed – the indirect effects that occur from the fire. In many cases, secondary perils are related to hillslope stability. You may remember the mudslides of California a few years ago. The hillslope becomes unstable because the wildfire can remove a large part of the vegetation canopy.  After the fire, when the first rainfall event occurs, the soil can often still absorb that. But when the second rain shower comes, and there’s nothing to retain or protect the soil, in case of very severe wildfires, the soil becomes saturated and essentially creates a sliding plane, and that’s when you get mudslides.


dennis hallema
Above: Dennis Hallema is an assistant research professor of hydrology with DRI in Las Vegas. In his free time, he enjoys spending time outdoors.
Credit: Dennis Hallema.
DRI: You recently published new research on wildfire risks to watersheds in Canada. Can you tell us about that?

Hallema: The paper was a review of the mechanisms that are responsible for wildfire impacts on water security and water resources across Canada. We mapped out where data are available, and what types of data are available, as far as wildfire occurrence, severity, streamflow data, and streamflow impacts. Data is often collected with publicly funded projects, so the ideal outcome would be that data should be accessible to other users later on. But this isn’t always the case.

One principle that we advocate for in this paper that I also want to promote in Nevada is the FAIR data principle. That stands for Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse of digital assets. Obstacles to that are data scarcity and data fragmentation. Data scarcity means that there is little data available, and data fragmentation means that the data exist, but they are stored in many different locations. There is a lot of opportunity to improve the depth of data collection and quality of datasets and improve and reduce the fragmentation of data.

DRI: Can you tell us about a project you’re working on here at DRI?

Hallema: I’m working on a project that is sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and one thing that we’re exploring is the effect of rain on snow. This happens in landscapes in northern Nevada when temperatures are around the freezing point, and you get an interesting dynamic of snowmelt and snowfall. My research is really focused on how likely this is to generate a flood, such as a 50-year flood, or a 100-year flood. The way I’m approaching the problem is by looking at the interactions between rain, snow, and rain-on-snow events. I’m researching how these interactions at the land surface really affect the runoff that is generated, how that affects the probability of a flood occurring, and when during the season you see this elevated flood risk. That’s one thing I’m working towards – and in general also providing consulting for institutions like USACE for implementing machine learning and remote sensing technologies into natural hazards impact models, wildfire data modeling, water risk models, and such.

DRI: What do you like to do outside of work?

Hallema: I like to spend a lot of time outdoors. I like to travel, I speak a few languages. I’m lucky that the things I do for work are things that I really enjoy doing. Being outside, collecting data, and doing cool computer stuff when I get back to the office, that’s the fun of my job.

Inspiring solutions: DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program tracks radioactivity in Nevada’s air and water

Inspiring solutions: DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program tracks radioactivity in Nevada’s air and water

Inspiring solutions: DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program tracks radioactivity in Nevada’s air and water

March 7, 2022
By Kelsey Fitzgerald
Radiation Monitoring
Citizen Science

Above: Community Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP) Station on DRI’s campus in Las Vegas.

Credit: Tommy Gugino.

DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP) recently celebrated 40 years of radiation monitoring around the Nevada National Security Site, is one of the Institute’s longest-running programs – and its earliest citizen science success story.

Imagine this: You live in a Southern Nevada community located close to a historic nuclear testing site. You’ve heard stories from older relatives about watching mushroom clouds from atomic testing back in the 1950s and stories about “downwinders” in neighboring states who later developed cancer. Although nuclear testing stopped almost three decades ago, you can’t help but wonder about the unseen hazards that might be carried in the air on windy days. Or what might be slowly seeping into your drinking water.

For residents of communities surrounding the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), these concerns are not imaginary — they are questions of everyday life. The NNSS, formerly the Nevada Test Site, was ground zero for more than 900 underground and atmospheric nuclear tests between 1951 and 1992. Today, the NNSS is used for a variety of missions related to national security rather than as a full-scale nuclear testing site, but public concern about exposure to harmful radiation lives on.

For more than 40 years, DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP) has worked to address fears about radiation exposure and provide answers to the concerned public in communities surrounding the NNSS through a simple but impactful solution: putting radioactivity data in the hands of the people.

Don Curry checks CEMP Station gages

Station Manager Don Curry checks the gages at the Community Environmental Monitoring Program Station on the DRI campus in Las Vegas. Curry has been part of the CEMP since 1991.

Credit: Tommy Gugino.
The CEMP: a brief history

Founded in 1981 as a collaborative effort involving DRI, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Energy (DOE), which funds the program through the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nevada Field Office, the CEMP operates a network of 23 radiation and environmental monitoring stations spread throughout Southern Nevada, Utah, and California. Each station is staffed by pairs of local citizens who serve as points of contact for residents of their communities, and who are part of the official chain of custody for air filter samples they collect on a regular basis at the stations.

The program was born during a time when active nuclear testing was still going on at the NNSS. It was not long after the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, and public distrust for the government was running high. In the aftermath of that accident, a group of local concerned citizens formed an independent monitoring network, which greatly improved public confidence in the monitoring process and results.  Scientists from the DOE and EPA who had been deployed to assist with the monitoring of the Three Mile Island accident brought the idea back to Nevada, and the CEMP was born. By providing communities surrounding the NNSS with the tools to monitor radioactivity themselves and trusted community members to help interpret the data, the CEMP proved a powerful way to address citizens’ fears and concerns.

“I’m a huge proponent of giving the public a hands-on role that goes way above and beyond what the regulations might require,” said CEMP Project Director Ted Hartwell of DRI. “All of these stations are placed with the idea that we want them to be very publicly visible. A lot of them are at schools. One is at the post office in Beatty and one is at the post office in Tecopa. We have one at Southern Utah University in Cedar City and one at the BLM offices in Ely. The whole idea is that they’re visible, they’ll attract attention, and they’re staffed by trusted neighbors.”

In 1999, full technical operation of the CEMP was turned over from the EPA to DRI, and Hartwell took the helm as project director. Stations were upgraded to include meteorological instrumentation, and DRI scientist Greg McCurdy developed a program website, which for the first time allowed members of the public to access radioactivity and weather data in near real-time.

Today, DRI continues to administer the program, which employs a network of 46 Community Environmental Monitors (two per station) and 10 DRI scientists, staff members, and student interns who assist with various aspects of the program, including performing regular station maintenance, sample processing, website administration, and public outreach activities.

radioactive plume smoke
Troops of the Battalion Combat Team, U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division, watch a plume of radioactive smoke rise after the Dog Test at at Yucca Flats on the NNSS, Nov 1, 1951.
Credit: Corporal Alexander McCaughey, U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps. Public domain image.
A dedicated volunteer base

Many program participants are new arrivals, but some have been with the CEMP for decades. The people of the CEMP, says Hartwell, are the true power behind the program. They are responsible for collecting data, and more importantly, they are the connecting force that relays the data back to their communities. About half of the program participants are science teachers, who are encouraged to include the information they learn from the program into their lessons.

Don Curry, age 83, is one of the program’s longest-serving participants – a CEMP station manager in Las Vegas for more than 30 years. He began with the program in 1991, not long after moving to Las Vegas to teach high school biology. For Curry, the CEMP provided an amazing opportunity to integrate real-world environmental data into the lessons that he did with his students.

“My students would go to the CEMP station to check on it; some took it on as their own class research projects and started communicating with other station managers in Utah and Nevada,” Curry said. “I used it in my environmental science classes to teach kids about radiation and how it affects the environment. We also worked with the EPA to develop an international radon testing network, where we collected samples from all over the world, and kids learned how to do radon testing themselves.”

The long-term impact of the program on his students was significant, Curry said.

“Anything that shows kids what a professional scientist does is astounding to them; it gives them a foot in the door. For a kid to see that they can have a career and get paid for working in science, that’s very cool. Having kids exposed to that is very important.”

Curry retired from teaching in 2009 but remains active as an AP biology tutor and visits his CEMP station several times per week. For Curry, some of the best parts about being a CEMP station manager have been the opportunity to participate in things that are happening at DRI  and the tremendous amount he has learned about radiation issues.

Each summer, the CEMP organizes a workshop for program participants, in which prominent experts from the radiation research community are invited to speak on timely topics – for example, updates from Chernobyl or Fukushima. These are typically held in person, although the past two years’ workshops were held virtually due to COVID.

“The CEMP has been one of the highlights of my career because it has connected me to numerous things in many directions,” Curry said. “While I was teaching, it was one of the most important things I did all year. Now that I’m retired, I love having the CEMP as a small window into all of the things that are happening at the DRI campus.”

CEMP Station data collection

Station Manager Don Curry collects data at the Community Environmental Monitoring Program Station on the DRI campus in Las Vegas. Curry and a second CEMP team member visit the station three times per week.

Credit: Tommy Gugino.

Lessons learned

So, what has the CEMP learned over 40 years of radioactivity monitoring? For the most part, they’ve been able to show their communities that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

“This is a program that’s been around for a lot of years, but we’ve never seen anything that would be of concern to the general population,” said Don Newman, another long-time CEMP participant who began as a station manager in Cedar City, Utah in 1990.

CEMP data has helped dispel rumors and ease fears when accidents occur near the NNSS. Once, they were able to prove that a small test rocket that landed near Goldfield, Nevada was not nuclear-related. Another time, the data helped ease public concerns after an accident involving medical isotopes on the highway between Beatty and Goldfield.

The Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 was a big moment for the program, Hartwell and Newman recall. The CEMP stations were the first to both detect and publicly report the detection of radionuclides from that accident in Japan here in Nevada.

“That was a pretty serious event, but it also really showed that our network was functioning as it should,” Hartwell said. “We were able to pick up these radionuclides of concern from a source several thousands of miles away, and yet we haven’t detected anything like that coming from the NNSS, which is just 75 or 100 miles up the road from Las Vegas, since full-scale testing ceased in 1992.

“Additionally, we were able to assist our local representatives in conveying accurate information to their communities to help them realize that, while we were certain that we were detecting radionuclides from an accident thousands of miles away, the exposure levels were thousands to millions of times less here in the United States than the ionizing radiation we’re exposed to 24/7 from the natural environment,” Hartwell added.

As time passes, public concern has shifted from the risk of airborne radiation to concern about what is in the groundwater, says Hartwell. About ten years ago, contaminants were detected in the groundwater outside the boundaries of the NNSS, but still a long way from public water sources.

The CEMP has performed water testing in the communities that are downgradient from the NNSS for decades, and works closely with Nye County, which operates a separate community-based water monitoring program, to convey the results of these studies to participants. At present, they have not detected any traces of contamination in the water, but if they do, their communities can rest assured that the CEMP monitors will be the first to let them know about it.

“It’s one of those programs where it goes along quietly for a long time, then there’s some event that CEMP participates in that really brings home the importance of the program,” said Hartwell.

More information:

For more information on the CEMP, please visit: CEMP personnel are  happy to provide presentations for classrooms, organizations or events. If you have a group interested in a presentation on the CEMP and the history of nuclear testing in Nevada, please contact Ted Hartwell ( or place a presentation request through the project website: CEMP Presentation Request Form (

DRI faculty and staff who work on the CEMP program include: Ted Hartwell, Beverly Parker, Cheryl Collins, Greg McCurdy, Lynn Karr, John Goreham, Patriz Rivera, Pam Lacy, Rebekah Stevenson, and Sydney Wahls.

Las Vegas student celebrates Bar Mitzvah by raising funds for Nevada Robotics program

Las Vegas student celebrates Bar Mitzvah by raising funds for Nevada Robotics program

Las Vegas student celebrates Bar Mitzvah by raising funds for Nevada Robotics program

Philanthropy comes in many different forms and sometimes from unexpected places. Caleb, a Las Vegas middle schooler, chose to give back to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. Caleb reached out to DRI’s Nevada Robotics program with a desire to help raise money to give greater access to robots for students at a Title 1 middle school in the Las Vegas area.

“I am doing this project because I enjoy robotics, and I want other people who like robotics to be able to have access to robots,” Caleb said. “My goal for this project is to be able to raise $500 dollars for one to two robots for a classroom in need. Hopefully, we can raise more, like $5,000 dollars, so we can get an entire classroom set.”

“We are so excited to share that Caleb, his family, and his community have raised $1,000 for this cause,” said DRI STEM & Robotics Education Manager A.J. Long. “These funds will be used to purchase robot sets for a Title I school, Marvin Sedway, where 100% of the students are economically disadvantaged. The robots will be given to a Mrs. D. Jones Smith, a dedicated teacher who attended our Robotics Academy of Nevada Teacher Training in June of 2021. She is excited to bring robotics into her classroom to ignite STEM through hands-on classroom robotics. We hope to raise another $4,000 so that we can purchase a large classroom set by March of 2022.”

So far, the site has raised $1,000, exceeding Caleb’s initial goal. Thanks to Caleb for his thoughtful project! 


Seeking answers from the ashes

Seeking answers from the ashes

Seeking answers from the ashes

January 20, 2022

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Above: A soil collection field site located within the perimeter of Dixie fire. November 18, 2021.

Credit: Vera Samburova.

DRI scientists study soil dynamics in the wake of Sierra Nevada wildfires

After a wildfire, soils in burned areas become temporarily water-repellent, resulting in increased risk of flooding and erosion in the months that follow. Scientists and land managers have never thoroughly understood why or how this happens – but when last summer’s Dixie, Tamarack, and Caldor fires burned through the Sierra Nevada in close proximity to DRI’s Reno campus, scientists Brad Sion, Ph.D., Vera Samburova, Ph.D., and Markus Berli, Ph.D., jumped into action. 

The team, led by Sion, obtained a Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation for a new project aimed at exploring the impacts of wildfires on physical and chemical properties of burned soils.

Brad Sion
vera samburova

Above, left: Brad Sion, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Geomorphology, holds a frozen chunk of burned soil at a soil sample collection site  near Kirkwood in the wake of the Tamarack Fire.

Credit: Vera Samburova.

Above, right: Vera Samburova, Ph.D., inspects soils in a burned area near Frenchman Lake that was affected by the Beckwourth Complex Fire.

Credit: Brad Sion.

To collect soil samples before the burned areas were impacted by rain or snowfall, time was of the essence. In October, the team made several trips to nearby fire sites to collect soil samples and to conduct field measurements of soil water repellency.

Then, in late October, a major atmospheric river storm came through. The team’s next visit to the fire sites revealed a changed landscape – a real-world example of how wildfires and water repellent soils can impact ecosystems and infrastructure.

“When we first went out into the field, the sites were very dry and ash-covered,” said Samburova. “When we went back out after the atmospheric river storm, we saw lots of mudslides along the roads, and even dirt on top of the road in some places. The soil was very mushy at the surface, but bone dry within centimeters below. And a lot of water was staying on the surface. It was hard to walk on – very slippery.”

water droplet penetration test results
erosion and mudslides

Above, left: The results of a water droplet penetration test on burned soils at the Dixie fire show a high degree of soil water repellency.

Credit: Vera Samburova.

Above, right: After a late October atmospheric river storm passed through the region, researchers observed erosion and mudslides field sites at the Dixie fire. 

Credit: Vera Samburova.

An interdisciplinary approach

Although previous studies have examined impacts of fire on soils in a controlled laboratory setting, the new DRI study will be one of the first to investigate changes in soil properties and their interrelationships using samples collected directly from freshly burned forests. This work builds upon earlier research by co-investigators Samburova and Berli, which investigated the impacts of fire smoke on water repellency of sand samples.

The team, which includes experts from all three of DRI’s research divisions, is approaching their research questions from several angles. Sion is leading the effort to measure the hydraulic (water-related) and thermal (heat-related) properties of burned soils. Samburova is analyzing organic compounds found in the burned soil samples, and Berli is conducting tests to assess the degree of soil water repellency.

Together, their results will provide new insight into linkages between fire burn severity, changes in soil thermal and hydraulic properties, and more.

“Our goal is to understand from a basic science perspective, what the cause is for these various soil characteristics pre- and post- fire,” said Sion. “If we can look at different fire conditions and the soil conditions that result, then we can say something about how a soil may respond in the future, and eventually that information can be extrapolated to different landscape settings.”

At present, the researchers have completed sample collection and are analyzing samples in their respective laboratories in Reno and Las Vegas. They plan to return to their field sites next fall to see how the soil water repellency changes over time.

As climate warms and western wildfire activity increases, Sion and his colleagues believe that understanding how forest fires impact soil properties will continue to be a topic of growing importance.

“Climate change and wildfires are not problems that are unique to the Sierras,” Sion said. “Whether you’re in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Alaska, or elsewhere, you’re seeing increases in fire activity. People are thinking about the landscape responses and what they mean.”

Diana Brown

Diana Brown, Staff Research Scientist of Geomorphology, analyzes samples in the Soil Characterization and Quaternary Pedology laboratory in Reno. The soil samples have been saturated with water and contain tensiometers and heat probes to analyze hydraulic and thermal properties of the soil.

Credit: DRI.

Funding for this study is provided by the National Science Foundation (award # 2154013). Additional DRI scientists participating in this project include Hans Moosmüller, Ph.D., Diana Brown, M.S., Chris Baish, M.S., Janelle Bustarde, Palina Bahdanovich, Shelby Inouye, Adam Hackbarth, Zimri Mena and Kendrick Seeber.


About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit

DRI scientist Rishi Parashar receives NSF Mid-Career Advancement Award

DRI scientist Rishi Parashar receives NSF Mid-Career Advancement Award

Meet Rishi Parashar, Ph.D. and learn about his research in this Q&A with “DRI’s Behind the Science” Blog. 

Rishi Parashar, Ph.D., is an Associate Research Professor of Hydrology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno. He studies the movement of water, contaminants, and other substances through Earth’s subsurface. Originally from India, Rishi holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, India, and Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Civil Engineering from Purdue University. He has been a member of the DRI community since 2008. In his free time, Rishi enjoys photography, listening to music, and spending time with his wife and three children.

DRI: What do you do at DRI?

Parashar: I study flow and contaminant transport through Earth’s subsurface, which consists of soil as well as rocks. Within rocks you can have fractures, so that is known as fractured media; within soils, there are tiny air or water-filled pores, so they are generally called porous media. My research is largely focused on understanding how water or anything that is mixed into the water – like contaminants, microbes, or heat – flow and disperse through fractured rocks and porous media.

DRI: Why is it important to understand these processes here in Nevada? Can you share an example from your work?

Parashar: When I began at DRI in 2008, I spent a large portion of my first eight or nine years working on problems at the Nevada Test Site, which is now known as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). During that time, my work was heavily based on trying to understand how radionuclides might move through fractured rocks. Radionuclides are unstable forms of elements that release radiation as they break down and can have harmful effects on living organisms. So, we were trying to determine how radionuclides that were released into the subsurface after atomic tests might move further by getting into fractured rocks. Understanding how contaminants or water or radionuclides in this case can potentially move through fractured rock is very important in places like the NNSS.

DRI: You recently received a Mid-Career Advancement (MCA) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will allow you to expand your work in some exciting new directions. Can you tell us about your plans?

