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.
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: https://www.swissnexboston.org/event/snsf-fellows-conference/ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.
Advancing our understanding of dust emission risks to improve air quality 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 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.
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.
DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.
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.
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.
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 atyour 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, teachshared values and norms, and even synchronize our brainwaves. They’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, Spryng.io, 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 comingyear. 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 whoexamine communities and groups to learn about their customs, relationships, and systems of power.
Now, with an easy-to-use online tool developed by Spryng.io, 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 datahelps researchers discern patterns that emerge out of what may feel like chaos—sparse grocery store shelves, overburdened hospitals, canceled plans—and 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 Spryng.io.
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 decision–makers 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.
“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-19—because your story is more important now than ever.https://crm.spryng.io/r/DRI
Portions of this blog are adapted with permission from Decision-making and COVID-19, published by Spryng.io’s CEO and Chief Product Officer Ajay Reddy.
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 understandingwhy 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.
Ken McGwire, Ph.D., is an associateresearch 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 doctoraldegrees 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 completedadetailed 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 Agencythrough 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 wetlandsusing data from multiple different agencies and sources.This map is now available on theDRI 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 isthis 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 time. For 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 a 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 a 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 dust, GBUAPCD 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.SoI’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Three new research projects sponsored by the Desert Research Institute in 2020 will explore new methods in luminescence dating, groundwater contamination around fracking operations, and the movement of groundwater through rocks and soils.
DRI 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.
Winners of this year’s IPA competition are Christina Neudorf, Zhiqiang Fan, and Lazaro Perez. Their projects are as follows:
Christina Neudorf: A pilot project to explore the feasibility of dating rock surfaces and carbonate deposits using luminescence dating
Luminescence dating, which uses light emitted by minerals to date events in the past, is a technique most commonly applied to silt or sand samples. Christina Neudorf, manager of the DRI Luminescence Lab (DRILL), will explore new methods in luminescence dating that could be used to date rock surfaces and carbonate deposits such as travertine and tufa that are common in Nevada. Her research aims to diversify the luminescence dating approaches applied at DRILL, and to expand DRI’s capabilities in providing chronologies for past climate change, early human evolution and dispersal, and landscape evolution in response to climate change, tectonics and changing sea level.
Zhiqiang Fan: Hydraulic fracturing induced fault reactivation and groundwater contamination
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” injects fluid at high pressure into deep-rock formations, creating fractures in the rock through which natural gas can be extracted. Environmental impacts include risk of groundwater contamination. Zhiqiang Fan, a Postdoctoral Fellow in geomechanics with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, will investigate the potential for flow of fracking fluids from shale formations into groundwater aquifers, including the possibility for accidental reactivation of faults near injection wells. His work aims to improve fracking design and execution to produce gas in a more economically viable and environmentally sound manner.
Lazaro Perez: Reactive transport in porous media
Reactive transport modeling is an important tool for understanding the movement and mixing of fluids such as groundwater as it travels through various types of rocks and soils in an aquifer. Lazaro Perez, a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, will work with Rishi Parashar (DHS) to develop numerical models and conduct simulations of fluid-fluid reactions as they occur in porous media such as different types of rocks. Using the methodology that Perez developed during his Ph.D. work in Spain, they hope to learn about the fluid-fluid reactions that occur as water moves through heterogeneous porous media. An improved understanding of the underlying processes involved in fluid-fluid mixing can also be applied to other scientific disciplines, such as how fluids mix inside of the human body.
DRI is a non-profit, which means that we rely on financial support from donors to make our projects possible. Thanks to individual contributions from community members, seed grants were awarded to eight teams of DRI researchers last year through the Innovation Research Program (IRP), which provides the resources DRI scientists need to pursue groundbreaking new projects.
With those funds, DRI scientists have begun to explore big environmental questions. Has microplastic pollution made its way to the famous blue waters of Lake Tahoe? What can tools used to understand groundwater tell us about how chemo reaches tumors? How is declining snowpack changing mountain environments and economies?
Developing new tools to study and predict dust emissions Vic Etyemezian, George Nikolich, Markus Berli, Rose Shillito
With concerns about drought and desertification on the rise, it’s critically important to understand how and when dust forms, particularly in the Southwestern U.S. where dust emissions can directly impact water resources, human health, and public safety.
Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., and his team are developing new tools to help scientists better understand what causes small soil aggregates to break up into dust particles and be emitted into the atmosphere under windy conditions. With these insights, the research team hopes that scientists will be able to better predict dust emissions and their impact on our environment and communities.
Vic Etyemezian and George Nikolich work on an instrument at DRI’s Las Vegas Campus. 2018. Credit: David Becker/Nevada Momentum.
Developing techniques to analyze human health impacts of air pollutants Vera Samburova, Andrey Khlystov, Yeongkwon Son
Atmospheric scientists at DRI are world-leaders in analyzing air pollutants from sources like vehicle emissions and electronic cigarettes; however, they don’t yet have the tools to determine how exposure to those pollutants impacts human health.
DRI scientists led by Vera Samburova, Ph.D., are developing a technique for real-time analysis of human breath, which contains information that can shine a light on a person’s overall health and exposure to air pollutants. This breath analysis technique will allow for easy, noninvasive sampling from study participants and help DRI scientists determine a link between air pollutants and potential health impacts.
(From left) Andrey Khlystov, Yeongkwon Son, Chiranjivi Bhattarai, and Vera Samburova in the lab at DRI’s Reno Campus.
Tracking snow droughts in the Western US to improve water resource management Dan McEvoy, Ben Hatchett, Justin Chambers
With a warming climate and increasingly variable precipitation, mountain snowpack in the Western United States is declining, which dramatically impacts the water resources available to communities downstream. Understanding how changes in snowpack are happening in real-time is critical to management decisions about water use and to our understandings of natural ecosystems.
Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., and his team are developing tools to track and monitor snow droughts—periods when more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow and snowpack is below average. These new, snow-drought specific tools will help inform scientists, resource managers, and federal agencies as they assess drought conditions and distribute federal aid to farmers and others impacted by drought.
View of Washoe Lake from Mount Rose Ski Area, January 2018. Credit: Dan McEvoy
Examining connections between fire and groundwater to enhance wildfire prediction Hai Pham, Markus Berli
As wildfires across the Western U.S. become larger, longer, and more frequent, understanding the conditions that increase fire risk is essential to protect our communities. While there’s certainly a connection between moisture in a landscape and the likelihood of fire, little is known about the interplay between wildfire and groundwater resources.
Hai Pham, Ph.D., and Markus Berli, Ph.D., are using groundwater and fire data from across the United States to explore connections between the two, namely how groundwater levels may be affected by wildfire activity and how fire may impact the amount of water that infiltrates the soil and replenishes groundwater supplies. Identifying these relationships will play a critical role in enhancing both fire predictions and groundwater resource management.
Hai Pham during an open house at the Desert Research Institute on Friday, May 3, 2019, in Las Vegas. Photo by David Becker/Nevada Momentum
Investigating microplastic pollution in Nevada’s freshwater Monica Arienzo, Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, Xuelian Bai, Julia Davidson
Microplastics, pieces of plastic debris about the size of a pencil’s eraser or smaller, come from the breakdown of products like fishing lines, synthetic clothing, and single-use plastic goods. These tiny pollutants are durable, insoluble, and potentially toxic. More and more, though, they’re ending up in our waterways, which could threaten aquatic environments and the organisms that live there.
DRI researchers Monica Arienzo, Ph.D. Zoe Harrold, Ph.D., Meghan Collins, M.S., Xuelian Bai, Ph.D., and undergraduate researcher Julia Davidson are investigating the presence of microplastics in Lake Tahoe and the Las Vegas Wash to learn more about how much microplastic exists in these waterways. Developing baseline knowledge about the extent of microplastic pollution will allow scientists to ultimately identify the sources of such pollution, the potential accumulation and negative health effects of microplastics in freshwater organisms, and ways to reduce the amount of microplastic in freshwater ecosystems.
The microplastics research team samples water from the shore of Lake Tahoe. April 2019. Credit: DRI.
Advancing technologies to improve reliability of solar energy Eric Wilcox, Marco Giordano
Nevada enjoys many sunny days each year, but when the clouds do roll in, solar facilities experience dramatic fluctuations in power. If grid operators could anticipate when a cloud will come between the sun and solar panels, they could coordinate a smooth transition to alternative power sources and provide a steady, reliable supply of energy—but low-cost technology providing accurate, localized forecasts are not yet integrated into community solar power systems, such as residential rooftop solar.