Parashar: This was the first year that the NSF has offered mid-career awards, which provide time and resources for scientists at the Associate Professor rank to diversify their knowledge by partnering and training with researchers working in complimentary fields. Until now, my research has been mainly focused on understanding flow and transport in fractured rocks and porous media – but one of the major challenges in my field right now is that most computational models are large, computationally heavy, and difficult to scale-up. To take science or modeling of these processes to the next level, I believe that we need to try to combine our work with some of the technological advances that we are seeing in the fields of computer science and applied mathematics.

Some high-fidelity fracture network models cannot be easily scaled up – they allow us to study problems at a small scale, but to apply our models for realistic world problems at a larger scale, we may benefit greatly from tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning or quantum computing. With the MCA award, I will be partnering with three collaborators: two are applied mathematicians from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the third is a computer scientist from the University of Nevada, Reno with expertise in AI, graph representations of networks, and quantum computing. Together we will explore opportunities of convergence research and see if we can develop more robust computational approaches that would benefit many different areas within the field of hydrology.

DRI: What are some of the applications for your work?

Parashar: The type of modeling I’ve described can help us understand the movement of water, heat, and other quantities of interest through connected networks in the subsurface with applications to geothermal, carbon sequestration, and nuclear waste repositories among others. They can also be useful in studying the transport of viruses and bacteria through porous media, which is important in applications such as water recycling.  Here in Nevada, there is interest in treating and cleaning municipal water and reusing it for irrigation and other purposes. One way to clean it is to run it through the ground – but to ensure that the water is being properly cleaned it is important to understand how bacteria and viruses move through the system.

DRI: You are originally from India. How did you end up here at DRI?

Parashar: I came to DRI as a postdoc in 2008. The true story is that in all my life I have only written one job application. In 2008, when I was about to complete my Ph.D., my wife was already well established in the Reno area working for a consulting firm. I wanted to explore opportunities and knew about the good quality of work at DRI. So I approached John Warrick, who was the Division Director at that time, and he informed me about this new position that was about to open. I interviewed in Las Vegas and have stayed here at DRI’s Reno campus ever since.

More information:

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

DECEMBER 6, 2021

Ecosystem Sciences

Above: Charlotte van der Nagel during sunrise at Reflection Canyon, Utah.

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

Charlotte van der Nagel is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas and a Ph.D. student in the Geoscience program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Learn more about Charlotte and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog!

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

van der Nagel: I am originally from the Netherlands. I worked with Dr. Henry Sun at DRI for half a year in 2020 as part of the research for my master’s thesis. This time allowed me to get to know DRI – and Nevada as a whole – and I sure liked it a lot! So, when a Ph.D. position became available that continued the research I had already started the year before, I didn’t doubt for a single second and applied for it, which brought me back to DRI and Las Vegas in August 2021.

DRI: What are you studying?

van der Nagel: The main focus of my study is ecohydrology. This discipline focuses on the interaction between water and ecology. I am particularly interested in how the desert ecosystem can support life with such limited water availability.

Van Der Nagel moapa

Charlotte van der Nagel in the field digging a hole to bury multiple TDR sensors to monitor soil moisture distribution over depth and time in Arrow Canyon near Moapa, NV.

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

van der Nagel: I work with my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Henry Sun. My main project is a study that focuses on the occurrence of barren circles of on average 13ft in diameter, surrounding a central ant nest. These circles are found throughout most of the western U.S. and are even visible from satellite images. Ants keep the circles barren by cutting down any seedling that wants to establish inside of the circle, yet ants depend on these plants for their food source. By keeping the circle barren, the ants take away their nearest food source, which does not make sense from a biological viewpoint. In this study, we will try to find the driving force for ants to display this disk clearing behavior.

Another project I recently started working on involves regional die-back of Screwbean Mesquite trees. As these trees are of high ecological significance, there is a lot of interest from different agencies to study the die-back and find possible causes to explain and possibly revert this die-back. For this study, I will be looking at soil moisture conditions, N15 and O18 isotopes of the trees, and sulfide concentrations and redox conditions in the groundwater.

van der nagel ant nests

Charlotte van der Nagel is working with her advisor, Dr. Henry Sun, to study ants nests found within barren circles in the Great Basin and other western ecosystems. Ants keep the circle barren by cutting down vegetation that grows inside the circle, but scientists do not yet understand the reason for this behavior.

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

van der Nagel: As I just started my Ph.D. program a couple of months ago, my short-term goal would be to get both my projects up and running, so that I will start getting results in. In the meantime, I am planning on learning as much as I can about the various topics my research includes.

In the long-term, I want to engage in more cross-disciplinary research. Often, a research problem is not easily classified as one field of work. For example, my ant circle study requires not only knowledge of hydrology, but also of ecology and biology. If you exclusively look at one of those disciplinaries, you will inevitably miss a lot of potentially important findings in the other fields. I therefore want to extend my area of focus and I feel like DRI would be a great place for this.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

van der Nagel: Coming from a country that is flat and very densely populated, I love spending all my free time out of the city, enjoying the vastness of the desert. You can find me every weekend out hiking, climbing, camping, kayaking or off-roading – the more remote, the better.  I really like that Las Vegas is close to so many great national parks and try to make every weekend into an adventure. One of the most amazing things I have done so far was driving 2 hours on a rough off-road, then hiking 10 miles with a heavy backpack to camp on the edge of Reflection Canyon, Utah. The most rewarding hike I have ever done!

Van Der Nagel in Zion

Charlotte van der Nagel hiking Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah.

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

Additional Information:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:

DRI project contributes to an air quality win in Jakarta

DRI project contributes to an air quality win in Jakarta

DRI project contributes to an air quality win in Jakarta

Nov 8, 2021
By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Air Quality
Air Pollution

Above:Jakarta, Indonesia is severely polluted by sources that include vehicle emissions, factories, and coal-fired power plants.

Credit: Arnaud Matar, Flickr Image.

From Nevada to Jakarta, the work of DRI scientists often has long-lasting impacts in far-off places. This fall, scientists Alan Gertler, Ph.D., John Watson, Ph.D., Judith Chow, Sc.D., Sarath Guttikunda, Ph.D., and Ricky Tropp, Ph.D., received word that air quality monitoring guidelines and reports from a decade-old project in Indonesia had served a beneficial new purpose: providing key evidence in an important court decision that will require stricter air quality standards in the City of Jakarta.

The City of Jakarta is home to 10 million people, and severely polluted by sources that include vehicle emissions, factories, and coal-fired power plants. Additionally, burning of rainforest to create space for palm oil plantations in the countryside causes air pollution that extends into neighboring countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. 

air quality training seminar Jakarta

DRI’s John Watson, Ph.D., introduces an air quality training seminar in Jakarta in 2019.

Credit: DRI

In 2011, this DRI team began a multi-year project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop an urban air quality management program for Jakarta. The first phase of the project consisted of an emissions inventory, an assessment of health impacts of air pollution, development of pollution abatement strategies, upgrading the air quality measurement and management program, training in-country personnel in air quality management, development of an air quality index, and more.

Unfortunately, the second phase of the project, which would have consisted of developing control strategies for emissions reduction and providing air quality information to the public, was never funded.

“Although Phase II of the project was never funded, we did as much as we could with the funding that we had for Phase I,” said Gertler, Principal Investigator and Project Manager for the Jakarta project. “We worked on the project for a number of years and were able to make great progress toward helping stakeholders in Jakarta develop better air quality management capabilities.”

The DRI team completed their work on this project in 2017, but the air pollution problems in Jakarta continued. In 2019, a group of 32 Indonesian citizens decided to take action and filed a lawsuit against Indonesian President Joko Widodo and other top officials for neglecting the citizens’ rights to clean air.

As evidence, the prosecution requested the use of a number of data files and records from DRI’s project. Gertler and Watson were happy to comply – and in September, the court ruled in the Indonesian citizens’ favor, ordering the officials to tighten national air quality standards and fulfill the rights of citizens to a good and healthy environment.

“I’m really glad that someone was able to make use of the work that we did, and that they were successful at winning their case,” said Gertler. “Let’s hope they can make some progress toward cleaner air in Jakarta.”


Indonesian air quality monitoring station

John Watson (to left) visits a recently installed Indonesian air quality monitoring station.

Credit: DRI


About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

OCTOBER 27, 2021
Atmospheric Science

Above: DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli works at the Virginia Lakes SNOTEL station to collect no-snow data for the cosmic ray detector for snow water content observations.

Credit: M. Heggli.
Anne Heggli is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Atmospheric Science at DRI in Reno. She is a Ph.D. student studying atmospheric science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Learn more about Anne and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog!
Anne Heggli at Snow Laboratory

DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli digs through deep snow to reach a monitoring site during a 2019 field project at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Laboratory in the Tahoe National Forest.

Credit: M. Heggli.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Heggli: The applied and operational approach towards research.

DRI: What are you studying?

Heggli: I am studying the role that present weather and snowpack conditions have on the timing of rain-on-snow induced runoff by looking into hourly data from existing snow monitoring stations. I am curious to find out if we can use these existing snow monitoring networks to recognize patterns and learn more about how different snowpack conditions contribute to runoff as a means to improve reservoir operations and aid in flood management.

DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Heggli: I am working on the development of a Snowpack Runoff Advisory aimed at identifying high risk weather and snowpack conditions that can be synthesized into a decision support tool for reservoir operators and flood managers. Dr. Ben Hatchett is my advisor and the principal investigator on this.


Anne Heggli at Sagehen Creek Field Station

DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli connects a prototype snow water content sensor that measures the attenuation of passive cosmic rays at Sagehen Creek Field Station.

Credit: M. Heggli.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Heggli: In the short term, I am looking forward to growing my skills around quantifying risk and how to best communicate those results in a meaningful way. I also hope to develop multi-use data products through the Western Regional Climate Center that are ready for analysis to engage with other researchers that could allow me to acquire interdisciplinary knowledge and skills while I am working at DRI.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

Heggli: In the summer you can find me playing sand volleyball at Zephyr Cove in Tahoe, on my paddle board, or swimming and exploring the American River watershed. I am a beginner at mountain biking and cross-country skiing. I of course love observing the weather and clouds. I also volunteer with Protect American River Canyons and help to engage the community with the stewardship of the recreational area.

Anne Heggli with Hydropower agency in Panama

DRI graduate research assistant Anne Heggli works with a hydropower agency in Panama to help them upgrade their hydrometeorological monitoring network.

Credit: M. Heggli.
Additional Information:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:


Meet Graduate Researcher Nicholas Kimutis

Meet Graduate Researcher Nicholas Kimutis

Meet Nicholas Kimutis, Graduate Researcher

SEPTEMBER 29, 2021

Public Health

Nicholas Kimutis is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at DRI in Reno. He is a master’s student studying public health with a specialization in epidemiology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Learn more about Nick and his graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog!


Graduate research assistant Nick Kimutis prepares to capture Speyeria nokomis (butterflies) at Round Mountain in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Credit: Lauren Redosh.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Kimutis: I was originally brought into DRI by Meghan Collins, who hired me as an undergraduate intern with the Stories in the Snow citizen science program back in 2017. At that time, I was interested in ice crystal formation as well as communicating science and engaging with the public in an accessible way. After Stories in the Snow, Tamara Wall brought me into the Western Regional Climate Center where I have worked since. What keeps me at DRI is two-fold: First, the amazing and talented people that work here. Second, the translational research, co-productions and community engagement that we conduct in the climate center. I truly believe that the research questions DRI addresses leave the world a better place.

DRI: What are you studying?

Kimutis: During my undergraduate program, I studied microbiology and immunology. As a graduate student, I am studying epidemiology. To borrow Friss and Sellers 2012 definition, “Epidemiology is concerned with the distribution and determinants of health, diseases, morbidity, injuries, disability, and mortality in populations.” Specifically, I am interested in the intersection of climate and public health. I believe humanity’s biggest public health crisis is climate change.

DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Kimutis: First and foremost, my job as a graduate research assistant is climate services. Climate Services involves connecting government, academics, media and the public with historical climate data. Tamara Wall serves as my primary mentor at DRI and Lyndsey Darrow serves as my advisor at UNR. I also work with Tim Brown, Greg McCurdy, Dan McEvoy and Pam Lacy.

In addition to climate services, I am working on two projects that involve health. The first is an extreme heat project located in San Diego County. This work is being done with Kristin VanderMolen and Ben Hatchett. This project aims to make a series of recommendations, based on focus group discussions with vulnerable populations, to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency on extreme heat messaging.

Secondly, I am assisting on an EPA Project that will test and install air quality monitoring sensors in rural Nevada. This project will also generate recommendations for Emergency Managers on air quality messaging. This project includes Kristin VanderMolen, Meghan Collins, Yeongkwon Son, Greg McCurdy, Pam Lacy, Tamara Wall and collaborators at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Kimutis: My biggest goal at DRI is to do meaningful work that ultimately helps people. At the same time,  I want to grow and refine my skills as a researcher. I am committed to an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible environment and serve on DRI’s IDEA Committee to help foster and grow that culture.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

For fun, I enjoy all things outdoors including camping, hiking, rock climbing, swimming, biking and paddle boarding. I also have a Rottweiler, named Simon, who occupies quite a bit of my time.


Nick Kimutis and his dog Simon enjoy camping, hiking, and other outdoor adventures around Reno.

Credit: Ryan Wong

Additional Information:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:


WASH Capacity Building Program Alumni Share Career Impacts

WASH Capacity Building Program Alumni Share Career Impacts

WASH Capacity Building Program Alumni Share Career Impacts

July 28, 2021

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Successful international training program provides education in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and environmental issues.

Alumni from the Desert Research Institute’s WASH Capacity Building Program (WASHCap) recently gathered for an online Zoom panel to share some of the positive impacts that the program has had on their careers in the areas of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) across Africa and India.

The WASHCap program is led by DRI’s Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS), in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), Drexel University, and World Vision. Students complete a series of courses on topics related to WASH, some of which are taught online and others in a face-to-face setting in locations such as eSwatini, Ghana and Uganda.

Since launching in 2016, five cohorts of students have graduated from WASHCap program – a total of 133 students from 25 countries. A sixth cohort of 38 students is currently enrolled, and includes for the first time students from Latin America and the Caribbean.

More than 75 WASHCap alumni, friends, colleagues, and students attended the online panel discussion, which featured dynamic and lively dialogue among the current and previous students of the program, and remarks by Margaret Shuler, Senior Vice President of International Programs at World Vision and Jodi Herzik, Interim Vice Provost of Extended Studies at UNR.

WASHCap program alumni Martin Mutisya is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Sudan. Credit: DRI.

WASHCap program alumni Martin Mutisya is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Sudan. 

Credit: DRI.

The discussion was moderated by Braimah Apambire, Ph.D., Director of CIWAS at DRI. Several instructors from the WASHCap program including DRI’s Rosemary Carrol, Ph.D., Alan Heyavert, Ph.D., and Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Drs, Emmanuel Opong, John Akudago and Eleanor Wozei also participated in the discussion, asking program alumni to reflect on ways in which the program has helped them to improve their careers, implement new business plans, understand complex issues related to WASH, network with other professionals, and more.

Martin Mutisya, Program Manager for WASH World Vision Sudan, appreciated the breadth of knowledge that was covered during a course called “Cross-cutting issues in WASH”, which helped him understand issues of gender and social inclusion, and the importance of covering them in WASH plans.

Alexander Pandian from World Vision India said that the WASHCap program helped him to feel more comfortable serving as a technical point person for WASH, and allowed him to help develop the first World Vision country strategy on WASH for India.

Rose Riwa, a hygiene specialist from World Vision in Tanzania, credited the WASHCap program for helping her to understand how WASH integrates with other issues, and for helping her to progress in her career as a leader in WASH in her country.

WASHCap program alumni Pamela Wamalwa is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Kenya.

WASHCap program alumni Pamela Wamalwa is currently a program manager for WASH WorldVision in Kenya.

Credit: DRI.

Pamela Wamalwa of World Vision Kenya said that because of the training she received in conducting research and presenting term papers during the WASHCap program, she now feels more comfortable doing research in her job and presenting her findings at professional conferences.

“During the training, I gained a lot of courage,” Wamalwa said. “Before I was not able to present papers, but during the training, I realized that I can actually do research and present in conferences. It was an experience I couldn’t have gotten if I didn’t attend this program.”

Other panelists spoke to the value of the program in building their knowledge, research skills, presentation skills, confidence, and networks within the WASH sector. Many graduates of the WASHCap program have gone on to lead WASH programs and projects across Africa and India, including many who are now employed by World Vision.

“It was very powerful to hear about the positive impact that this program has had on the careers of so many of our graduates, and to be able to share that message with students who are in the program now,” Apambire said.

Additional information:



About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI)  is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Meet Alison Swallow, DRI’s 2021 Technical Employee of the Year

Meet Alison Swallow, DRI’s 2021 Technical Employee of the Year

DRI’s Technical Employee of the Year Award

The cutting-edge scientific research that happens at DRI wouldn’t be possible without the Institute’s many technologists: non-faculty employees who have special technical experience and training to support instrumentation design, laboratory and fieldwork, administration, accounting, reception, and facilities.

Each year, faculty, students, and staff have the opportunity to nominate those technologists that they believe go above and beyond to make DRI a great place to work for the Technical Employee of the Year award. From those nominations, a council of technical employees selects the recipient of the award.

This year, the recipient is Alison Swallow, the Project Coordinator for DRI’s Office of External Affairs and Communications, who has served DRI for more than two years. Get to know Alison in this Q&A!

Q&A With Alison Swallow

DRI: How long have you worked here at DRI? How long have you lived in Las Vegas? 

Swallow: I have worked here at DRI for more than two years. I’m originally from Las Vegas – I am a 3rd generation southern Nevadan – however, I have traveled extensively and spent a lot of time outside of Nevada as well. After graduating high school, I moved to Reno for college, and from there went on to live in Ireland, Australia, England, and Tennessee, before finally returning to the Silver State. When I was considering moving back to my hometown of Las Vegas, a friend who works in archaeology at DRI forwarded me this job posting, and then I met the brilliant Communications Team and felt instantly at home.

DRI: What does your work involve? 

Swallow: I am the project coordinator for DRI’s Office of External Affairs and Communications. Over my career, I have had the opportunity to build a broad and diverse skillset, and I love that I am often asked to employ each of these competencies on a daily basis. Along with the ad hoc requests I field, my role here includes planning and implementing events, managing our team’s budget, crafting surveys and forms, archival work, and tracking and analyzing hundreds of bills throughout the biannual legislative sessions.

During this past year, so much has changed at DRI, and many of us have needed to adapt and expand our roles. This too, has been incredibly rewarding and I have enjoyed the new challenges and responsibilities. I have started to do field photography, writing, creative design, and in recent months, have also been managing DRI’s social media accounts.

DRI: What do you like best about working at DRI? 

Swallow: I have always been curious by nature, and I love to learn, which is a quality that I share with so many throughout NSHE. I am amazed by the science at DRI and I find the work of our researchers truly fascinating. All I need to do is walk through our campus and peek into labs to gain a deeper insight into our world. From ice cores to microplastics, there’s so much about the research that happens here that has practical applications for the lives of all Nevadans. I enjoy being around other people who are seeking knowledge, and the corridors of this Institution are filled with brilliant minds.

I also cannot speak highly enough of my incredibly talented colleagues on the Communications team, and our inspiring leader, Tracy Bower. Having a work family that you can always count on to push you toward greater heights, cheer for your accomplishments, and hug you (even virtually) after your failures, is an extraordinary thing, and I cherish it.

DRI: What does it mean to you to receive this recognition? 

Swallow: I am so honored and grateful for this award. It means a lot that people took the time to nominate me, and I’m incredibly appreciative of everyone who did. I am proud to represent a group as diverse and skillful as the technologists of DRI, many of whom were essential workers throughout the pandemic. I am so impressed with the way that all of my colleagues came together to help overcome the difficulties presented by this past year.

DRI: What do you like to do in your free time? 

Swallow: I have a passion for travel – I think I have been to something like 22 countries. France and Italy are on my most-missed list at the moment, and I can’t wait to get back overseas. I love spending time with my family, and my two silly dogs, Max & Zellie, who are a brother/sister pair of rescues. I also enjoy reading, writing, and live theatre.

From COVID-19 to Drought: Collaborating on Emerging Challenges Across Indian Country

From COVID-19 to Drought: Collaborating on Emerging Challenges Across Indian Country

From COVID-19 to Drought:

Collaborating on Emerging Challenges Across Indian Country

July 27, 2021

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Emergency Response

Featured work by the Native Waters on Arid Lands project’s COVID-19 Working Group.

On a recent Friday, Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and Vicki Hebb of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) did the same thing they’ve done each Friday since the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearly 70 Fridays ago: they kicked off a weekly Zoom call with the Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project’s COVID-19 Working Group, an ever-expanding network of Tribal Extension Agents, agricultural producers, educators, and federal agency leaders from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies across the U.S. that are working together to solve problems and share information across Indian Country.

On the call were many regulars and a few new faces, whom McCarthy and Hebb greeted warmly, chatting about recent hot weather in South Dakota, Montana, and elsewhere around the U.S. before getting into the day’s agenda. First, weekly updates from program leaders of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations, USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), FEMA, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) on new programs, grant opportunities, and upcoming events. Then, a presentation on the week’s featured topic – an update on wildfire projections for the coming summer from Nick Nauslar, Bureau of Land Management fire meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

“Basically, we’re just problem solving and information sharing,” said McCarthy, program director for NWAL. “We have people each week who give regular updates from their agencies, and then we have a featured topic that’s related to the ongoing challenges or interests of the group – which could be anything from food security to COVID vaccine education to drought briefings. We’ve created a platform that didn’t exist before in Indian Country for people to share information among themselves.”

NWAL Team member Kyle Bocinsky presents to the COVID19 Working Group in April 2021.

NWAL Team member Kyle Bocinsky presents information on drought to the COVID-19 Working Group during a Zoom call in April 2021.

Credit: DRI.

New problems, new platform

The COVID-19 pandemic produced unexpected challenges for people in all parts of the world, but hit particularly hard in many reservation communities across the U.S. due to factors such as lack of access to clean water, overcrowded homes, intergenerational families, high rates of disease, lack of access to health care, and economic challenges. In mid-March of 2020, several members of the NWAL team reported to McCarthy that tribes in their regions were facing a number of dire pandemic-related problems; in response, McCarthy, Hebb, Trent Teegerstrom (tribal extension director for the University of Arizona), and Staci Emm (tribal extension coordinator for UNR) began organizing weekly Zoom calls with USDA program leaders and NWAL tribal partners from across Indian Country to facilitate direct communication about urgent on-the-ground issues.

“There were loads of problems,” McCarthy said. “People were confused about what COVID was. They didn’t know what was going on. Hopi and Navajo didn’t have wood, they didn’t have water, they didn’t have PPE (personal protective equipment), they were running out of food. They were running out of hay for their livestock.”

The first several calls provided a platform for tribal members and tribal extension agents from various reservations to communicate their most urgent challenges and needs. They also featured briefings from medical professionals about what COVID-19 was, how it was spreading, and what actions could be taken by tribal communities and educators. From there, connections were made, and the group slowly expanded in size and scope.

“When we started, we thought we would do these calls for a few weeks or a few months,” Hebb said. “It grew from our immediate group – the Native Waters on Arid Lands team – to now having representatives from tribes all over the country, including Alaska, as well as key tribal agricultural organizations and federal agency partners. Now we’re more than a year into it, with close to 200 people on the weekly invite list.”

Linked image: Click to continue to NWAL's "COVID19 in Indian Country" StoryMap

The NWAL team’s ArcGIS StoryMap, “COVID-19 in Indian Country,” tracked impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic shared on the weekly Zoom calls, as well as the group’s COVID-19 response projects. Click the photo above to view the StoryMap

Projects and accomplishments

One of the group’s earliest accomplishments was to develop a list of urgent issues and actionable items for federal agency partners. Requests included reimbursements for farmers who had to keep animals alive during livestock trading shutdowns, loan relief to cover grazing leases, funding for local food production programs, and improved access to medical supplies and COVID-19 test kits.

Certain problems voiced on the calls were solved just by putting the right people in touch with each other. For example, on a call in May 2020, representatives from the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation spoke to the desperate need for firewood to heat their homes. A Forest Service representative offered up a supply of wood from a nearby forest thinning project and others from the Working Group joined forces to locate a trucking company and make it happen, resulting in the delivery of more than 100 cords of wood to Hopi and Navajo communities.

As other challenges surfaced, the Working Group mobilized to assist. When hay was in short supply on the Hopi Reservation last June, the group coordinated a donation of 350 bales to feed hungry livestock. When water quality became a concern in tribal buildings that were left vacant during COVID-19 closures, the group partnered with a water testing and purification company, Nephros, to analyze water samples. When a representative from an Alaskan Native community spoke to the need for essential non-food items in villages hit hard by COVID-19 last December, the group organized a successful donation drive for items such as cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and winter clothing for children. And in February 2021, when call participants voiced concerns about rumors and misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines, the Working Group created a new website called “Facts Not Fear” to supply accurate information and educational resources to individuals in Indian Country.

“I think this group has just done an enormous amount – we’ve changed a lot of people’s lives, in little ways that were really, really important, especially during COVID,” said Erin Riley, national program leader for USDA-NIFA. “A lot of people really needed assistance, and we were able to provide that. I also think that one thing that we did that was special was we were really able to work together between the government, project directors, non-government organizations, and communities in a way that is a model for how things are supposed to work under our particular political structure.”

Linked image: Pam Lalo, Hopi Veterinarian Technician, unloads hay bales after a hay delivery on June 27, 2020. Link will take you to the full story.

Pam Lalo, Hopi Veterinarian Technician, unloads hay bales after a hay delivery to the Hopi Nation on June 27, 2020. Credit: Robinson Honani, Hopi Department of Natural Resources. Click photo above to read full story.

Linked image: Dump truck delivers wood to the Hopi and Navajo reservations during spring 2020. Link will take you to the full story.

In May 2020, the COVID-19 Working Group arranged for the delivery of more than 100 cords of wood to the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation. Click the photo above to read the full story.

Linked image: Donations sent to Alaska by the COVID19 working group and colleagues. Link will take you to the full story.

When a representative from an Alaskan Native community spoke to the need for essential non-food items, the COVID-19 Working Group organized a successful donation drive. Click photo above to read the full story

Linked image: Click to continue to the Facts Not Fear website

In response to concerns about rumors and misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines, the Working Group created a website called “Facts Not Fear.” Click the image above to visit the site. 

Looking forward: From the challenges of COVID-19 to ongoing impacts of extreme drought

Over time, it has become clear that the weekly calls are meeting a need. Although the problems may change from week to week, the benefits of connecting with like-minded partners and tackling big problems together won’t be going away any time soon.

As certain pandemic-related challenges have begun to fade, new challenges are emerging. The southwestern U.S. is now experiencing extreme to exceptional levels of drought, and the Working Group continues to meet weekly via Zoom for a presentation on a timely issue and collaboration on what the group can do to assist. Recent call topics have included drought projections, COVID-19 vaccine information, mental health and farm stress, drought impacts on pollinators and invasive species, and wildfire forecasts.

“I think the most important thing that’s come out of our weekly calls is that there’s a trusted place to exchange information and that we are able to get reliable information out to people on the ground really fast,” Hebb said. “This is really helping tribal producers make decisions that improve their livelihoods.”

More information:

The Native Waters on Arid Lands Project:

The NWAL COVID-19 Working Group StoryMap-

Facts Not Fear:



About DRI

The Desert Research Institute (DRI)  is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

About Native Waters on Arid Lands

The Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL; project seeks to enhance the climate resiliency of agriculture on American Indian lands of the Great Basin and Southwest by building the capacity within tribal communities to develop and implement reservation-wide plans, policies, and practices to support sustainable agriculture and water management. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute; the University of Nevada, Reno; the University of Arizona; First Americans Land-Grant Consortium; Utah State University; Ohio University; and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona. This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture

DRI Honors Outstanding Contributions of Faculty and Staff at 2021 Celebration of Science

DRI Honors Outstanding Contributions of Faculty and Staff at 2021 Celebration of Science

Each year, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) honors the incredible commitment and dedication of our faculty and staff through an award ceremony called the Celebration of Science. This year’s event was held virtually and recognized the winners of this year’s Nevada System of Higher Education Rising Researcher Award, the DRI Medals for Science, Service, and Outstanding Contributions, the Technologist of the Year, as well as internal divisional and milestone service awards.

2021 Award Winners

DRI Science Medal – Xiaoliang Wang, Ph.D.
The DRI Science Medal is given based on scientific achievement that has brought recognition to both the winning scientist and to DRI, through either cumulative or a singular outstanding achievement. This award builds on the history of the Count Alessandro Dandini Medal of Science and the Nazir and Mary Ansari Medal for Excellence in Science, which annually recognized the high scientific accomplishments of a DRI faculty member.

Outstanding Contributions Medal – Tim Brown, Ph.D.
The Outstanding Contributions Medial is given annually to a DRI faculty or staff member for outstanding contributions to the Institution. Evidence of contributions can include establishing new directions for research, securing a large grant, or management of large programs.

Service Medal – Jennifer Schultz
The DRI Service Medal is awarded annually to a faculty or staff member who makes broad impacts across the Institution and throughout our communities, making DRI a better place to work and securing our place as a core research asset.

Technical Employee of the Year – Alison Swallow
The Technical Employee of the Year is awarded annually to a staff member for outstanding contributions to the Institution.

Rising Researcher Award – Daniel McEvoy, Ph.D.
Awarded annually by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) to a faculty member in recognition of outstanding early-career accomplishments in research.

Division Awards

George Burke Maxey Fellowship – Marc Berghouse 

Peter B. Wagner Medal of Excellence – Monica Arienzo, Ph.D.  

Jonathan O. Davis Scholarship – Erica Bradley and Hayden Kingrey 

General Frederick Lander Scholarship – Pearson Nguyen  

Colin Warden Memorial Endowment - Pramod Adhikari 

Advisor of the Year award – Alison Murray, Ph.D. 

Years of Service Milestones

50 Years of Service

  • Jim Hudson

35 Years of Service

  • Judith Chow

30 Years of Service 

  • Lynn Fenstermaker
  • Hans Moosmuller
  • Ron Hershey
  • Tim Minor
  • Peter Ross

25 Years of Service

  • Steve Kohl
  • Gayle Valdez

20 Years of Service

  • Yvonne Rumbaugh
  • Vicki Hall
  • Richard Susfalk
  • Lynn Karr
  • John Karlas
  • Glen Wilson
  • David Page
  • David Campbell
  • Cheryl Collins
  • Alison Murray

15 Years of Service

  • Steven Bacon
  • Sophie Baker
  • Maureen King
  • Karl Schoen
  • Donna Schlemmer
  • Derek Kauneckis
  • Charles Dolbeare
  • Alan Heyvaert

10 Years of Service 

  • Tatianna Menocal
  • Tamara Wall
  • Suzanne Hudson
  • Robert Read
  • Maria Vasquez
  • Jeffrey Wedding
  • Jason Rada
  • Iva Neveux
  • Eric Wilcox
  • Daniel McEvoy
  • Albert Wolff

5 Years of Service 

  • Xuelian Bai
  • William (Jim) Metcalf
  • Vinay Amin
  • Teresa Wriston
  • Rae Yuhas
  • Nicole Sund
  • Kevin Heintz
  • Karen Stewart
  • John Goetz
  • Joanne Huston
  • Erick Bandala Gonzalez
  • Bruce Lipp

Congratulations to our faculty and staff who were recognized during this year’s Celebration of Science! Perhaps our Special Guest, NSHE Regent Jason Geddes put it best when he said, “DRI is known here in Nevada and around the world as a place where groundbreaking research is conducted, but the greatest asset that DRI has is its people.”

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Natasha Sushenko, Graduate Researcher

May 11, 2021

By Kaylynn Perez

Environmental Microbiology
Pathogenic Bacteria

Natasha Sushenko is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas. She is a Master’s student in Biological Sciences in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and is co-mentored by Duane Moser, Ph.D., of DRI and Brian Hedlund, Ph.D., of UNLV. Funding for Natasha’s position is provided by the NASA EPSCOR Rapid Response Research Program. Learn more about Natasha and her graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog!

Natasha Sushenko processes samples in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute during a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring study.

Natasha Sushenko processes samples using a biosafety cabinet in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute in December of 2020 during a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring study. Sushenko is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas.

Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Sushenko: Dr. Duane Moser spoke in my undergraduate Microbial Ecology class at UNLV, and I was really interested in how his lab studies the deep biosphere, the zone of life that exists far below Earth’s surface. His lab does fascinating research on “microbial dark matter,” yet-to-be-classified microorganisms that live under extreme conditions within the deep biosphere and are difficult to culture in the lab. We kept in touch, and even though I considered leaving Las Vegas to do my graduate studies, the opportunities that he and DRI offered were too good to pass up.

What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Sushenko: I work in Dr. Moser’s Environmental Microbiology Lab here at DRI. We completed a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring study this winter, but my main research project is a NASA collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They sent our lab strains of a pathogen (disease-causing bacterium) called Klebsiella pneumoniae that were isolated from the International Space Station (ISS). This microbe is a common cause of hospital-borne pneumonia and other infections, but in this case, it was found living on surfaces on the ISS, including on their space toilet. This pathogen is of particular concern to NASA because it has appeared in multiple samples across several years of microbiome monitoring, and it is growing more prevalent over time. While no astronauts on the space station have gotten sick, future human spaceflight to Mars and beyond may require astronauts to go on trips lasting years before returning to Earth. Because of this, NASA wants to know how pathogens like K. pneumoniae respond and adapt to living in space.

Our goal is to study how this pathogen’s virulence, or ability to cause severe illness, and its resistance to antimicrobial drugs and cleaners changes when exposed to the stresses of microgravity. Microgravity is the condition in space where people or objects appear to be weightless. This is something we can study here on Earth, at DRI, with a machine that simulates microgravity.

Above, left: Natasha Sushenko processes samples using a biosafety cabinet in the Environmental Microbiology Lab at the Desert Research Institute in December of 2020 during a SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring study.

Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

Above, right: Natasha Sushenko performs field chemistries on deep borehole samples in the Funeral Mountains near Death Valley on 28-April, 2021. Here Natasha is using a Hach Colorimeter to measure dissolved oxygen, iron, sulfate, and sulfide to test whether increased rates of pumping from a deep well facilitated collection of deeper samples from a geologic fracture zone. Natasha contributed to the DRI-led portion of an NSF-funded collaboration with Bigelow Lab in ME and others focused on applying cutting-edge genomic approaches to the oceans, marine crustal fluids, and the continental subsurface.

Credit: Detra Page/DRI.

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Sushenko: Right now, I’m on the master’s degree plan, but I’m considering changing to Ph.D. track to continue working on my project to completion and beyond. The issue of the microbiome of the built environment in closed systems like spacecraft will only become more important as agencies and companies explore travel to the moon and Mars. You don’t get opportunities to work with NASA at every institution, and I’m excited that DRI gives me this opportunity.

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

The pandemic has cramped a lot of my favorite hobbies, but usually, I love to travel to visit friends, go camping, hike, and just being outside with others. This past year I’ve instead spent more time hanging out with my dog, gardening (indoors and outdoors), and baking.

In her free time, Natasha enjoys hiking and being outside in beautiful areas like the Desolation Wilderness in California.

In her free time, Natasha enjoys hiking and being outside in beautiful areas like the Desolation Wilderness in California. 

Credit: Natasha Sushenko

Additional Information:

For more information on DRI’s Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, please visit:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:


Restoration by Drone: DRI and Partners Test New Method for Reseeding Native Forests after Wildfire

Restoration by Drone: DRI and Partners Test New Method for Reseeding Native Forests after Wildfire

Restoration by Drone

DRI and partners test new method for reseeding native forests after wildfire

MAY 3, 2021

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Forest Restoration

Featured research by DRI’s Dave Page, Jesse Juchtzer, and Patrick Melarkey.

As Western wildfires grow larger and more severe, the need for efficient and effective forest restoration techniques is growing as well. In April, scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) partnered with the Sugar Pine Foundation, Flying Forests, and the Carson Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to test a new method for reseeding burned slopes by drone.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

Patrick Melarkey of the Desert Research Institute flies the drone during a reseeding flight at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

Drones are being tested for use in reseeding projects in other parts of the world, including California and the Pacific Northwest, but this project marks the first time this technology has been tested in the Eastern Sierra. For a trial area, the group selected a 25-acre site in a portion of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest that burned in the Loyalton Fire of August, 2020.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

A hillside burned by the Loyalton Fire during August 2020. On April 22, 2021, the Desert Research Institute, Flying Forests, the Sugar Pine Foundation, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducted a reseeding project at this site using new drone technology. 

Credit: DRI.

Prior to the drone reseeding event, DRI archaeologist Dave Page, M.A., conducted aerial mapping at the burn site. This detailed imagery was used to determine an appropriate flight path for dispersing seeds evenly across the burn area, and was programmed into software that guided the drone during the reseeding mission.

drone landing in burnt forest

A drone carrying small seed balls of Jeffrey pine takes flight during a reseeding project at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021. 

Credit: DRI.

On April 22nd and 23rd, 2021, DRI scientists Patrick Melarkey and Jesse Juchtzer provided technical expertise as drone pilots for the reseeding portion of the project. Over the course of two days of flying, Melarkey and Juchtzer dropped 25,000 Jeffrey pine seedballs across the 25-acre burn area. The drone made a total of 35 flights, carrying approximately 700-750 seedballs per flight.

drone flys in the sky with forest trees in the background
two men fly drone in a burnt forest location

Above: Patrick Melarkey and Jesse Juchtzer from DRI fly a drone carrying small seed balls of Jeffrey pine during a reseeding project at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

The seed balls were provided by the Sugar Pine Foundation, which worked with local community volunteers to collect more than 30 pounds of Jeffrey pine seed during the past year. The seed was combined with soil and nutrients into small balls that could be carried and distributed by the drone.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.
Small seedballs containing seeds of Jeffrey pine were prepared by the Sugar Pine Foundation in preparation for reseeding the Loyalton Fire burn area by drone. Each seedball contains approximately 3 seeds of Jeffrey pine. April 22, 2021.