Eric Wilcox, Ph.D., graduate student researcher Marco Giordano, and colleagues at UNR and UNLV are experimenting with sky-imaging cameras to track the movements of clouds and predict when they’ll shade solar panel arrays. With rigorous testing and refinement, Wilcox and Giordano hope that this portable tool will provide highly-localized, actionable forecasts of solar power fluctuation that will help make solar energy use more reliable and efficient.
The sky-imaging camera at work on the DRI rooftop in Reno. Credit: Eric Wilcox.
Applying hydrologic sciences to make advances in tumor treatment Rishi Parashar, Nicole Sund
To treat a tumor, doctors deliver chemotherapeutic agents and other drugs through the bloodstream to treat the cancerous cells. The tissue in solid tumors, however, is deformed, with twisted blood vessels and increased cell variability. This means that chemo traveling through the bloodstream may not be able to reach all the affected cells consistently, making the treatment ineffective.
DRI’s Rishi Parashar, Ph.D., and Nicole Sund, Ph.D., are using their expertise in hydrological modeling to better understand the movement of anti-cancer drugs through tumors. Collaborating with molecular cancer virologist, Subhash Verma, Ph.D., at University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine, Parashar and Sund hope that the mathematical models they create will allow them to determine the effective concentration of drugs for treatment of solid tumors.
(From left) Nicole Sund and Rishi Parashar look at images of cancerous tissue on a monitor.
Designing systems to test e-cigarettes for harmful chemical emissions Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khylstov
The popularity of e-cigarettes has increased exponentially over the last several years, especially among young people, but there’s growing evidence that e-cigarettes emit harmful chemicals like formaldehyde. Currently, there are no efficient and cost-effective e-cigarette testing systems available to manufacturers or regulators to ensure the safety of the devices and flavored e-liquids.
DRI’s Yeongkwon Son, Ph.D., and Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., are developing a fully automated tool to collect and analyze e-cigarette emissions, lowering the costs, time, and labor currently required of e-cigarette testing. With this innovation, Son and Khylstov hope that e-cigarette testing will become more efficient and accurate, and that the devices themselves will become safer for the public.
Yeongkwon Son presents his research to the DRI Foundation.
Braimah Apambire, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS) at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), and an expert in international Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). He leads DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program, which is funded by humanitarian non-governmental organization World Vision and subsidized by the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and DRI. The program provides technical capacity training and action research to field staff across Africa and other developing countries. We recently sat down with Braimah to get an update on the WASH Capacity Building Program and to learn some of the history behind his and DRI’s involvement in the WASH sector in Ghana.
DRI: What is WASH, and what are some of the issues that experts in WASH work to address?
BA: “WASH” stands for water, sanitation, and hygiene. For people to obtain the maximum benefits of clean water, they also need access to improved sanitation facilities (toilets), and they need to be educated on how to best use the water and sanitation facilities in hygienic ways. In many parts of Africa, people – especially children – don’t understand the connection between unsafe water and disease, or poor sanitation and disease. So, people working in the sector of WASH work to improve health outcomes in children and adults by providing sources of clean drinking water, improved sanitation facilities, and education in basic hygienic practices like hand-washing.
Students from the second Cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program in a World Vision water quality lab in northern Ghana in 2017. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: CIWAS’s successful WASH Capacity Building Program launched in 2015, and now provides WASH training to field staff in Ghana and across Africa. How is the program going?
BA: We are working in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno, Drexel University, and World Vision to provide technical capacity training to field staff who work in the WASH sector in developing countries. Our biggest accomplishment so far is that as of December 2019, we will have graduated close to 100 students from 21 African countries.
The students earn a post-graduate certificate in International WASH from UNR. They complete 12 credits of coursework related to WASH and environmental issues, and also a lot of research on issues of importance to them in developing countries. We also teach what we call “cross-cutting” issues in WASH, which include climate change impact of water resources, environmental and health impacts assessments, and integrated water resources management. During the program, students take most of their classes online, but we meet twice for face-to-face coursework sessions — the first is held in Ghana, and the second is held at varying locations. We’ve done it in Rwanda, Uganda, Eswatini, and next year will probably be somewhere else.