Credit: DRI.

The technology used on this project to plant with drones was invented by Dr. Lauren Fletcher of Flying Forests. Fletcher is a 5th generation Nevadan and graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, Stanford, and Oxford.    
two people perform maintenance and analysis on drone after flight

Above, left: Personnel from Flying Forests load seedballs of Jeffrey pine into a drone prior to a reseeding flight at the Loyalton Fire burn area on April 22, 2021. Above, right: Lauren Fletcher of Flying Forests invented the seed-spreading technology that was used during the drone reseeding project.

Credit: DRI.

Replanting native trees in burned areas can help stabilize slopes, reduce erosion, discourage growth of non-native plant species, and speed up the recovery of critical habitat for wildlife. Reforestation of burned areas is often done by planting small tree seedlings – but in areas far from roads or areas with especially steep terrain, this method can be expensive, labor-intensive, and dangerous. Spreading seeds by drone may provide a safer, cheaper, and easier alternative.

Next, the group will monitor and study the area to observe the success rate of this method of restoration. 
Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

Looking west from a hillside burned by the Loyalton Fire during August 2020. On April 22, 2021, the Desert Research Institute, Flying Forests, the Sugar Pine Foundation, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest conducted a reseeding project on the burn area using new drone technology. 

Credit: DRI

Additional photos: 

For more photos of the drone replanting project, please visit:

Links to Media Coverage:

Restoring area forests one flight at a time, KOLO8 –

Drone scatters pine seeds to reforest hillside burned in Loyalton Fire, News4 –

Pilot drone program helps reseed wildfire-ravaged areas in Tahoe, Sierra Nevada; Reno Gazette-Journal –


About Desert Research Institute

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Dylan Person, Graduate Researcher

APRIL 19, 2021

By Kaylynn Perez

Cultural Resource Management

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas. He is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology, Archaeology subfield, at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Learn more about Dylan and his graduate research in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog!

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

Dylan Person is a graduate research assistant with the Division of Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at DRI in Las Vegas. 

Credit: Greg Haynes.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Person: I was introduced to DRI through the UNLV Department of Anthropology. I became interested in coming to DRI as a graduate assistant when I learned that a position at DRI gave students the opportunity to perform fieldwork as well as write reports and plan projects for cultural resource management archaeology. In addition to this great opportunity for learning new aspects of this area of archaeology, I jumped at the chance to learn more about Native American archaeology in the Great Basin since my research focus at UNLV is primarily based in New Mexico. I also got really excited when I learned that I’d be working with historic nuclear testing resources since that’s such a major part of America’s scientific history.

DRI: What are you studying?

Person: I study stone tool technology and how it interrelated with cultural and social life at sites in the Mimbres Mogollon region of southwestern New Mexico. The time period I study was around AD 550-1130 and during this time these people changed from highly mobile foragers to living in settled agricultural villages. This resulted in changes in their social organization that I think also impacted the way they made and used stone tools. Though this is not directly related to DRI’s work, experience with similar artifacts in the Great Basin has added a new dimension to my own work.

Archaeology in the Great Basin is very focused on mobile groups and studying here and working with these archaeological sites at DRI has taught me a lot about how mobile people moved around and interacted with their environment. This knowledge has really deepened my understanding of how groups of people in my study area acted when practicing this lifeway and expanded the range of my research.

Above, left: Dylan Person and his boxer, Wiggles, hike along the McCullough Hills Trail in the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area of Nevada. Above, right: One of Dylan’s fieldwork sites in San Bernardino, California. 

Credit: Lizzie Person (left photo); Jared Miles (right photo).

DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with?

Person: I work with the Cultural Resource Management Program team. They’re a great group of archaeologists and historians who have a variety of interesting projects in addition to their cultural resource work. My supervisor is Maureen King, who has been very supportive of my academic progress and has helped me a lot in my professional development. Though I work with a combination of United States history and earlier Native American history, Maureen is great about involving me with program projects that align with my research interests here in Nevada, which I’ll talk a little more about below.

Currently, I am working on my dissertation research which involves the stone tool study that I mentioned previously. At DRI I have mostly been focusing on working with historic nuclear testing activities for cultural resource management. Informally at DRI, I have been looking at how groups moved throughout southern and central Nevada and adjacent regions. I’m interested in how these travel routes map on to environmental features such as water sources like springs, rivers, and wetlands as well as other resource-rich areas. Since these resources included plants, animals, rocks for tools, and culturally significant areas I have a lot to work with when it comes to investigating the how and why of people’s interaction with these areas over a long period of time.

Additionally, our program at DRI has a long history of working closely with Native American groups who live in the region. Being exposed to Native perspectives on the land and environment is a really valuable addition, since they have inherited a cultural understanding of this area that only comes from lived experience and long tradition. Though I don’t presume to fully understand how previous generations of Native Americans of the Mojave and Great Basin thought about their environment and lives, being around these perspectives has really opened up my mind to ideas and viewpoints that I wouldn’t have developed on my own. I’m really grateful for that!

DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?

Person: In the short term, I hope to continue making contributions to our program and its support of projects through cultural resource management.

In the long term, I want to learn everything I can during my time in our program so that I am well-situated for both academic and non-academic archaeological work. I also want to formalize some of my research interests into a developed research plan, one that ideally would contain public science-focused elements. I’m really interested in public science and supporting science education in general.

Above, left: Dylan Person at the office on DRI’s Las Vegas campus. Above, right: One of Dylan’s field sites in San Bernardino County, California.

Credit: Dylan Person/DRI (left photo), Jared Miles (right photo).

DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun?

Person: I like to get out in nature. So hiking, camping, bouldering, and other types of outdoor activities are always a good time. I’m a sort of amateur geologist, so I also like checking out interesting rock formations and the overall geology of a place. Nevada is a really great place for all that so I have a lot of options!

When I’m not running around outside, I play music. I play a few instruments but I’m best at the guitar and I play just about any style that a guitar can do, so rock/blues, country, bluegrass, jazz and even classical music. I also like cooking and especially grilling, backyard hangouts, and spending time with my wife Lizzie and our Boxer dog Wiggles, who are my companions in all these things I do for fun. One of these days I’ll have the space to get a project car so I can finally finish learning auto mechanics without worrying about messing up my daily driver!

Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

In his free time, Dylan enjoys spending time with his wife Lizzie and their boxer, Wiggles. 

Credit: Lizzie Person.

Additional Information:

For more information on DRI’s Cultural Resource Management Program, please visit:

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit:


Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

MAR. 25, 2021

Ice Cores
Climate Change

Meet DRI scientist Nathan Chellman and learn about his work in the Ice Core Laboratory in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science Blog.

Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev. He specializes in the collection, processing and analysis of ice cores — cylindrical samples of ice drilled from glaciers and ice sheets around the world. Nathan grew up in Reno, and holds a B.Sc. in Geology/Biology from Brown University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Hydrology from the University of Nevada, Reno. He first worked at DRI as a high school intern in 2008, then later returned to DRI during and after college to work with Joe McConnell in the Ice Core Lab. He received his helicopter private pilot license in 2014 and volunteered as an EMT while he was an undergraduate. In his free time, Nathan enjoys running, skiing, and backpacking in the Sierras and central Nevada.

DRI scientists Yuan Luo (left) and Markus Berli (right) inside of DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev.

Nathan Chellman, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Chellman: I work in the Ice Core Lab, where we do analyses and measurements on snow and ice from polar and alpine regions to learn about how the environment has changed over the past several centuries and millennia. I also do some work with tree rings and sediment cores from areas a little closer to home, like the Rocky Mountains, primarily looking at pollution and climate reconstructions.

DRI: What does an ice core look like, and how do you collect one?

Chellman: An ice core is a long, narrow cylinder of ice. To recover an ice core from an ice sheet or a glacier we use an ice core drill, which is a hollow tube with sharp cutters at one end and a big motor at the top. The motor spins the hollow tube, the cutters cut the ice away, and the ice core then ends up in the center of the hollow tube. You send the ice core drill down through the ice about 1 meter (3 feet) at a time, bring up the entire drill with an ice core inside, push the ice core out of the hollow drill section, send the drill back down the borehole, and then repeat that until you’re the whole way through the ice feature. For polar ice cores, we sometimes drill down hundreds of meters. So, we end up with hundreds or thousands of those meter-long sections back-to-back that represent a whole profile through the ice.

Above, left: Researchers process an ice core sample collected from a glacier in Greenland. Above, right: Closeup of an ice core drill.

Credit: Michaeol Sigl (left photo); Nathan Chellman/DRI (right photo).

DRI: What can you learn from all of these samples of ice? Can you tell us about one of your projects?

Chellman: One of my favorite projects right now is a study on some really old ice patches in Wyoming. These ice patches are about the size of a football field or smaller, so they are too small to be glaciers. They look just like little remnant snow patches that you might see in the Sierra Nevada if you go out hiking in the late summer. However, they’re not snowdrifts, they’re actual ice – and some of these ice patches are turning out to be thousands and thousands of years old.

I was invited to join the project by a group of archaeologists and climate scientists who were interested in looking at how old the ice patches were, and studying the organic debris inside of them and the artifacts that were melting out around the edges. They didn’t know what to do with the ice itself, but since we specialize in measuring ice chemistry, I volunteered to go to their field site when they were drilling through a shallow ice patch and bring some ice back to DRI. Those samples ended up being a very nice record of ice chemistry. The ice patch turned out to be 10,000 years old at the bottom, with about 30 organic layers cutting through the ice.

Normally in an ice core project, if you have dirt and organic layers in your ice core you’ve done something terribly wrong. In this case, the dirt was the key to unlocking how old the ice patch was, since the age of the organic material can be accurately dated. It turned out that the chemistry of the ice was really interesting as well, and preserved some climate information going back over ten thousand years. You can see distinct warm and cold periods that paralleled lake sediment records from nearby, and also some anthropological records of population. So, that suggested that people living in the area were affected by the general climate conditions as indicated by the ice patch chemistry.

Above, left: Nathan Chellman carries ice coring equipment to an alpine ice patch, where he and his colleagues are using ice core records from an isolated ice patch to learn about ancient climate in the region. Above, right: Chellman holds an ice core sample collected from an alpine ice patch.

Credit: Monica Arienzo/DRI.

DRI: Have you ever been part of a polar drilling operation?

Chellman: Yes, in 2013 I was in northeastern Greenland. That year we recovered a 212-meter ice core, which went back about 1,700 years. It took about two weeks working normal 8- or 10-hour days – but as you drill deeper and deeper into the ice, it takes longer and longer for the drill to go up and down the borehole. On the first day you can go about 20 meters in a day, and the next day you can go a little less, and by the end you’re only drilling 6 to 10 meters per day because it takes so long for the drill to go up and down the hole.

The first day was terrifying. The plane landed out in the middle of the ice sheet, hundreds of miles from any other camps or bases. The pilot dropped us and our gear out in the snow, and then took off and left. Help was a few days away at best, so we had to just get working and get camp set up before everything blew away, because it’s always windy there. There were no buildings, no infrastructure, just us and our camping gear. We had personal sleeping tents (we each used two sleeping bags!), a kitchen tent, and a science tent, as well as plenty of food, Coleman stoves for cooking, and the ice core drill.

DRI: What were the working conditions like in Greenland?

Chellman: The strangest part about working in Greenland during the summer is that it’s never night. The sun never completely goes down, even at night. The sun goes low on the horizon and it gets colder, but it’s never actually dark. It’s a little disorienting at first. You have to sleep with eye covers or pull your hat down over your eyes so you can pretend like you’re in a little bit of darkness.

It was also really cold. Between -25 and -35C (-13 to -31F) at night, and anywhere between -5 and -15C (23F to 5F) during the day. When it’s that cold, it’s really interesting because you have to consider that everything is going to be frozen. Your toothpaste is going to be frozen, if you leave your water in a mug it’s going to be frozen. It requires some adaptations from a lifestyle perspective to make sure what you need isn’t going to be a total block of ice.

Yuan Luo near a lysimeter tank at DRI's SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in boulder city, nevada

In 2013, Chellman and his colleagues traveled to northeastern Greenland to collect a 212-meter ice core that went back 1,700 years. Their field camp is pictured here.

Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

DRI: Do you have any plans to return?

Chellman: We were supposed to go back last year to that same place in Greenland and get an ice core that was twice as long, but that was postponed. We’re rescheduling for this spring, but everything is still very much up in the air. If we go, we’ll be gathering data for a study that is trying to understand pollution from ancient societies. For example, we will be looking to see if we can detect Bronze Age pollution from 2,000-3,000 years ago in the ice. The pollution would have been caused by mining and smelting of metals.

DRI: It sounds like you have a very exciting job. What do you like best about what you do?

Chellman: One of my favorite things is actually being in the lab and making the measurements, and taking all the time to make sure everything is running right, and that the analytical system and all the instruments are making high-quality measurements. When you’re analyzing ice cores, you have to be consistent day to day and week to week, since sometimes it can take a month or two to analyze all the samples from an ice core. But it’s really fun to get in the groove in the lab, run long days, and generate really consistent, nice datasets. There’s a lot of troubleshooting involved, but once the system is running smoothly, it’s really amazing to be able to generate unique, one-of-a-kind data that can be trusted to inform really big picture questions.

Additional Information:

For more information on Nathan Chellman and his research, please visit:

For more information on the DRI Ice Core Laboratory, please visit:


Researchers Markus Berli and Yuan Luo near a sign for the Desert Research Institute

DRI scientist Nathan Chellman.

Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

New DRI projects for 2021 include microplastics, microfossils, snowmelt risk, and solute transport

New DRI projects for 2021 include microplastics, microfossils, snowmelt risk, and solute transport

New DRI projects for 2021 include microplastics, microfossils, snowmelt risk, and solute transport

FEB 26, 2021

Introducing the winners of DRI’s 2021 Institute Project Assignment (IPA) competition.

Each year, the Desert Research Institute awards funding to several new faculty and staff projects each year through its Institute Project Assignment (IPA) competition. Winners of the IPA competition receive a research grant from DRI to pursue a topic that interests them and develop ideas that can ultimately be turned into externally funded research projects. This year, winners of the IPA competition are DRI scientists Erick Bandala, Monica Arienzo, Sandra Bruegger, Benjamin Hatchett, and Lazaro Perez. Details about each project are below.

Erick Bandala and Monica Arienzo: Assessing environmental aging of microplastics

Microplastics, defined as plastic fragments smaller than 5mm, were first discovered in the natural environment in the early 2000s. Two decades later, much is still unknown about these pollutants – including how microplastic particles degrade or break down as they age. A new project led by Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., will assess the environmental aging of microplastic particles through accelerated aging tests, using UV-A radiation to imitate the effects of unfiltered sunlight over different time spans on microplastics of different types, shapes, and sizes. Their results will provide new insight into the fate of microplastics after their release into the environment.

Closeup of microplastic fibers

A close-up image of microplastic fibers. Credit: DRI.

Benjamin Hatchett and Anne Heggli: Towards improved decision support for snow-covered watersheds: A snowmelt risk advisory

Rain-on-snow events (in which a warm winter storm rains onto existing snowpack under windy and humid conditions) are linked to many of the largest floods in Nevada and other parts of the United States. These types of events are projected to increase in frequency and magnitude as the climate warms. This change creates new challenges for water managers, who are tasked with deciding when water should be stored in reservoirs for economic and ecological benefits, and when water should be released downstream for flood control and public safety. To help water managers make decisions using the best available data, Division of Atmospheric Sciences graduate student Anne Heggli, advised by Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., will design and develop a tool called a Snowmelt Risk Advisory (SRA). This framework will combine risk matrices with weather datasets to create a tool that will help inform reservoir operations in snow-dominated watersheds.

A ski lift at Kirkwood ski resort during a warm storm

A rain-on-snow event at Kirkwood Ski Area. Credit: Ben Hatchett/DRI.

Sandra Brugger: Microfossils in Greenland Ice – Establishing a new method at DRI

Greenland’s ice sheets hold important records of pollen grains and other microfossils that can provide researchers with insight into long-term environmental change in the Arctic, however, these resources have not yet been studied extensively. Recently, Sandra Brugger, Ph.D., developed a new method for extracting microfossils from Greenland ice cores and created the first reliable record of microfossils from well-dated Greenland ice, with a second record currently under development. With IPA funding, Bruegger will hold a workshop to train additional scientists in her methodology, and develop a microfossil record from east-central Greenland ice spanning the past 8000 years. She will also give a talk to the local community at the Alta Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Reno, sharing her research with an audience that has been isolated for months during the pandemic.

DRI scientist Sandra Brugger inspects samples under a microscope. Credit: Manu Friederich

DRI scientist Sandra Brugger inspects samples under a microscope. Credit: Manu Friederich.

Lazaro Perez: Tortuosity Characterization via Machine Learning to Quantify Solute Transport in Berea Sandstone

Understanding and predicting the fate of solutes (dissolved substances) as they pass through various types of rocks and soils in a groundwater system is crucial for several environmental and industrial applications, but modeling this process is complex. Building on work completed as part of an IPA-funded project in 2020, Lazaro J. Perez, Ph.D., will use training data for the development of a machine-learning algorithm to predict solute transport through material containing pores of different sizes, such as sandstone. Dr. Perez’s work, focused on solute transport simulations on pore-scale images of two types of sandstones, will help scientists better understand processes as diverse as contaminant transport in groundwater flow and protein diffusion in living cells.

DRI scientist Lazaro Perez

DRI scientist Lazaro Perez.

What’s in the plume? Researchers compare health impacts of smoke from wildfires versus prescribed burns

What’s in the plume? Researchers compare health impacts of smoke from wildfires versus prescribed burns

What’s in the plume?

Scientists compare health impacts of smoke from wildfires versus prescribed burns.
Reno, Nev.
October 26, 2020

Human health
Wildfire smoke

Featured research by DRI’s Andrey Khlystov, Dante Staten, Jim Metcalf, Adam Watts, Vera Samburova, Siying Lu, and Hans Moosmuller.

When the air over Reno and other western communities turns hazy-brown with wildfire smoke, many can’t help but wonder – what is in the smoke, and can it make us sick? Desert Research Institute (DRI) scientists Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., Dante Staten, M.S., and a team of colleagues from DRI and the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) are currently working to find out, as part of a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The project, which began in 2019, will compare the impacts on human health of two different types of fire smoke – smoke from wildfires versus that from prescribed burns. Although each can generate large plumes of smoke, wildfires often burn hotter and their plumes may include chemicals released by burning houses or other structures.

“Prescribed fires do still generate smoke, but they are usually lower intensity fires, so they generate different amounts of pollutants and different kinds of particles to some extent,” Khlystov said. “So, our study is asking, what is the relative benefit to health of managing land with prescribed fires? Or, is prescribed fire and wildfire smoke about the same?”

DRI researchers collect data from air quality monitoring station on DRI rooftop

DRI scientists Dante Staten (left) and Andrey Khlystov (right) collect air quality data from sensors located on the roof of the Desert Research Institute in Reno. October 19, 2020.

Credit: DRI.

In 2019, Khlystov, Staten and their colleagues began collecting and analyzing air samples at Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitoring sites in Reno and Sparks, as well as on the DRI rooftop. They have continued to collect air quality samples during summer and fall of 2020.

“Last year our air was pretty clean – unlucky for the project, but lucky for everyone else,” Khlystov said. “But this year, from about mid-August to mid-September, we had almost non-stop smoky days.”

Staten, a graduate research assistant and Ph.D. student with UNR’s environmental science program, has been heavily involved in sample collection during his time at DRI. With more than 150 air quality samples now in hand, he is beginning to process and analyze them in DRI’s Organic Analytical Lab.

air quality monitoring equipment
researchers at air quality monitoring station on DRI roof

Above: Using air quality monitoring equipment located at sites in Reno and Sparks, DRI researchers have collected more than 150 air quality samples during the 2020 season. The photos above were taken from the DRI rooftop in 2019 and 2020.

Credit: DRI.
Next, Khlystov and his team plan to conduct laboratory experiments in DRI’s combustion chamber in order to learn more about the specific air quality impacts of burning different fuel types collected from around Reno and other parts of the Sierra Nevada and California, and to learn about how the chemical composition of smoke changes over time. They will use this data and information to create a model of the pollutants present in smoke plumes.  

Working in collaboration with epidemiologist Matt Strickland, Ph.D., of UNR, the researchers will then compare information from the air quality model with a database of health records provided by Renown Health. This will allow the team to investigate impacts of smoke on human health in terms of number of hospital visits that occurred during wildfire or prescribed fire smoke events.  

“Renown has millions of health records, all anonymized so that there are no privacy issues, but we can use them to see how many people have health complaints after an episode of wildfire or prescribed fire smoke,” Khlystov explained. “This will allow epidemiologists to figure out how bad an impact was – for example, if we have an increase in smoke particle concentration by a factor of two, does that mean 100 more people coming to the hospital, or 1,000, or 10,000?” 

Researchers analyze air quality samples in DRI's organic analytical laboratory.

Researchers Dante Staten (left) and Andrey Khlystov (right) analyze air quality samples in DRI’s Organic Analytical Laboratory. October 19, 2020.

Credit: DRI.

As climate change continues to alter natural fire regimes, Khlystov, Staten and their colleagues hope that their study findings will provide needed information to help everyone from land managers to the medical community and individual citizens better manage risk during the fire season.

“The incidence of wildfires here in the west and around the world is increasing, it’s very difficult not to notice,” Khlystov said. “People know that the particles are not good for you and are causing all sorts of health effects, but there are still a lot of unknowns.”

Additional information

For more information on this study, read the project summary: Associations of smoke from wildfires and prescribed burns with cardiorespiratory health outcomes in Reno, NV 

To view realtime air quality data from the rooftop of Desert Research Institute’s Reno campus, visit the Purple Air Network’s air quality map:

DRI Video – Wildfire Smoke, Air Quality, & Public Health  

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs
During August and September of 2020, smoke drifted into Nevada from numerous California wildfires. This satellite image shows extremely smoky conditions on September 14, 2020
Credit: NASA Worldview.

DRI welcomes new graduate students to Reno and Las Vegas campuses

DRI welcomes new graduate students to Reno and Las Vegas campuses

Each year, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) welcomes new graduate students from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), who work under the direction of DRI faculty on our northern and southern campuses to conduct research across a variety of scientific fields as they pursue their master’s and doctoral degrees. Read below to get to know our new grad students!  

Natasha Sushenko

Natasha Sushenko

Natasha Sushenko
Las Vegas Campus

Natasha Sushenko is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, and is currently pursuing a M.S. in microbiology at UNLV. At DRI, she is working in the Environmental Microbiology Lab with faculty advisor Duane Moser, Ph.D.

“I’m currently working on a NASA EPSCoR Space Biology project that involves studying strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae, an opportunistic pathogen, that have been isolated from the International Space Station (ISS),” Sushenko said.  “We are growing these strains under simulated microgravity while exposed to the disinfectants used on the ISS, and will later perform metatranscriptomic analysis to evaluate the strains for antimicrobial resistance and virulence gene expression.”


Victoria Wuest

Victoria Wuest

Victoria Wuest
Las Vegas Campus 

Victoria Wuest is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, and is pursuing a M.S. in biological sciences with a concentration in ecology and evolutionary biology at UNLV. At DRI, she is working in the Environmental Microbiology Lab under the direction of Duane Moser, Ph.D. 

“I am working on a project to extract human mtDNA from ancient quids found in Mule Springs Rockshelter in Nevada,” Wuest said. “I am also studying the application and implementation of eDNA of endangered and invasive fish in the warm water springs of Nevada.” 



Manuel de Cespedes Molina

Manuel de Cespedes Molina

Manuelde Cespedes Molina 
Las Vegas Campus

Manuel de Cespedes Molina is originally from Camaguey, Cuba. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology at UNLV. At DRI, he is working in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences under the supervision of Maureen King, M.A. 

“My work at DRI is involved with the Cultural Resource Management Program that supports the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Field Office’s historic preservation obligations at the Nevada National Security Site,” de Cespedes Molina said.  



Marc Berghouse

Marc Berghouse

Marc Berghouse
Reno campus 

Marc Berghouse is originally from Redwood City, Calif., and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Hydrology at UNR. At DRI, he is working in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences under the direction of Dr. Rishi Parashar.  

“I will be working on modeling the physics of microbial motility – the ability of a microbe to move through its environment – at the micro and field scales, Berghouse said.  




Anne Heggli

Anne Heggli

Anne Heggli
Reno campus 

Anne Heggli is originally from Cool, Calif., and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science at UNR. At DRI, she is working under the direction of advisor Ben Hatchett, Ph.D. in the Division of Atmospheric Sciences. 

“I am working on the development of a Snow Runoff Readiness Advisory to provide information regarding the likelihood and magnitude of impactful snowmelt-derived runoff and flooding during extreme weather events,” Heggli said.  




Porraket Dechdacho

Porraket Dechdacho

Porraket (Porra) Dechdacho
Reno campus 

Porra Dechdado is originally from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand. She is currently pursuing a M.S. in hydrogeology at UNR. At DRI, she is working with Dr. Rishi Parashar in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences. 

“I am working on a project to develop and evaluate iron-based strategies for arsenic removal from contaminated groundwater using metal organic framework and iron rich compost,” Dechdado explained. 




Zakaria Jibrin, DEES (Coming soon) 

Xiaoliang Wang Receives 2020 Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award for Aerosol Research

Xiaoliang Wang Receives 2020 Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award for Aerosol Research

Reno, Nev. (Oct 7, 2020) – Xiaoliang Wang, Ph.D. of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nev. is the winner of this year’s Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award from the American Association of Aerosol Research (AAAR). He was recognized for this honor today at a virtual ceremony during the AAAR’s Annual Conference.

Wang, a research professor with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Science, studies aerosols – tiny solid particles or droplets that are suspended in the air. His research interests include physical and chemical characterization of aerosols, pollution source characterization, air quality measurement, and aerosol instrument development. He is being honored with this award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to aerosol instrumentation and experimental techniques that have significantly advanced the science and technology of aerosols.

Wang is the co-inventor of the nanoparticle aerodynamic lenses and the DustTrak DRX aerosol monitor, an instrument named after him. He developed the new the data inversion algorithms for the TSI Engine Exhaust Particle Sizer Spectrometer (EEPS) for compact shape and soot particles. He led the development of the Aerodynamic Lens Calculator, the DRI portable emissions measurement system, and the DRI Model 2015 multi-wavelength thermal/optical carbon analyzer.

Wang holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota, and B.E. degrees in thermal engineering and environmental engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. He has been a member of the DRI community since 2009.

The award honors Professor Benjamin Liu for his leadership in the aerosol community and his own seminal contributions to aerosol science through instrumentation and experimental research. Professor Liu is a founding father of the AAAR and of the society’s journal, Aerosol Science and Technology, and helped establish the International Aerosol Research Assembly. He received the Fuchs Memorial Award in 1994 and retired as Regents’ Professor from the University of Minnesota in 2002, where he also served as the director of the Particle Technology Laboratory from 1973 to 1997.

DRI Research Professor Xiaoliang Wang received the 2020 Benjamin Y. H. Liu Award in a virtual ceremony during the American Association of Aerosol Research’s Annual Conference on October 7, 2020.

Additional information:

For more information about Xiaoliang Wang and his research, please visit:

For more information about the Benjamin Y.H. Liu Award, please visit: 

Making Sense of Remote Sensing: A Q&A with Matt Bromley

Making Sense of Remote Sensing: A Q&A with Matt Bromley

Making Sense of Remote Sensing

SEPT 28, 2020

Remote Sensing
Hydrologic Sciences

A Q&A with Matt Bromley on remote sensing and the OpenET project

Matt Bromley, M.S., is an Assistant Research Scientist with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, and specializes in GIS and remote sensing. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.S. in Geography from the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a native Nevadan, an Army veteran, and has been a member of the DRI community for ten years. 

Matt is currently working alongside a team of scientists and web developers from DRI, NASA, Google and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop a new web application called OpenET (, which will make satellite-based data on evapotranspiration widely accessible to farmers, landowners, and water managers. We recently sat down with Matt to learn the basics of remote sensing and how it is used in the OpenET project.

Matt Bromley

Matt Bromley, M.S. is a an Assistant Research Scientist with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno.

DRI: You specialize in remote sensing. Can you tell us a little bit about this field of study?

Bromley: Technically, remote sensing means “the acquisition of data from a distance.” In the context of the work that I do, it means studying the earth’s surface with satellites. These satellites are often sensitive to same portions of the light-spectrum that our human eyes can see, as well as portions of the light spectrum that we can’t see, such as infrared (thermal).  The images and data that Earth-focused satellites provide are a great way to learn about the Earth from a distance. There are also other types of remote sensing data, such as aerial images from planes, Radar, and LIDAR, where you use laser light to determine distance which can allow you to measure terrain and geographic features.

DRI: What is OpenET, and what is your role in the project?

Bromley: To understand the importance of OpenET you have to first understand evapotranspiration (ET). ET is the process by which water is transferred from land to the atmosphere – through evaporation from soil and transpiration from plant leaves – which is approximately the amount of water used by crops to grow our food and other resources. OpenET is a new web application that will provide ET data to water managers, land owners, and farmers in 17 western states. We started building this tool in 2018 and it’s scheduled to launch in 2021.

My role is pretty varied within the project. I have a foot in the technical side of it, in that I’m working on some of the data used in the ET models as well as contributing to the analysis. I also have an outward facing role in that I engage with people and organizations who are the preliminary users of the data. I provide some analysis, answer questions, and act as the bridge between the teams developing the evapotranspiration data and the people using it.

OpenET data showing evapotranspiration graph

OpenET is a new web application that will provide evapotranspiration data to water managers, land owners and farmers across 17 western states.

Credit: OpenET.

screenshot of OpenET website

To learn more about OpenET project, visit their website at

DRI: How do you use remote sensing data in the OpenET project?

Bromley: The team that I work with uses remote sensing to measure water use from irrigation. We use both optical and thermal data to get information from the land surface. Among other things, the optical data shows how green and healthy the vegetation is, and with the thermal data we can actually detect the cooling effect that’s produced when water evaporates.

When I started at DRI, remote sensing data was generally processed on individual computers. You had to download all the data yourself and then process it with specialized software. About ten years ago, Google started hosting climate and remote sensing data in the cloud. So, rather than having to download all the data to do your analysis on a desktop computer, you can instead send your analysis to the cloud (lots of computers), allowing you to get some of your answers much, much faster. OpenET makes use of that platform, processing remote sensing data through five different models. Through OpenET we’re able to produce not only individual model ET estimates, but also an ensemble estimate using all of those models.

DRI: What type of remote sensing data do you use to calculate evapotranspiration (ET)?

Bromley: All of it right now is from the Landsat series of satellites, which gives us the optical and thermal data that we need to calculate ET. Landsat is a series of earth-observations satellites which are operated as a joint program between NASA and the USGS. The modern series of Landsat satellites started in the early 1980s, so with this collection of data we can actually look back in time and see how water use has changed over the decades. The duration and consistency of the Landsat program really sets it apart from other sources of remote sensing data.

OpenET data showing evapotranspiration graph

OpenET is being built by scientists and web developers from DRI, NASA, Google and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The web application is scheduled to launch in 2021.

Credit: OpenET.

DRI: How did you become interested in working in this field?

Bromley: Being a native Nevadan, you grow up being  aware of how special water is. As a kid my family would go on road trips through the Great Basin and as much as I loved seeing the sagebrush and mountains, it felt like we were discovering an oasis whenever we’d drive past a river or lake. In working to understand water use, I’m providing information to the people who manage that precious resource, as well as to the farmers and ranchers who grow our food.  It feels like I’m helping not just my community but the state and the region.

The work that we’re doing at DRI and with OpenET is especially important, because detailed information on water use at a large scale has typically been hard to access and very expensive.  OpenET is working to change that and make this data widely accessible to spark improvements an innovation in water management across the West.

“In working to understand water use, I’m providing information to the people who manage that precious resource, as well as to the farmers and ranchers who grow our food.”

Additional information

Other DRI scientists that work on the OpenET project include Justin Huntington, Charles Morton, Britta Daudert and Jody Hansen.

To learn more about the OpenET project, please visit:

To read a recent (September 2020) press release on the OpenET project, please visit: 

To learn more about Matt Bromley and his research, please visit:

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

AUG 31, 2020

Valley Fever
Atmospheric Science

Above: Aerial view of Twentynine Palms, California. Credit: Dicklyon/Creative Commons

Q & A with Vic Etymezian, Ph.D. 

Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., is the Interim Vice President of Research at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and specializes in the study of dust emissions. Vic has been a member of the DRI community since 1999, when he started his career at DRI as a post-doctoral scientist with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences in Las Vegas. He recently published a paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health titled “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California,” working alongside colleagues Antje Lauer, Ph.D. (California State University Bakersfied), George Nikolich, M.S. (DRI), and others, so we connected with Vic to learn more about the project.

DRI: What is Valley Fever?

Etyemezian: Valley Fever is an infection that you can get from breathing in spores of a fungus called Coccidioides. In some people the infection is mild or flu-like, but in others, especially people who are immunocompromised, this fungus can cause a serious or even fatal infection. Valley Fever seems to occur primarily in the southwestern US, but it is also found in parts of Central and South America. The military has a record of people stationed at bases in the southwestern US getting sick from Valley Fever going all the way back to the 1940s, so it does seem to occur in and around the training lands that they use in the southwest. The military also has really good records, so it is likely broadly occurring in the arid southwest –  it’s just that they have great records in these places.

Scientists inspect dust measurement device

DRI’s Vic Etyemezian (left) and Jack Gillies (Right) inspect dust measurement instrumentation mounted onto a telescoping tower at Jean Dry Lake Bed in Southern Nevada. The measurements that ensued were critical for calibrating the TRAKER instrument.

Credit: George Nikolich/DRI.

DRI: How did you originally become interested in studying this disease?

Etyemezian: Six or seven years ago, I was working on a DRI project at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert of southern California related to potential future impacts of climate change on capital infrastructure such as buildings and runways. My colleague, Dr. Antje Lauer from Cal State University Bakersfield, was there at the site working on a different project related to the potential influence of climate change on Valley Fever. Our own Dr. Lynn Fenstermaker (also working on the Armstrong project) and NASA’s now retired Dr. Tom Mace had the foresight to introduce Antje and me to one another and identify that we can leverage each other’s expertise. We got into a discussion of whether there was some overlap between her Valley Fever research and the dust research that George Nikolich and I do. We did a little pilot (exploratory) work together, and then put in a proposal to the DoD SERDP Program to do a project near several military facilities in the Southwest to see if we could say something about how Valley Fever might be changing with climate.

Image of Valley Fever paper

Read the new paper, “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California”, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

DRI: Tell us a little bit about the paper that you and your colleagues just published. What were your major research questions?

Etyemezian: In this study, we were trying to find out several things, and the paper that was led by my colleague, Dr. Lauer reported our preliminary findings. One, are there any environmental parameters that can help us identify whether or not this Coccidioides fungus will be present at a given site? Can we say that this fungus tends to be found in certain kinds of soils, or on certain slopes of hillsides, or on shaded hillsides, or in soils with a certain chemistry? If so, then we can look at some of these properties and try to identify areas that are fairly high risk for the fungus.

The second goal was to determine whether dust was a possible pathway by which people are getting exposed to this fungus. So, in areas where you find this fungus in the soil, can you also find it in the dust that comes off of the surface during high winds, or in the dust that gets stirred up when someone drives a vehicle along a dirt road? We hypothesized that this study may be of particular relevance for people in the military, because oftentimes they are working in very dusty conditions, especially during training exercises. Our study sites were located around three military bases in southern California, all of which have documented cases of Valley Fever throughout the years.

Researcher conducts a PI-SWERL test near Edwards Air Force Base in California
Researcher preparing the TRAKER instrument for measuring and collecting dust from unpaved roads

Above, left: George Nikolich (Division of Atmospheric Sciences, DRI) notes field conditions as he oversees a PI-SWERL test near Edwards Air Force Base in California. The orange case contains specialized instrumentation for collecting particles that are suspended by the PI-SWERL during its testing cycle. These are later analyzed for fungal DNA. Above, right: George Nikolich preparing the TRAKER instrument for measuring and collecting dust from unpaved roads near Twentynine Palms, California. 

Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

DRI: What was your/DRI’s role in this investigation?

Etyemezian: Our expertise mainly came in in the area of dust. We used an instrument called the PI-SWERL®, which was developed at DRI, on dozens of test surfaces to simulate high winds on that suspend  dust from the surface into the air. Then we collected that dust and gave it to our colleague, Dr. Lauer, for analysis to see if she could find DNA of the fungus. We also used another device that we developed at DRI called the TRAKER™, which is basically a heavily instrumented vehicle that you can drive on unpaved roads . As you drive on these dirt roads and suspend dust behind the vehicle, you can sample this material, and then subject it to analysis to see if there is genetic material from airborne Coccidiodes spores in that dust.

DRI: What were some of your findings?

Etyemezian: It’s important to emphasize that this was really kind of a pilot study. One of the things that was pretty clear from the study was that there are unfortunately no simple parameters you can look at in the soil to determine whether or not this fungus exists at a given location. It appears to be fairly widespread across the southwest. Another finding was that traveling in a vehicle on unpaved roads in these endemic areas is a plausible pathway for exposure, and farmers or military folks who live and train in these areas might get exposed to potentially high concentrations of infectious fungal material.

Overall, it seems that there are sort of two endpoints in the landscape. If you look at a natural desert landscape that hasn’t been disturbed in some time, you could find a lot of the Valley Fever pathogen in the actual soil, but the potential for the fungus to be suspended under normal windy conditions seems to be quite small. And if you look at an extremely disturbed landscape such as a farm, where you’ve completely changed the original ecosystem, it appears that there’s very little fungus or Valley Fever spores – maybe because people apply fungicide to the crops and are creating not a very hospitable environment. But it seems like there’s a period of time in between, when you’re transitioning from a natural landscape to an extremely anthropogenically impacted landscape, that’s probably when and where the exposure happens.