The program has equipped these students with knowledge and working skills that allow them to go back and implement their programs in a better way to bring water and sanitation services to the poor in Africa. WASH is a combination of disciplines: It’s engineering, it’s science, it’s health, it’s social work, it’s advocacy. It deals with disease prevalence, sanitation systems, and how water can address that. And you also have to create awareness and advocacy to get money to solve the problem. It’s difficult to have one place that students can go to take these courses, but this program allows that. We bring all of these disciplines together in one place, which you can hardly get anywhere else in the world.
Students in Cohort 4 of the WASH Capacity Building Program in Ghana use a Tippy Tap, a hygienic and hands-free device to wash hands. January 2019. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: Many people don’t know that DRI scientists have worked in Ghana, West Africa for nearly 30 years. What is the history of our involvement in this region?
BA: DRI’s work in Ghana began back in the early 1990s, when we partnered with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and World Vision on a project to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease from the Afram Plains region of northern Ghana. Guinea Worm Disease is a terrible parasitic infection by the Guinea worm, which can grow up to three feet in length inside the body of an infected person. The eggs are spread to humans when they drink untreated water, so the Hilton Foundation and World Vision funded an effort to drill more than 500 boreholes (wells) and conduct community education in health, hygiene, sanitation, and the importance of clean water.
The Afram Plains is a very remote region with difficult geology. You can’t reach water easily. So, DRI scientists came to Ghana with GIS satellite imagery to see if they could improve on the success rate of drilling. We provided training to World Vision Ghana staff on the geophysical methods in locating favorable sites for well drilling, and helped them standardize how the data was reported internally and externally. We also helped to build a water quality laboratory in Ghana. As a result of this project, DRI helped to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease in the Afram Plains region. It is now gone completely in Ghana. It is also almost eradicated in the world.
DRI consultant Ron Petersen training World Vision Ghana staff in geophysics in the Afram Plains in 1996. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
From left to right, Braimah Apambire (DRI), Kumud Acharya (DRI), Kenan Okurut (Ugandan Christian University), Rosemary Carrol (DRI) and Susan Davis (DRI consultant) work with the first cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program to conduct a water quality field trip at the Ugandan Christian University in 2016. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: A photo from a recent WASH Capacity Building Program field trip in Ghana won DRI’s 2019 employee photo contest (shown below). What is the story behind the winning shot?
BA: This photo was taken at Bomso Primary School in Ghana, where students from our WASH Capacity Building Program were visiting to observe the school’s mechanized well and sanitation facilities. One of the problems in developing countries is that a lot of schools don’t have drinking water. So, children bring their own water in a bottle, but when they finish drinking it they have to drink contaminated water. They also don’t have toilets and hygienic places for girls who are menstruating to take care of themselves, so a lot of them drop out of school. So, here, WorldVision helped them get a mechanized water system powered by solar. The school has also created what we call a health club, which asks students to join, and tries to spread messages of good hygiene practices to students.
In the photo, you can see the joy in the children. When you go to a school in Africa like this as visitors, you will make their day. They will talk about this the whole month. It will be in their minds probably until they graduate college. Some of these visits change them.
Students Pawan Daniel and Cebolenkhosi Mavimbela from Cohort 4 of the WASH Capacity Building Program in Ghana alongside Dr. Opong (DRI instructor) visit Bomso Primary School to observe their mechanized well and sanitation facilities. January 2019. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
DRI: You are originally from Ghana. What brought you to DRI?
BA: I grew up in a village in Ghana where we didn’t have water during the dry season. When a borehole was drilled in front of our village home, I saw the relief it brought to my mother and aunts and sisters, it made me want to work in that field – designing and constructing water and sanitation systems. I studied geology and finished college there in Ghana, and then started to work with World Vision Ghana on the Guinea Worm Disease project.
When the DRI scientists came to Ghana to train World Vision staff, I was actually one of the recipients of that training. I have old photos with DRI crossing the river to the Afram Plains (shown below). There wasn’t any road, you could only access the place by boat or by foot. I later went to Canada to do my master’s degree, and then came to DRI as a Graduate Research Assistant and went to the University of Nevada, Reno for my Ph.D. After that, I worked at DRI briefly and went to work for World Vision and the Hilton Foundation, then came back to DRI with funding from the Hilton Foundation to start the Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS) in 2013.