Researchers standing next to PI-SWERL during a test on a disturbed surface

Student Eduardo Garcia (left, CSU Bakersfield), George Nikolich (middle, DRI), and Dr. Antje Lauer (Right, CSU Bakersfield) standing next to PI-SWERL during a test on a heavily disturbed surface near Twentynine Palms, California.

Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

DRI: How do you hope that these findings are used?

All of our research findings are preliminary, but they essentially provide a conceptual model of how we think the exposure happens. We think that most of the time when people are exposed to this, it is probably as a result of a recent land disturbance — maybe a construction or farming activity that disturbs otherwise undisturbed landscapes. So, you have this fungus that’s been growing in the soils at some depth below the surface for who knows how long, and then all of the sudden, something changes. You pull off the vegetation, you turn it over, and as a result you bring a lot of this fungus to the surface. Then as a part of that process, you have an enormous amount of material available for resuspension by wind or even direct resuspension. So, I think a logical next step would be to very specifically target those kinds of activities to see if that hypothesis holds true.

Additional Information

The full text of the paper “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California,” is available from the International Journal of Environmental Health and Public Research:

For more information on Vic Etyemezian and his research, please visit:

For more information on the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab), please visit:

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

DRI scientists investigate effectiveness of heat warnings along US-Mexico border

AUG 25, 2020

Population Heath

Above: Aerial view of California’s Imperial Valley, where daytime temperatures during summer months can reach as high as 120 degrees. Credit: Thomas Barrat/

Featured research by DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, Ben Hatchett, Erick Bandala, and Tamara Wall


In July and August, daytime temperatures along parts of the US-Mexico border can reach as high as 120 degrees – more than 20 degrees above normal human body temperature. For agricultural workers and others who live and work in the region, exposure to these extreme high temperatures can result in serious health impacts including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat-related death.

Although the National Weather Service and public health organizations issue heat warnings to communicate risk during extreme heat events, heat-related illness and death are still common among vulnerable populations. Now, a group of DRI scientists led by Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences, is trying to figure out why.

“With the continued increase in episodes of extreme heat and heat waves, there has been an increase in warning messaging programs, yet there continue to be high numbers of heat-related illness and death in communities along the US-Mexico border,” VanderMolen said. “So, there’s this question – if agencies are doing all of this messaging, and people are still getting sick and even dying, then what’s going on?”

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley, where DRI researchers are exploring questions about heat messaging and vulnerability in populations of agricultural workers and others who are vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. 

Credit: Winthrop Brookhouse/

Assessing heat messaging: An interdisciplinary approach


In 2018, VanderMolen and colleagues Ben Hatchett, Ph.D., Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Tamara Wall, Ph.D. received funding from NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP) to explore questions about heat messaging and vulnerability in two pairs of US-Mexico border cities, San Diego-Tijuana and Calexico-Mexicali. Collectively these areas form the boundaries of the Cali-Baja Bi-national Megaregion. This unique transboundary location integrates the economies of the United States and Mexico, exporting approximately $24.3 billion worth of goods and services each year.

With expertise in the areas of anthropology, meteorology, climatology, and population health, this interdisciplinary team of researchers is now working on this problem from several angles. They are using climate data to characterize and assess past heat extremes as well as using long-range weather forecasts and climate projections to help improve the ability to put out advance messaging about future heat waves. They are working to identify and map populations that are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat and are collaborating with local agencies to understand why people may or may not take protective action during heat waves.

From initial conversations with local civic organizations and public health agencies, the team has learned that the reasons people may not be following heat warnings are complex. Recommended actions such as “stay indoors and seek air-conditioned buildings,” or “take longer and more frequent breaks,” may not be realistic for agricultural workers or others who don’t have access to air-conditioned spaces. There can even be negative consequences for those who choose to seek medical help.

“A big piece of the story that we’ve heard from some of the independent groups that work with agricultural workers in the region is that if someone gets sick and doesn’t show up for work, they can lose their job,” Hatchett explained. “If they go to the hospital and somebody sees them or hears about it, they can lose their job. There are some really big issues related to people not feeling okay with trying to get the help they need.”

“There is evidence to suggest that cases of heat-related illness and death are underreported, probably severely underreported,” VanderMolen added. “The demographics of the individuals for documented cases don’t reflect the population demographics overall. We know that there are a lot of inequalities in that area that may get in the way of people reporting illness.”

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures in Imperial Valley, CA

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures over the 30-year period from 1981–2010 shows that Imperial Valley (at the border between Mexico and the southeastern corner of California) is the hottest place in in North America, with an average maximum temperature from June to August of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). Data is from the North American Regional Reanalysis.

Credit: Ben Hatchett/DRI

COVID-19 complications and next steps


Originally, VanderMolen was planning to travel to the US-Mexico border this summer to do one-on-one interviews with members of vulnerable populations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unforeseen complications.

Imperial County has been hit very hard by COVID-19, compounding the effects of extreme heat for the vulnerable populations that VanderMolen and her team hope to work with. The pandemic has also made it unfeasible to travel to the region to do face-to-face interviews, and has created challenges in coordinating with local agencies that are now overwhelmed in their efforts to address COVID-19.

“It’s a really interesting place and time to do this work because there are questions about what it means to be on stay-at-home orders and limited travel orders when it’s 114 degrees outside and you don’t have reliable air conditioning or its cost is prohibitive,” VanderMolen said. “At the same time, because they’re so overwhelmed right now with caseload, most folks in the area can’t really afford to address issues beyond COVID-19.”

As the research team works to navigate a path forward that is safe for both the interviewers and interviewees, they remain committed to developing information that will help vulnerable populations along the border.

“I hope that the information we provide is something decision-makers can use to make the right decision or create legislation that can help protect workers in the field, or at least call attention to the kind of inequalities and risk that the people there are being exposed to,” Bandala said. “Or, if we can produce information to change the mindset of the people to start thinking of themselves as a population at risk, and put more attention on the heat warnings, that will suffice for me to feel satisfied with the results of our research.”

The US-Mexico border is just one of many places around the globe where heat-related illness is a problem, added Hatchett – and many of those places happen to be where a lot of our food is grown or where important industries are located.

“I think this is a somewhat ubiquitous problem around the planet. We have these really important places that are susceptible to environmental extremes and these people that we rely on to have these regions be productive in terms of agriculture or industry. Unfortunately, those people are often the most susceptible and underserved populations to these compound environmental hazards,” Hatchett said. “It’s so easy to forget them, but one of the goals of this project is really to bring to light the importance of aiming much-needed resources at trying to help those populations and those places.”

Additional information

For more information on the members of this DRI research team, please visit: 

This research was supported by NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP).

Engineered Processes for the Separation and Degradation of Microplastics in Freshwater

Engineered Processes for the Separation and Degradation of Microplastics in Freshwater

Photo: The sand band used to prepare hydrochar from microplastics. Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.


By Nicole Damon, Nevada Water Resources Research Institute

Microplastics, plastic fragments that are smaller than 5 mm in any dimension, have been found in ecosystems worldwide. These emerging contaminants are even in environments that are supposed to be free from human contact, such as Antarctica and the deep ocean floor, and their toxic properties make them a significant environmental hazard.

“After the first acknowledgement of microplastics in the early 2000s, their presence in the environment has raised ever-increasing concerns because of their effects on organisms and ecosystems, and because approximately 1.5 million tons of microplastics are estimated to be released into aquatic environments every year,” explains Dr. Erick Bandala, the principal investigator of this project, which also includes Dr. Menake Piyasena from New Mexico Tech, graduate research assistants Adam Clurman and Ahdee Zeidman, and summer intern Yajahira Dircio. “Unfortunately, very little is known about the capability of engineered separation and/or degradation technologies to remove this highly ubiquitous contaminant.”

Commercial products that are manufactured to contain microplastics—such as personal care and pharmaceutical products, industrial abrasives, drilling fluids, and 3D printing products—are the primary sources of microplastics. However, the degradation of plastic debris can also generate microplastics.

“Wastewater treatment plant effluents are the main pathway for microplastics to be released into aquatic environments,” Bandala says. “Although the microplastic removal rate of a conventional wastewater treatment plant is reported to be in the range of 73 to 79 percent, the treated effluent can carry as much as 220,000 to 1.5 million microplastic particles per day.”

Yajahira Dircio, a student at Rancho High School and summer intern on the project, is preparing hydrochar from MPs using a sand band

Yajahira Dircio, a student at Rancho High School and summer intern on the project, is
preparing hydrochar from MPs using a sand band. Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI

In recent years, the effects microplastics have been found to have on aquatic species and their unknown effects on human health have increased concerns about their presence in water sources.

“Because conventional water treatment processes are unable to effectively eliminate microplastics in water, developing new technologies that can separate them from effluents and prevent their release into the environment is a high priority to protect water quality and water security,” Bandala says.

For this project, the researchers will use acoustic focusing and electrocoagulation to separate microplastics in freshwater effluents and determine the removal process mechanisms.

“Acoustic standing waves are a fast, noncontact, gentle particlemanipulation technique for microfluidic conditions that have emerged as a promising new technology for the purification, separation, and concentration of beads and biological cell samples,” Bandala explains.

The researchers will also assess the efficacy of using electrocoagulation to remove MPs from wastewater.

“Electrocoagulation has several significant advantages to conventional chemical coagulation, such as it increases treatment efficiency, generates less sludge, requires less space, and prevents chemical storage,” Bandala adds. “It has been proven to be highly efficient in removing contaminants. Our research group has used it for water defluoridation and to pretreat effluents that were heavily contaminated with petrochemicals.”

Because microplastics in freshwater are increasingly detected, it is even more important to find effective water treatment process that remove them.

“Although ultrafiltration, or microfiltration, have microplastic removal efficiencies as high as 99.4 percent, they also have high operational and maintenance costs and require skilled operators,” Bandala explains. “Finding efficient, costeffective methods to separate microplastics from freshwater effluents is critical to preventing population exposure.”

Adam Clurman, an undergraduate student at Nevada State College, is conducting the electrocoagulation experiments for the project.

Adam Clurman, an undergraduate student at Nevada State College, is conducting the
electrocoagulation experiments for the project. Credit: Erick Bandala

Another challenge that microplastics in freshwater present is how to dispose of them once they are removed from water. For this project, the researchers will use advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) as complementary processes to degrade the plastic waste after it has been separated from the wastewater. Advanced oxidation processes are an eco-friendly way to degrade organic compounds. In previous projects, the research group has tested the capability of these processes to degrade a wide variety of dissolved organic contaminants in water.

“Advanced oxidation processes have been used to degrade organics and have shown high cost-efficiency and short detention time compared with conventional water treatment processes,” Bandala explains. “Using AOPs to degrade microplastics will not only be an interesting challenge because of the complexity of their polymeric chains, but also because these contaminants are suspended in water and treating contaminants in a different phase in water using AOPs has not yet been reported.”

Maintaining the quality of water sources is an increasing issue, particularly in arid and semiarid regions with rapidly growing populations, such as Nevada.

“Desert Research Institute has reported the presence of MPs in places such as the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe, which are the origin of several drinking water supply systems in Nevada,” Bandala explains. “We live in a region with a moderate-high water stress and as Nevadans, we need to protect our water sources from contamination to ensure the sustainable development of our communities.”

This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) Summer 2020 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

For more information on the NWRRI, please visit: 


Featured Research: DRI scientists analyze origins of the Saharan dust plume

Featured Research: DRI scientists analyze origins of the Saharan dust plume

On June 18, 2020, NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite captured this visible image of the large light brown plume of Saharan dust over the North Atlantic Ocean. The image showed that the dust from Africa’s west coast extended almost to the Lesser Antilles in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NASA Worldview.


In late June 2020, a phenomenon known as the Saharan dust plume made headlines in the U.S., as warm, dry winds from northern Africa carried an unusually thick layer of dust more than 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean into parts of the southeastern US, Puerto Rico, and Caribbean.

The arrival of this African dust cloud may have seemed unusual to residents of Florida and other Gulf-coast states, who experienced several days of darkened skies, degraded air quality and spectacular sunsets, but it came as no surprise to DRI Professor Emeritus Michael Kaplan, Ph.D., and Saroj Dhital, M.S., who have been working to understand the origins of Saharan dust plumes for some time.

Dhital, a graduate researcher with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences in Reno, joined DRI in 2016 as a member of Kaplan’s research group. He is originally from Nepal, and holds a master’s degree in Atmospheric Physics from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. In his doctoral work, Dhital is studying the weather patterns and processes that are responsible for large-scale Saharan dust storms that move north from Africa toward Europe and the Tropical Atlantic.

DRI researcher Saroj Dhital

Saroj Dhital presents research on a 2017 dust case at the 2019 AGU Fall meeting.

Working in collaboration with Kaplan and researchers from Spain and Germany, Dhital has been actively involved in an effort to analyze case studies of extreme African dust plumes that impacted the Iberian Peninsula, in the southwest corner of Europe, during 2007, 2008, and 2016. In a new paper in the Journal Atmospheric Environment, Dhital and his colleagues examine the weather patterns and processes that occurred before each one of these major dust events.

“What we are trying to see in this research is what are the precursors before the formation of the dust system,” Dhital explained. “If we can see those types of features in the weather predictions, we could then possibly forecast that there will be a dust storm.”

The analyses of these case studies involve the observational datasets and high-resolution Weather Research and Forecasting model coupled with Chemistry (WRF-Chem) simulations. Numerical simulations are performed inside the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) high-performance computer, “Cheyenne”.

“Because this area of the Earth is virtually uninhabited, there are almost no surface observations,” Dhital explained. “Remote sensing via satellites and numerical simulations employing a state-of-the-science computer model are our only way of diagnosing the physics of this phenomenon.”

The technology involves the NASA A-train satellite instruments and the supercomputer at NCAR, which can perform more than a trillion operations per second. Without both forms of powerful information processing technology, little would be understood about Sharan dust storms and their long-range transport of dust.

Above: WRF-Chem simulated dust transport video from a 2017 case study that shows the emission of dust over North Africa and subsequent transport towards the tropical Atlantic Ocean (Cape Verde Islands). Credit: Saroj Dhital.

Dhital and his team have recently submitted a second paper for publication on a case study of a 2017 Saharan dust outbreak over the Cape Verde Islands, which lie 650km off the coast of Senegal, West Africa, and is shown in the simulation above. This dust plume led to significant disruptions of local air traffic – disruptions that could have potentially been managed differently if we had the ability to forecast these dust storms or provide early warning to residents.

Additionally, the dust represents a major health hazard as it combines with other pollutants to create respiratory stress in people with lung and breathing problems. This could exacerbate the effect of the COVID-19 epidemic on vulnerable populations in Europe and elsewhere.

”Knowing more about the conditions that lead to dust storms is critically important for operational forecasting and in the development of an early warning system,” Dhital said. “Our research group is now analyzing finer scale meteorological details involved in 2007, 2008, and 2016 dust storm cases utilizing observational and high-resolution WRF-Chem simulations, and we look forward to sharing our findings.”

To learn more about the work of Kaplan, Dhital and their colleagues, read their new paper “Large scale upper-level precursors for dust storm formation over North Africa and poleward transport to the Iberian Peninsula. Part I: An observational analysis” in Atmospheric Environment: 

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Sandra Brugger, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Researcher with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences, and a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Fellow.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Brugger: I started at DRI in October 2019 with an Early Postdoc Mobility grant funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). DRI is home of one of the world-leading ice core labs. I am extremely grateful that I could join Professor Joe McConnell’s ice core group in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) and be co-supervised by Professor Dave Rhode in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences (DEES).

DRI: What are your research interests?

Brugger: I am interested in past vegetation dynamics and their relationship with climate change and human activities. Using optical pollen, charcoal, and other microfossil analyses in ice cores, we can infer how the ecosystems and fire regimes have changed over time. We can then try to reconstruct sensitive ecosystems in high latitude regions to gain a better understanding how they will react to rapid global warming.

DRI: What is the SNSF Fellows Virtual Conference?

Brugger: The conference is a multidisciplinary platform where Postdoc fellows are sharing their exciting results and show how diverse the research is that the Swiss National Science Foundation is funding with over 700 projects around the world.

DRI: How did you get involved in helping lead this unique event?

Brugger: Most conferences were cancelled this summer. Young scientists rely very much on presenting their results, networking at scientific meetings, and interacting with other research fellows. Therefore, my SNSF-Mobility fellow Tobias Schneider (University of Massachusetts) and I spontaneously decided on a Friday evening over a virtual glass of wine on Zoom to turn our own pandemic misery into a virtual conference for us and our fellow SNSF-postdoc fellows in the US and around the world. Six weeks and several virtual wine glasses later, we are ready and excited to host the four-day long conference on Zoom.

The multidisciplinary character of the conference is also reflected in the exciting keynotes that will be presenting their research. Among them, we have two from DRI: Professor Monica Arienzo will introduce us to her latest research on microplastics in Alpine environments, and Professor Joe McConnell will be presenting on Roman lead pollution in Arctic ice cores.

Since we have one thing in common among all fellows, the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to hold a daily panel on COVID-19 with invited frontline workers that will be hosted by Theresa Watts, Professor at ORVIS School of Nursing at UNR. On Thursday, Professor Ajay Sethi from the University of Wisconsin-Madison will give a keynote on conspiracy theories around COVID-19.

Sandra Brugger (Klimaforscherin), Institute of Plant Sciences, PhD student – Palaeoecology. © Manu Friederich

DRI: What are you hoping to accomplish? What would be the best outcome for this event?

Brugger: We hope to provide an inspiring meeting where people can present their work, get new input, and maybe even provide additional research motivation during difficult home-office situations they are experiencing. And above all, we are excited to get to know our fellows and their fascinating research projects.

DRI: How can people get involved or watch the event?

Brugger: The event is free of registration and will be hosted on three platforms: Zoom, Youtube and Remo. The program and the links to join the virtual conference can be found on our Event website: hosted by Swissnex Boston, our partner for the conference.

DRI: How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?

Brugger: My own research has been severely impacted. I started the project only 8 months ago and since March we have only very limited access to lab facilities. This is critical for sample preparation and analyzing data in this early stage of the project.

Also, our group had to cancel fieldwork and as mentioned above, most conferences got cancelled this summer and for the upcoming months hopefully can be replaced by virtual meetings. It was a tough time to arrive new to the USA from Switzerland and to face the pandemic in a foreign country.

Meet Gai Elhanan, M.D.

Meet Gai Elhanan, M.D.

Gai Elhanan, M.D., is a health data scientist with the Division of Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. He specializes in health care informatics, and is a physician with more than 12 years of experience in internal medicine and infectious diseases. Gai received his M.D from Tel Aviv University and his M.A in Medical Informatics from Columbia University. He also completed a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at the Medical Informatics Department, New York Presbyterian Medical Center/Columbia University. In his free time, Gai enjoys listening to jazz and classical music, flying radio-controlled airplanes, and doing woodwork.

What do you do here at DRI?