From left to right: Steve Acheampong (DRI graduate student), Alan McKay (DRI) , Braimah Apambire (World Vision), Mat Chelsey (DRI), and other World Vision Ghana Rural Water Project staff cross a river to the Afram Plains of Ghana by boat in 1993. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Last May, DRI scientist Jack Gillies, Ph.D. spent three weeks at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), a 3,500-acre area of sandy beach and coastal dune habitat located within the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex on the central California coast. Unlike most visitors to this popular park, Gillies was not there to camp, or to ride OHVs over the miles and miles of beaches and dunes; he was there to measure the dust.
For more than 100 years, people have visited the Oceano Dunes region to drive on the beaches – beginning in the early 1900s with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles, then later with ATVs, dune buggies, dirt bikes, trucks, RVs, and other types of vehicles. All of this activity, however, has not been without impact: Dust emitted by the dunes routinely blows toward the nearby Nipomo Mesa area, violating air quality standards for particulate matter and posing a public health threat to residents.
Last year, the Oceano Dunes SVRA was issued an Order of Abatement, which requires the development and implementation of a management plan to bring the park’s dust emissions back into compliance with State and Federal air quality standards within four years. Now, with new funding from the California State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Division, Gillies and several other DRI researchers – Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., George Nikolich, and John Mejia, Ph.D.—are continuing a long-term effort to help park officials understand and manage dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes. But in order to stop the dust, it would help to know how it forms, and this is still a bit of a mystery.
The source of the problem
“Dunes are always sandy, but they aren’t normally dusty; at least not to this extent,” said Gillies, who has worked at the Oceano Dunes since 2010. “Part of our research is to actually come up with the scientific reasons why the dunes are so dusty.”
Neither the park nor the town has long-term air quality data to show what conditions were like prior to the presence of vehicles, says Gillies, but there is evidence that suggests that the presence of the vehicles exacerbates the problem. Gillies and Etyemezian hypothesize that the dust emitted under elevated wind speeds could be a result of the re-working of the dunes by the vehicles and re-shaping of the dunes by coastal winds.
Researchers do know that dust is released from the dunes through a natural process called saltation, in which wind-blown sand particles bounce along the surface of the dune, kicking up smaller particles of dust – and that holding the sand in place helps to prevent that dust from being released.
“When the wind blows the sand across the dune surface, it’s like all these little missiles of sand coming in,” Gillies explained. “That’s what kicks out the dust, and then the dust is dispersed by the wind.”
Tools of the trade
To help park officials identify major sources of dust, Gillies and his DRI colleagues are engaged in an effort to map out specific areas of the park where dust originates. This spring, they collected more than 500 dust emissions measurements in a grid pattern through the OHV recreation area using a tool called the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab).
“The last time we did such an extensive measurement of dust emissions at the Oceano Dunes was in 2013, so it was decided that we should go back this year to update the underlying emission grid and see if, or how much, it has changed,” Gillies said.
Pi-SWERL at the Oceano Dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.
The PI-SWERL at Oceano Dunes. A flat blade several cm above the surface in PI-SWERL rotates creating a shear stress like the wind created when it blows across a surface, causes the sand to saltate and the dust is emitted. The inset shows the sand surface after a test. PI-SWERL sits on the metal frame to provide a stable surface for testing. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.
The PI-SWERL, which was developed at DRI by Etyemezian and Nikolich, measures the potential for dust emissions from real-world surfaces. It acts as a miniature wind tunnel to simulate the high winds that produce dust storms. The dust emissions measurements are fed into a computer model, developed in part by DRI’s John Mejia, which simulates the action of coastal winds and the subsequent dispersal of dust. Using this model, the team can help park officials identify “hot-spot” areas where dust originates, and target those areas for remediation.
The team has also installed a network of air quality monitors throughout the park, which monitor wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, and particulate matter. These data are adding to their overall understanding of the spatial variability and strength of the dust emissions at the dunes.
“These data will help us answer questions like whether dust emissions levels are different on weekdays versus weekends, when human activity in the park is higher,” Gillies explained. “It will also allow us to see how things are changing over time.”
Researchers gather dust emissions data at the Oceano Dunes SVRA using the PI-SWERL. May 2019. Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.