I came to DRI in 2017 to work with the Healthy Nevada Project. I am a physician by training, so, I am the guy within the Healthy Nevada Project that gives the clinical perspective on the data and questions. I provide the viewpoint of a health professional, whereas the other people on the team are geneticists, data scientists, or have backgrounds in other scientific fields. We sometimes collaborate with the physicians at Renown, cardiologists or other specialists, but they are very busy taking care of their many patients; we can’t really utilize them to the extent we would like. So, that is exactly where I come in. It might not be that I am the most up-to-date in every field of medicine, but I bring the clinical perspectives and medical knowledge to the team.

One of your specialties is in health care informatics. Can you tell us a little bit about this field of study?

Yes, I’ve been involved with health informatics for 20-something years now. Basically, it’s a very broad field that investigates how data can be used to improve health care. In health care, we have vast amounts of data, and we don’t use it optimally. When you visit a doctor, everything is coded – your diagnosis, procedures, medical services. These codes are mostly used for billing purposes, but we can also extract clinical information for research. For example, We can utilize the genomic information we collect from the HNP participants and correlate it to clinical findings and diagnoses in the electronic medical records to try and predict risk and factors that are associated with outcomes of certain conditions.

In health care informatics, we look at how data should be presented for research or patients or clinicians, and how to draw conclusions from the data. By improving the utilization of the data within the electronic health record, we improve the quality and efficiency of the care provided, we improve the ability to do research on the data and, overall we improve the health of the population. How to get the right data, how to organize it, and how to present it optimally for each task are all very important things.

What are you working on right now with the Healthy Nevada Project?

Right now, with the Healthy Nevada Project, we’re trying to improve participation for specific groups of individuals. Originally the Healthy Nevada Project was testing whoever walked in, they were encouraged to provide their saliva and join the project. But now, for several reasons, we’re also trying to improve targeted recruiting in order to better represent the actual population of the region. So, we’re trying to identify who might be good potential participant for the project, and work with Renown’s research coordinators and ambassadors for the project to reach out to people who we would like to have participate.

I am also working on a project with Gilead, the pharmaceutical company, concerning a condition called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis). NASH affects a significant portion of the population here in Northern Nevada, and can result in life threatening outcomes. This is a strategic collaboration to collect and analyze genetic and electronic health data that can enhance the understanding of NASH and potentially inform development of treatment options for the disease.

How did you end up here at DRI?

I did my medical training in Israel, and also did my residency there. We ended up in the U.S. because my wife is originally from the States. She is a physician as well, a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist. I decided that I didn’t want to practice medicine in the U.S., I wanted to do something else. So, in 1995, I got a NIH grant to do a postdoc fellowship at Columbia University in New York. I got a master’s degree there in medical informatics. We came to Reno a few years ago when my wife was offered a position at Renown, and that’s when I started at DRI with the Healthy Nevada Project. Her position didn’t work out and she went back to New York, but I like the potential in the Healthy Nevada Project and the group of people I’m working with so I stayed with the DRI team to keep doing my work.  The team here is a really nice group of people.

To learn more about the Healthy Nevada Project, please visit:

To learn more about Gai’s work with the Renown Institute of Health Innovation (Renown IHI), please visit: 


New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.

The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials
Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov

Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers
Kristin VanderMolen 

Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling
Ming Liu

Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.

Researchers sample snow

Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S.
Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano

Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.

A cannabis growing facility

A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping
David Campbell

The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast,

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.

Modeling and Analysis of Fluid Flow Interactions with Porous/Permeable 3-Dimensional Forms
Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole

Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.


MAY, 2020

Scientific Illustration

Meet DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira and learn about her work in botany and scientific illustration in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog.

Tiffany Pereira, M.S., is an assistant research scientist with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. She has been a member of the DRI community since July of 2019, and specializes in field biology, range ecology, and scientific illustration. Tiffany is originally from southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from University of Southern California and a Master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). In her free time, she enjoys doing artwork, singing in a community choir, hiking, and taking care of a small army of pets – ten species of frogs, geckos, a salamander, a caecilian (a legless amphibian), and three snakes.

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs

DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira collects a sample of Merriams Bearpoppy (Arctomecon merriami), a sensitive species, at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.  

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Pereira: I specialize in the flora and fauna – so, plants and animals – of the desert southwest, and the ecological processes going on in the region. In my work, I try to provide land managers and resource managers with sound advice and sound research to back up issues that they might have when it comes to protecting and conserving our natural resources. I’m also a scientific illustrator, so I try whenever I can to incorporate artwork into what I do.

I started here at DRI in July of 2019 after graduating with my masters from UNLV, so I haven’t been here quite a year yet – but so far, one of my main tasks has been to provide resource management planning out at the Nevada Test and Training Range. I’m also working on a new project to do a botanical inventory out at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.

Las Vegas Bearpoppy (Arctomecon california), another sensitive species found at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument. April 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: Where is Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, and what do you hope to learn there?

Pereira: Tule Springs is a new park that was formed by the National Park Service in 2014 on land that was formerly managed by the BLM. It is a vast landscape, and it’s located on the north edge of Las Vegas with housing developments that back right up to the border, so it is what you would consider an urban park. The park is known for the presence of Ice Age fossils – including some really cool ancient mammals like mammoths, lions, bison, ground sloths, and camels – but there is also a diverse array of modern-day Mojave Desert flora and fauna on the site that hasn’t really been studied yet.

The park managers at Tule Springs are facing some unique challenges, because people used to have basically unlimited access to do whatever they wanted on the land. Now, the park is trying to manage the land and resources in a more sustainable way, but they don’t have much baseline data to support what they are trying to accomplish. It’s hard to manage rare plants and invasive species if you don’t really know what’s out there, or where those populations are occurring. So, that’s where this botanical inventory comes in.

Above: Tiffany Pereira collects samples of Merriams Bearpoppy (Arctomecon merriami; the white flower) and Las Vegas Bearpoppy (Arctomecon californica; the yellow flower) at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020. Both are sensitive species, says Tiffany, and it is special to have them both in the park. 

Photographs by Ali Swallow/DRI.

How do you do a botanical inventory?

Well, the monument itself is 22,605 acres. It’s a really large area to cover, so we can’t aim for 100 percent coverage, but we will go out to randomly located sample sites to get a feel for the vegetation, the cover, and what the dominant species are. Then we’ll move to different spots and get different plants from different areas – for example, if we spend some time in a creosote shrub community, then we’ll move down into a sand dune community, or down into the washes. We will also go out at different times of year in order to capture peak flowering periods of each major group of plants. Our job to collect specimens that will be stored in an herbarium at the Nevada State Museum as a permanent record of the plants found at this monument, and also to create a species list for the park, like a checklist. That’s where scientific illustration might come in – I might try to illustrate some of the more prolific species, or rare or special status species found on the monument.

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Why do you like to use scientific illustration in your work? What do you see as the benefit of an illustration, over, say, a photograph?

Oftentimes, especially with certain medical, botanical, or wildlife illustrations, illustrations are done in black and white. That’s because you can actually get a lot more detail and texture to come across in an illustration than in a normal photograph. It also is better for people who are colorblind, or who have trouble discerning the subtleties of color.

 With an illustration of a plant, you can look at multiple examples and sort of illustrate the average to get the best possible representation of that particular species or specimen, rather than just choosing one and saying “all right, this is the one I’m going to take a picture of.” You can also show multiple life stages at once, or show a specimen from different angles.

Scientific illustration is actually something that has been around forever. All of the graphics in our textbooks, those are scientific illustrations. Early researchers like Darwin and Audubon, they had to rely on illustration to convey their findings and to progress their fields. So, it does have a very deep thread winding through the course of scientific discovery. And in the age of trying to think more about science communication, and getting our work out there in an accessible and sharable way, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Why read an abstract that is confusing and painstaking, when you can look at a visual abstract that graphically depicts the findings of a paper?

In addition to the more traditional approaches to scientific illustration, there are also some more modern scientific illustration techniques that are accepted as part of this growing field. The use of stacking software is one, where you take photos through a microscope and focus them at different levels, then use software to compress and combine ten or twenty images into one beautiful photo that is focused all the way through.

“In the age of trying to think more about science communication, and getting our work out there in an accessible and sharable way, a picture is still worth a thousand words.”

How did you become interested in scientific illustration?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a Disney animator because I loved illustration, I loved artwork. As I got older, my love for science kind of chipped in on that – but I always had a mentality of “why not both”? As an undergrad, I combined the two as much as I could – I was a science major, but I also minored in fine arts. And then, I was pleasantly surprised to come across the whole field of scientific illustration, and realize that it really is its own thing.

Once I learned that scientific illustration was a field in its own right, I thought, never again will I try to separate the two aspects of my being. There really is a field that combines science and art, and that’s exactly how I am as a person. So, I incorporated it as part of my undergrad, I had a whole chapter of my master’s thesis dedicated to it, and I’m pleased and grateful to DRI for allowing that to be a part of my career now.

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs

DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Meet Ben Hatchett

Meet Ben Hatchett

Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor in the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. Ben has been a member of the DRI community since 2005 when he began as an undergraduate lab assistant. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in geography, Master’s in atmospheric sciences, and Ph.D. in geography, all from the University of Nevada, Reno. Ben specializes in dryland and alpine hydroclimatology and hydrometeorology. In addition to his research and teaching, he enjoys watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee before going backcountry skiing, climbing, or mountain biking in the Sierra Nevada.

DRI: You’ve been in Reno for some time now. Could you tell us about what brought you to Reno originally and your educational background? 

BH: I came to the University of Nevada as an undergraduate. I was always planning on going to Montana State, but I grew up snowboarding on Donner Summit, and friends and I would ride Boreal for the night sessions. I remember riding there one night, in the evening when the sun was setting and everything was purple and pink in alpenglow, and I thought, I just can’t leave. This is where I’m from, and this is what I do, and I want to keep doing this. And I can go to school right down the street from here. Perfect! So, that’s what brought me to UNR.

During my time as an undergrad, I took the full sequence of avalanche safety courses because I’d gotten really into being in the backcountry. Those courses started convincing me that I needed to learn more about meteorology, then I spent a summer in Chamonix, which reinforced that idea. Skiing in the Alps, in an environment so different than the Sierra Nevada with huge glaciers and extreme hazards, and seeing how fast the weather changed there, made me realize that I really needed to learn more about weather and its relationship to snow science.

DRI: Now you do quite a bit of work related to avalanches. What does that research involve, and what are the big questions? 

BH: My goal is to better apply what we know about meteorology to understand the timescales and prediction skill for avalanches and how we can use that to minimize risk. Subtle changes in weather, like wind direction or snow crystal shape, can quickly create massive changes in the safety of a slope and the state of a given snowpack. As soon as you want to apply what you know about snow to understand its relation to the mountain environment, you need meteorology so you can say, for example, this is the sort of storm that can create large and widespread avalanche activity, thus we’ll need extra patrollers at the resorts.

For me, it all comes from the question: where’s the best safe place to ski and why? So much of my work is seeing something interesting while I’m in the mountains and thinking “I wonder why that happened?” For example, why did that slope slide when another didn’t? How does that tie into the meteorological history of the snow season?


A skier poses on the massive pile of snow and debris left behind by the Valentine’s Day 2019 avalanche on Mt. Shasta. Credit: Ben Hatchett.

DRI: Can you tell us about one of those times you saw something interesting out in the field and investigated it? 

BH: Probably the best recent example I have is the avalanche that took place on Valentine’s Day 2019 on Mt. Shasta. In late June of last year, we skied up what was left after the avalanche, a fifty-foot-tall pile of debris. Skiing up it and seeing the remnants many months later was really striking and made me want to look further into it.

The big question that folks in my field were speculating about was when it happened, because that can tell us a lot about why it happened. I thought of checking the seismic network to see if it would have registered there, and sure enough, it did! This allowed us to pinpoint the time of the slide to the second it occurred. From there, we could evaluate all the other information we typically look at, like wind speed and direction, precipitation phase, and temperature, and begin to make more-informed hypotheses about what caused the avalanche.

DRI: Have you seen that snowpacks, and the potential for avalanches, are changing under warming climate conditions? 

BH: Climates have always changed, but what we’re seeing now across mountain landscapes is something different. We have background warming, which is causing more precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow in middle and lower elevation mountains. This warming is also causing fewer freezing nights in the spring, which goofs up our historically awesome spring skiing. We’re seeing more extreme loading events, with lots of snow falling all at once, but also more prolonged (and warmer) dry spells. High elevation rain-on-snow events are becoming more frequent, which creates an unstable surface for additional snowfall once they freeze. All of this favors weaker snowpacks, which suggests more, and larger, avalanches may be possible.

I’m working on an article right now related to this and the future of skiing. As lower elevation snowpacks disappear, more skiers and snowboarders are pushed into the higher elevations, where conditions are often sketchier and more objectively hazardous. With more people recreating in a relatively small area, there’s a greater likelihood that people will be exposed to avalanches.

snowpack graphic

This graphic shows that snowpack accumulation is taking longer and longer–it’s now happening about 15 days later in the season than it did in 1985. Credit: Ben Hatchett.

DRI: What’s happening with our snowpack in the Sierra Nevada this year? 

BH: This winter is a classic “what the heck?!” winter. It started off very dry, with well-below normal precipitation into November. Then we had a warm, wet storm around Thanksgiving to get us back to “normal” mid-winter conditions up high. Throughout December, the storms we got were cold enough to accumulate a healthy, above-average snowpack. January was very dry, but we had a few nice cold storms. This was followed by one of the driest Februaries on record. Basically, we enjoyed spring skiing conditions in February and early March that are more typical of April. Mid-March brought us an ideal snow-producing storm that did wonders for the ski conditions and made a nice dent in the snowpack deficit. So far, April has brought us another decent storm. These spring storms help to create interesting avalanche situations as the sun becomes increasingly intense and temperatures warm. While we’re still looking likely to end up with a below-average year, compared to the other recent drought years this season has far and away had the best ski conditions.

This winter, along with the other variable winters we’ve seen in the last decade, makes me wonder whether this is the jumping off point into a new kind of mountain recreation landscape, where we can go from excellent conditions to something that’s not so great in no time. I think the Sierra Nevada, and other maritime mountain ranges, are going to continue to become more susceptible to changes in weather and climate variability.

DRI: What drives you to continue doing this work? 

BH: Just being in the mountains and trying to pick the optimal weather conditions for ski runs or mountain bike rides has been a huge motivation for my research. I’m most mentally productive when I’m climbing up mountains. You’re able to just let go of everything when you’re spending several hours going up a hill, whether that’s on skis, on a trail, on rock, wherever! It gives you a lot of time to think, observe, and consider.

I’m always trying to see new things and then better understand what I’ve seen. As a backcountry enthusiast, you get to see all kinds of interesting environments with different kinds of weather, geology, as well as human relationships to those places. Wanting to protect alpine environments and get other people psyched on them inspires my research quite a bit.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe. Credit: Ben Hatchett.

Why scientists are studying stories during the COVID-19 pandemic

Why scientists are studying stories during the COVID-19 pandemic

The family dinner table. The water cooler with coworkers. Your social media feed. Bedtime with your toddler.  

What do all these places have in common? They’re full of stories.  

Look closely at your day and, chances are, you’ll notice that stories permeate just about every nook and cranny of your life, from the podcast you listen to as you’re getting ready for work to the Netflix show you binge in the evening to wind down.  

It’s not just because stories entertain us. Science has shown that storytelling has an even more powerful function—stories help coordinate behavior in communities, teach shared values and norms, and even synchronize our brainwavesThey’re so important to successful group interactions, according to one study on hunter-gatherer societies, that the best storytellers turn out to be preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, suggesting that storytelling has evolved through individual-level selection.  

The research makes it clear that stories ground us and guide us. That’s why social scientists have started listening for them as the world grapples with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

My COVID-19 Journey 

Researchers at the Desert Research Institute,, and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute have launched a project called My COVID-19 Journey that aims to collect stories from people throughout the world over the coming year. The team hopes that they’ll gather tens of thousands of unique entries to the project, enough to begin identifying patterns of behavior and decision-making in the face of uncertainty and chaos caused by the pandemic. 

Map of My Covid-19 Stories: Blue dots represent locations where stories have been submitted from so far.

The goal isn’t to collect a library of individual stories—instead, it’s about finding patterns among them.  

While individual stories are important, the collective experience and the patterns that can be found in it are what we’re really looking for,” explained Tamara Wall, PhD, associate research professor at DRI and project lead. This is a pattern seeking process. 

Historically, this kind of inquiry—one that invites stories and asks questions to facilitate pattern spotting—has only been possible at a very small scale over long periods of time, practiced by ethnographers and anthropologists who examine communities and groups to learn about their customs, relationships, and systems of power. 

Now, with an easy-to-use online tool developed by, researchers can collect this kind of information rapidly and in real-time. More than just a survey, the tool is rooted in sense-making methodology, which aims to learn the participants’ opinions and the context that informs and shapes those opinions.

An example question that respondents answer after writing and titling their submission. These kinds of questions help provide the context that shapes the experiences participants share.

This data helps researchers discern patterns that emerge out of what may feel like chaos—sparse grocery store shelves, overburdened hospitals, canceled plansand get a better sense of what influences and shapes those patterns.  

To understand why some folks went for toilet paper while others began making protective masks,” explained Ajay Reddy, founder of 

Putting the data to work 

With a deeper understanding of how we are collectively experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, and why we’re making the choices we are during the crisis, researchers are optimistic about what they can do to improve our collective response to this crisis. 

In past research projects, for example, this methodology has helped fire captains adapt the training for wildland firefighters to account for rapidly shifting fire behavior and the changing risks on the front lines of wildfire. 

For the COVID-19 project, the team plans to share data and findings with several levels of decision-makers, including the US Department of Health and Human Services, state and local governments, and non-profit organizations.  

“We expect that county and state-level elected officials and decisionmakers will probably find this work most useful,” said Wall. “For example, it could be really interesting to examine how people in different areas respond to public health messages, or to see the different concerns that motivate behavior change, whether that’s the health of the economy or their own personal health.” 

Data collection began this month, and participants from around the world have submitted more than 200 stories. The research team’s goal is to have at least 5,000 before they can begin analysis. 

Participants will be able to submit stories for the next year, but researchers hope to have enough data this spring to help inform decision-makers in the fall when COVID-19 cases could rise again, according to medical experts. 

“While each of us may be alone in our day-to-day experience, we are participating in an emerging global crisis,” reflected Glenda H. Eoyang, Ph.D., founding executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute. “Statistics about our behaviors and health status fill the public press and social media, but the patterns of our individual experiences are hidden from view. When we share our stories and make sense of them for ourselves and with others, we will begin to see how the future is unfolding around the world.”  

In just 5-10 minutes, you can contribute to this project and help researchers understand how communities across the globe are being impacted by COVID-19because your story is more important now than ever. 

Portions of this blog are adapted with permission from Decision-making and COVID-19, published by’s CEO and Chief Product Officer Ajay Reddy. 

Meet Steve Bacon, M.S.

Meet Steve Bacon, M.S.

Steve Bacon, M.S., P.G., C.E.G. is an associate research scientist of geomorphology with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno. Steve specializes in geology, paleoclimate, and landscape evolution, and has been a member of the DRI community since 2005. He is a licensed geologist and certified engineering geologist in California. He is also originally from southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in environmental systems – geology from Humboldt State University. In his free time, Steve enjoys skiing and camping with his family.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Bacon: I work in engineering geology, geomorphology, and geologic hazards, which are fields focused on understanding  why landforms and landscapes look the way that they do and how they can potentially pose a hazard. I’m currently finishing up my pursuit for a Ph.D. in hydrology, focusing on paleoclimate modeling of Owens Lake in central California. Outside of my Ph.D. research, I work on U.S. Navy projects at China Lake through DRI’s Naval Earth Science Engineering Program (NESEP) , doing engineering geology and geomorphology. I also commonly work on Department of Energy (DOE) projects to assess the hazards related to surface erosion for DOE facilities in the western US, as well as on a National Institute of Health (NIH) project characterizing the spatial distribution of naturally occurring mineral fibers across northern Nevada.

Steve Bacon samples sediments along the bank of the Snake River in Idaho.

DRI: Can you tell us about your research at Owens Lake?

Bacon: Yes, I’ve been working to identify past precipitation changes in the Owens River watershed, in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains – so looking at how wet and how dry the environment in that area has been over many thousands of years. I’ve developed a lake-level record of Owens Lake going back 50,000 years. To do that, I’ve been dating shoreline deposits using radiocarbon and luminescence age dating techniques, and integrating lake sediment core records to produce a continuous lake-level record.

All of the precipitation and snowmelt from the watershed ultimately goes to the lake, so when the lake fills up, that’s a function of how much precipitation has occurred. So, using the continuous lake-level record, I’m doing watershed and lake hydrologic modeling to learn about changes in prehistoric precipitation levels that occurred over the last 12,000 years.

DRI: How will this information be used?

Bacon: Ultimately, it can be used to understand past atmospheric circulation patterns, like, where the jet stream was at different periods of time. For example, if it was dry in the southern Sierras, chances are the jet stream was further to the north. And when there were periods where it was relatively wet, the jet stream was further south. Atmospheric modelers can use that information to refine their models of the past.

This information can also help us to understand the future, to better understand climate change. To understand what potentially can happen in the future, we rely on the past; that’s one main reason why you study the past.

View from Steve Bacon’s field camp during a research expedition in the southern Owens Valley. Owens Lake and the Sierra Nevada mountains are in the distance.

DRI: How did you become interested in this particular research question?

Bacon: I love the east side of the Sierra Nevada. I always have, ever since I was a kid and we’d drive up to Mammoth or go camping out in Death Valley and Panamint Valley. I had an opportunity as a grad student to investigate the Owens Valley fault, which last ruptured in 1872 and produced the third largest earthquake in California. We trenched that fault to characterize the earthquake history, but to understand the earthquake history, we had to characterize the lake-level history, because the fault broke up the shoreline deposits left by the lake. So that’s when I started putting together the lake-level history of Owens Lake, as part of my master’s thesis at Humboldt State University. I’ve been working on this problem for 21 years.

DRI: What do you like about studying the ancient history of places like Owens Lake?

Bacon: It’s like a scavenger hunt. You’re looking around for clues to solve a puzzle. It’s a big geologic puzzle. We go four-wheel-drive around in the desert, or hike with a shovel, digging, cleaning off geologic exposures on different landforms, such as riverbanks and alluvial fans, just finding clues. Geologic clues. It’s fun. I like it. That’s why I do it, I guess.

Steve Bacon samples sediments along the bank of the Snake River in Idaho.

For more information on Steve Bacon and his work, please visit his directory page.

Meet Ken McGwire, Ph.D.

Meet Ken McGwire, Ph.D.

Ken McGwire, Ph.D., is an associate research professor of geography with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. He specializes in environmental mapping, monitoring and modeling using satellite imagery and geographic information systems (GIS)software for viewing and analyzing geographical data. Ken came to DRI in 1994 from the University of California Santa Barbara, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in geography. In his free time, he enjoys skiing and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. 


DRI: What do you do here at DRI? 

Ken McGwire: I study how things vary in space and across time in the environment, using satellite image analysis, computer mapping, and general database and programming skills. I came to DRI 25 years ago from U.C. Santa Barbara with degrees in physical geography, and what I’ve worked on here at DRI has been all over the place. There are so many cool interdisciplinary connections you can make here; I’ve found a lot of opportunities to apply the sorts of ways I look at the world to other disciplines.  

I’ve worked on everything from 3-D imaging projects with paleontologists, to scanning images of ice cores, to working with virologists from the University of Nevada, Reno on epidemiology studies. I was a member of the science team for a NASA satellite mission called “Earth Observing 1,” looking at the ability to map invasive species with a type of technology called hyperspectral imaging. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work with some of the older, well-used satellite systems – making use of the long archive of historical observations to look at how the environment has varied and may be changing over time. 


DRI: We understand that you’ve recently completed a detailed statewide map of all of Nevada’s wetland areas. Can you tell us about that project? 

McGwire: Yes, about two years ago, I was awarded a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency through the Nevada Natural Heritage Program, in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, the Spring Stewardship Institute, and the Nevada Division of Wildlife, to develop a better understanding of the distribution of where wetlands are in Nevada, and to develop tools for characterizing how they change over time.  

Different land management agencies define wetlands differently – the boundary for what the Forest Service uses to define a wetland may be different from what the Bureau of Land Management uses, for example. So, the first part of that project was to compile a statewide map of Nevada’s wetlands using data from multiple different agencies and sources. This map is now available on the DRI website 

A second part of that project was to develop a wetland analysis tool to help land managers and scientists from across the state better understand how various wetland areas have been changing over time. This tool, called WetBar, is used within the ArcMap GIS software package. It links the state wetland map with information about each wetland, and with an archive of satellite imagery dating back to 1985 that is available in Google Earth Engine. 


McGwire’s wetland map and WetBar ArcGIS analysis tool can be used to learn about how wetland areas in Nevada are changing over time. This wetland is located at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch Preserve near Beatty, Nevada.


DRI: How is this wetland analysis tool used? Can you give us an example? 

McGwire: WetBar allows you to identify, group, and sort different wetland sites based on different criteria. I can use it to look at the boundary of a water body like Lake Mead, and how the shoreline of the lake has retreated or flooded over timeFor example, using Landsat satellite imagery that goes back to 1985, I can use this tool to select only areas of the lake that have been flooded for 15 to 30 years, and create a map of just that area. This might help researchers get a feel for site conditions prior to visiting a field site, or help them to visualize the impacts of water withdrawals or changes in climate on a water body like Lake Mead. 

There are a lot of other ways you can use this tool. You can sort all of the wetland areas in the database by climate sensitivity, based on how much the wetlands have changed in satellite imagery over the last three decades. This could help land managers to prioritize certain sites for protection, or determine how frequently a certain species can withstand flooding. You can use it to monitor reservoir depletion, or how long it takes reservoir to fill. I recently received funding to provide outreach to people about what this toolbar can do, and try to get feedback on what other functions would make it more useful to decision makers, so more capabilities may be added as the project moves forward.   


(Click to enlarge) Screenshot of a wetland map made using the WetBar ArcGIS toolbar. By linking satellite imagery to known data about various wetlands in Nevada, scientists can use this tool to learn about changes in water and vegetation cover over time.


DRI: Does your any of your work take you out into the field? McGwire: Yes, definitely. Most of my fieldwork in the last couple years has been supporting the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD)’s efforts to control dust emissions from Owens Lake, which has become mostly dry lakebed since the 1920s due to water diversion to Los Angeles. The lakebed is in a desert environment, and as the wind blows, clouds of sediment can blow toward Arizona. It was the biggest source of PM10 air pollution in the country for a while 

To mitigate the dustGBUAPCD has developed a variety of land cover treatments. They’ve turned portions of the lakebed into detention areas, which can be shallow flooded. They do drip irrigation of saltgrass in areas that have natural vegetation, to try to get vegetation to establish and grow on the lakebed. They spread gravel in some areas, and in other areas they’re distributing some of the natural brines from the center of the lake to form a hard salt crust. So I’ve been working with the GBUAPCD to develop monitoring methods to monitor the status of these treatments, which requires creating maps of treatment areas, as well as field visits to monitor conditions on the ground.  


What do you enjoy most about your line of work? 

McGwire: Working with satellite imagery is very visual, and the scientific investigation aspect of what we do creates a lot of variety in terms of intellectual stimulation. There’s a creative aspect to it, a visual aspect to it, and I enjoy finding ways to make that sort of way of looking at the world useful to other people.  


To learn more about Ken McGwire and his work, please visit his DRI directory page.

People-powered research: Citizen science makes microplastics discovery at Lake Tahoe possible

People-powered research: Citizen science makes microplastics discovery at Lake Tahoe possible

Take a moment to picture a scientist who has made a groundbreaking discovery. What does that person look like?

Perhaps it’s a person in a white coat standing in a lab with microscopes and test tubes, or a distinguished professor accepting an award on stage.

What if we told you that you could have pictured yourself?

In citizen science projects, community members like you utilize their curiosity, enthusiasm, and talents alongside professional scientists in real-world research projects. They act as the eyes, ears, or an extra set of hands for scientists, helping to extend the spatial reach of a study or adding important perspectives that scientists cannot provide themselves.

That’s precisely what Lake Tahoe locals did this summer to help DRI scientists identify microplastic pollution in the Lake for the first time ever.

DRI microplastics researchers sample water from the shore of Lake Tahoe in spring 2019.

DRI microplastics researchers sample water from the shore of Lake Tahoe in spring 2019.


Why citizen science?
In fall of 2018, Desert Research Institute scientists Monica Arienzo, Zoe Harrold, and Meghan Collins were formulating a project to search for microplastic pollution in the surface waters of Lake Tahoe and in stormwater runoff into the lake. But the team was not satisfied in seeking to identify the presence of microplastic alone—they also wanted to make connections with community members in Tahoe.

“By involving citizen scientists in understanding the problem of microplastics,” explained Arienzo, “we can naturally connect the community to evidence-based solutions to reduce the microplastic problem.”

To recruit citizen scientists, DRI partnered with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which runs the Pipe Keepers program. Pipe Keepers volunteers throughout the Tahoe Basin collect water samples from stormwater outfalls into Lake Tahoe and monitor for stormwater pollution.

These outfalls, which drain water from roadways, parking lots and neighborhoods into the lake, are a significant source of fine sediment pollution in Lake Tahoe, which threatens the clarity of Tahoe’s famous blue waters. They’re also a potential culprit of microplastic pollution since plastic litter, tires, and other sources can break down into smaller pieces and be swept away with the stormwater.

“Our citizen science programs are a great way to get locals and visitors directly engaged in protecting the Lake,” said Emily Frey, the League’s Citizen Science Program Coordinator. “We’re really excited to contribute to this groundbreaking research.”

Over the course of the 2019 field season, volunteer Pipe Keepers collected 24 liters of water from six sampling sites. Arienzo, Harrold, and Collins also pumped water samples from several places along the Lake’s shoreline surface waters for the study.

In both the stormwater samples and the surface water samples, a large portion of the microplastics found were small fibers, which can come from the breakdown of synthetic clothing. The stormwater represents a point-source of this microplastic pollution, which, in theory, could be mitigated in the future.

Meghan Collins in the Microplastics Lab at DRI's Reno campus, holding a sample collected by a Pipe Keeper. Credit: Cat Allison/Nevada Momentum.

Meghan Collins in the Microplastics Lab at DRI’s Reno campus, holding a sample collected by a Pipe Keeper. Credit: Cat Allison/Nevada Momentum.

Broad benefits
Beyond providing important data for research projects, citizen science also has the power to engage communities in scientific inquiry and inspire care for the places where we live and play.

Laura Schlim has been a volunteer with the Pipe Keepers program for three years, and she worked with the DRI team to collect samples for the microplastics project. The best thing about citizen science for her? It’s fun!

“I’m naturally interested in why things work a certain way,” explained Schlim, a certified California naturalist. “It’s fun to be part of something where I can contribute to the greater body of knowledge while also enjoying the natural world.”

Vesper Rodriguez, a Pipe Keeper since 2018, echoed this sentiment.

“I volunteer because I like to be outside and I have a lot of fun with the projects. Volunteering for the League’s Stewardship Days and their Pipe Keepers program in particular, which allows volunteers to monitor stormwater infrastructure, is really fulfilling,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a rewarding feeling to contribute to the community and the land that I live on.”

Since community members have been vested in the research from the start, the DRI team is optimistic that the findings of their work will be able to go far beyond the lab and begin to solve the microplastic pollution problem in Lake Tahoe.

“A core mission of the DRI team is to generate evidence-based solutions to microplastics in our water, by identifying sources that could be mitigated or finding techniques to better prevent microplastic generation in the first place,” said Collins. “Building a community of citizen scientists creates a strong network of engaged individuals who care and can implement these solutions as they are developed.”

DRI microplastics researchers (beginning top row, from center) Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, and Monica Arienzo pose with the Pipe Keeper volunteers on the project. Credit: League to Save Lake Tahoe.

DRI microplastics researchers (beginning top row, from center) Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, and Monica Arienzo pose with the Pipe Keeper volunteers on the project. Credit: League to Save Lake Tahoe.

The study on microplastics is one of many active citizen science projects led by DRI and the League to Save Lake Tahoe. DRI also leads Stories in the Snow and Tahoe: Rain or Snow?, projects related to weather and climate in the Sierra Nevada. In addition to the Pipe Keepers program, the League also runs Eyes on the Lake, which helps monitor and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive plants.

Interested in joining the team of citizen scientists in the Sierra Nevada and around Lake Tahoe? Download the Citizen Science Tahoe app to get started.

In addition to volunteering your time to this project, you can also financially support this research effort at the team’s crowdfunding page.

Meet Julie Albright, DRI’s Technologist of the Year

Meet Julie Albright, DRI’s Technologist of the Year

The cutting-edge scientific research that happens at DRI wouldn’t be possible without the Institute’s many technologists: non-faculty employees who have special technical experience and training to support instrumentation design, laboratory and fieldwork, administration, accounting, reception, and facilities.

Each year, faculty, students, and staff have the opportunity to nominate those technologists they believe go above and beyond to make DRI a great place to work for the Technical Employee of the Year award. From those nominations, a council of technical employees selects the recipient of the award. This year, the recipient is Julie Albright, the program specialist for DRI’s Office of Education.

Get to know Julie in this Q&A!

DRI: How long have you worked here at DRI? How long have you lived in Reno?

Julie Albright: I moved to Reno in 2002 to attend UNR and never left. I’m actually a third generation northern Nevadan, born and raised in Carson City. I’ve worked at DRI for 1 year, starting in November 2018. Before that, I spent 13 years working with a financial advisory team.

DRI: What does your work involve?

JA: I am the Program Specialist for the Office of Education and Assistant Vice President of Academic and Faculty Affairs.  The most noteworthy bites of the position entail processing expenses, streamlining office operations, keeping projects on track, and coordinating faculty and student events.

DRI: What do you like best about working at DRI?

JA: The people! I believe DRI is a great place to work because of the people. I enjoy working with people who are passionate about what they do and driven to see themselves, their division, and our institute as a whole succeed.

DRI: What does it mean to you to receive this recognition?

JA: I’m extremely grateful and honored to be receiving the Technologist of the Year Award. There are so many fantastic technologists at DRI, I’m surprised and humbled to have been chosen for this award. Without the training and ongoing support from technologists across our institution, there is no way I would be able to succeed as I have working for the Office of Education and AVPAFA.

DRI: What do you like to do in your free time?

JA: I enjoy amateur nature photography, traveling, reading, and baking.

Using Machine Learning to Address Land Subsidence in Pahrump Valley

Using Machine Learning to Address Land Subsidence in Pahrump Valley

As populations in the southwestern United States continue to grow, the demand on water resources also increases. One region experiencing this stress on its groundwater resources is Pahrump Valley in southern Nye County, Nevada. Pahrump Valley is one of the fastest growing counties in Nevada, which has led to groundwater-related issues such as land subsidence. “Land subsidence has been reported in Pahrump Valley since the 1960s,” says Dr. Hai Pham the principal investigator (PI) of this project, which also includes co-PIs Karl Pohlmann, Susan Rybarski, and Kevin Heintz and research assistant Larry Piatt. “It has caused damage to building foundations and slabs, fissuring, shearing of well casings, and extensive damage to roadbeds.”

In their 2017 Water Resources Plan Update, the Nye County Water District determined that land subsidence is one of the key issues related to population growth in Nye County. However, the causes of land subsidence still haven’t been clearly identified. “Previous studies failed to precisely map spatiotemporal evolutions of subsidence, or adequately clarify the causes of subsidence,” Pham says. “These studies were limited by data quantity and quality. The goal of this project is to identify and prioritize predominant factors that cause subsidence and make predictions using machine learning algorithms and big data.”

A concrete well pad exposed by land subsidence around the well casing (right) observed during a field survey in May 2019 (photo by Karl Pohlmann).

Land subsidence is a complicated process that is driven by multivariate intercorrelated factors, such as groundwater decline, soil and sediment types, and tectonic and geologic settings. For example, excessive groundwater pumping results in soil compaction, which has been identified as a primary cause of land subsidence in Pahrump Valley. However, the magnitude of soil compaction depends on aquifer materials, and therefore understanding the geologic structure of Pahrump Valley is vital to evaluating future subsidence. The advantage of using machine learning to assess potential areas of land subsidence is that it can help illuminate complicated data relationships that may not be as obvious using traditional data analysis techniques.

In this project, the researchers will use machine learning algorithms and high-resolution data sets to identify the predominant factors causing land subsidence in Pahrump Valley. “In this study, we will derive spatiotemporal subsidence maps using recent high-quality satellite images and the Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar [InSAR] technique,” Pham says. “InSAR is a powerful technique that allows us to measure and map vertical changes on the earth’s surface as small as a few millimeters.”

The researchers will then build three-dimensional (3-D) computer models of the subsurface geological structures in Pahrump Valley at a very fine (one-foot) vertical resolution using data from 13,000 boreholes. “Compaction of aquifer materials can accompany excessive groundwater pumping and it is by far the single largest cause of subsidence, but the magnitude of soil compaction differs by soil type,” Pham explains. “Therefore, it is important that we account for these well log data to construct high resolution 3-D models of geologic structures.” The researchers will also develop groundwater drawdown maps by processing data from records of 130 groundwater observation wells that range from the 1940s to the present. “Incorporating these high-resolution datasets will help us identify and prioritize the causes of subsidence and make better predictions,” Pham adds.

The groundwater level has declined approximately 25 feet from December 1999 to December 2017 (photo taken in May 2019 by Karl Pohlmann).

Because of the limitations of existing field data, the researchers will generate high-resolution datasets to train and validate the machine learning algorithms. Advanced machine learning algorithms will then be run on supercomputers to analyze the data. By analyzing this data, the researchers hope to identify the factors that cause subsidence and ultimately predict possible subsidence in the future. “Once we have identified these factors, we can roughly predict areas that are prone to subsidence,” Pham explains. “This information can also be used to predict subsidence in other arid and semiarid regions.”

This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) October 2019 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.