Seeking new solutions
As the DRI team works to answer underlying scientific questions about the Park’s dust problem, they are also engaged in efforts to help develop and monitor solutions. They are working with Park officials on various dust control strategies, such as the use of temporary sand fencing, and revegetation with native plants to help hold sand in place and trap moving sand.
“Our aim is to stop the sand from moving, because when you stop the sand moving, you essentially stop the dust from being emitted,” Gillies said.
They are guiding the creation of “vegetation islands” of native plants, similar to that which are found in undisturbed dune areas to the north and south of the SVRA. OHVs are excluded from these areas, as well as from large sections of the park where endangered California least terns and threatened Western snowy plovers breed and nest during spring and summer.
As new dust control measures are added, the team monitors the remediation sites to see if dust emissions levels are reduced. The goal, Gillies says, is to help the park develop a management plan that will bring them into attainment with the Federal air quality standard for particulate matter within four years.
“The park has been ordered to find a solution to this problem, and it’s a problem that has raised a lot of contention among people of the region,” Gillies said. ”There are a lot of people who enjoy OHV recreation at the dunes and their visits contribute to the local economy, and another contingent of people who live downwind of the park and really want to breathe clean air. So, it is an interesting project to work on, both from a scientific perspective and as a project that deals with real-world problems.”
At the Oceano Dunes SVRA, native “vegetation islands” are being restored to help reduce dust emissions from the dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.
About Jack Gillies: Jack Gillies, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Geography with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. Jack specializes in the physics of sediment transport by wind, and applies this knowledge to solve problems related to air quality. He grew up in Ontario, Canada, and holds bachelors, master’s and doctoral degrees in physical geography from the University of Guelph, Ontario. Jack began his career at DRI as a post-doctoral researcher in 1994, and has been a member of the DRI community for 25 years. To learn more about Gillies and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/5427-jack-gillies
Climate change, in the abstract, can be a difficult phenomenon to comprehend – but on the ground, youth from Native American reservations in Arizona are already experiencing everyday impacts in the form of droughts and warming temperatures.
“Place-based education utilizes elements of the familiar, such as local landscapes, resources, and experiences, as a foundation for the study of more complex topics,” explained Meghan Collins, M.S., Assistant Research Scientist at DRI and NWAL’s Education Lead. “In this case, we worked with teachers to draw meaningful connections to some of our main project themes of water for agriculture and people, drought and climate connections, and solar energy.”
Workshop participants engage in a hands-on demonstration related to solar power at NWAL’s teacher workshop in Arizona. September 14, 2019.
Fourteen teachers attended the September workshop, including K-12 and GED adult educators from the Hopi, Navajo, and Tohono O’odham communities of Arizona. The workshop began with a day of seminars, discussions, and hands-on demonstrations led by researchers from DRI and the University of Arizona (UA). Activities were aimed at helping teachers gain a thorough understanding of the subject matter, and incorporated data and information relevant to reservations of Arizona.
Ed Franklin, Ph.D., (UA) led a professional development seminar on solar energy, using locally-appropriate methods and hands-on examples to demonstrate how solar panels can be used to generate energy and pump water. NWAL team member Alex Lutz, Ph.D., (DRI) led the group through a lesson in water quality, with a focus on salinity and total dissolved solids, using maps of water contamination from the Hopi and Navajo reservations and a hands-on exercise with salinity-meters. NWAL team member Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., (DRI/Crow Canyon Archaeological Center) led a seminar on climate and weather patterns, comparing modern-day climate conditions with paleo data from the last 1000 years, through an examination of the local tree ring record.
Workshop facilitators and participants counted tree rings as part of Kyle Bocinsky’s dendrochronology demonstration at NWAL’s teacher workshop. Sept 14, 2019.
On the second day of the workshop, NWAL team member Meghan Collins facilitated the group to use a template for developing place-based lesson plans. Teachers and scientists then worked together to create place-based lesson plans that incorporated the requirements of Arizona State Science Standards.
The lesson plans connected elements of each school’s local landscapes and resources with the science lessons from the NWAL/UA researchers. One teacher, who came from a community that will soon be constructing a new school, developed a lesson plan that asked students to calculate whether their new school’s energy needs could be met by solar energy. Another teacher developed a lesson plan for students to collect water quality samples from around their community and have them tested for arsenic, which is present in certain areas of the Hopi Reservation.
“One of the most important parts of this workshop was that the teachers had face-to-face contact with the researchers, so they could develop an understanding of the science that was presented and turn that into something they could teach,” said NWAL Program Director Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., (DRI/University of Nevada, Reno). “This workshop was a clear demonstration of our team being able to translate research into tangible outcomes that our tribal partners can use.”
Workshop participants gather outside of the STAR school for a demonstration on solar power by Ed Franklin of University of Arizona. Sept. 14, 2019.
The idea for the teacher training was sparked during a climate-agriculture resiliency workshop that NWAL held for members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes during March 2019, which centered around the idea of making climate data useful for farmers and ranchers in native communities. Several teachers were in attendance, and wanted to know how to bring local climate science data into their classrooms for the benefit of young and future generations.
The NWAL team planned the September teacher’s workshop and recruited participants, with help from Trent Teegerstrom (UA Tribal Extension Program), Ed Franklin (UA), and Susan Sekaquaptewa (University of Arizona Hopi FRTEP Agent). The STAR school provided a venue, and the director and teachers from the school participated in the workshop and provided a tour of their impressive facility.
“This workshop was an experiment, but it worked extremely well, so we’re going to build on this to do additional workshops this year or next,” McCarthy said.
Facilitators and participants from NWAL’s teacher workshop on place-based education. STAR School, September 14-15, 2019.
The Native Waters on Arid Lands project partners researchers and extension experts with tribal communities in the Great Basin and American Southwest to collaboratively understand the impacts of climate change, and to evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture. 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; United States Geological Survey; 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. To learn more, please visit: http://nativewaters-aridlands.com.
At our annual Celebration of Science event in September 2019, we recognized our incredible DRI family. In addition to honoring faculty and staff celebrating service milestones with the Institute, we also presented internal awards to some of our outstanding faculty and staff. You can view the entire image gallery here.
DRI’s 2019 Science Medal Recipient: Dr. Alison Murray The DRI Science Medal is awarded annually to a faculty member for outstanding scientific contributions.
Alison is best known for her work discovering the existence of microbial life at negative 13 degrees Celsius within the ice-sealed Lake Vida in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Her research has provided critical insights into how microorganisms function in some of Earth’s most extreme environments, including those that lack oxygen and biological sources of energy.
Executive Director of Atmospheric Sciences Marc Pitchford presents the 2019 DRI Science Medal to Dr. Alison Murray.
DRI’s 2019 Service Medal Recipient: Meghan Collins, MS
The DRI Service Medal honors an individual’s broader impact across the Institution and throughout our communities.
As Education Program Manager, Meghan works as part of the Office of Education and across the Institute to expand experiential learning opportunities and share the valuable results of DRI science with the public. She’s the mastermind behind the popular Science Distilled lecture series and the Stories in the Snow citizen science project, to name just a few examples of her work!
DRI President Dr. Kumud Acharya and Meghan Collins.
DRI’s 2019 Outstanding Contributions Medal Recipient: Jenny Chapman, MS
There are many ways beyond scientific achievement that individuals can elevate DRI. The Outstanding Contributions Medal is given on the basis of a singular or cumulative contribution to DRI, including establishing new directions for research, securing a large grant, or management of large programs.
Jenny serves as the Program Manager for DRI’s largest research contract with the U.S. Department of Energy – National Nuclear Security Administration. She has served in this leadership role for more than a decade, generating approximately $66 million in total revenues for DRI through the Technical Research, Engineering, and Development Services contract.
Dr. Kumud Acharya, DRI President, presents the 2019 Outstanding Contributions Medal to Jenny Chapman.
NSHE Regents Rising Researcher Award: Dr. Monica Arienzo
The Regents’ Rising Researcher Award is bestowed upon one faculty member at each Nevada research institution by the Board of Regents in recognition of their early-career accomplishments and potential for future advancement and recognition in research.
Monica is an assistant research professor of hydrology, recognized for her early-career accomplishments using geochemical tools to understand climatic changes of the past and human impacts to the environment, and for her commitment to sharing her research with the scientific community, the greater Nevada community, and with students.
Dr. Kumud Acharya and Regent Amy Carvalho present the Regents Rising Researcher Award to Dr. Monica Arienzo (center).
What is your background, and what do you do at DRI? I pursued both my Master’s and Ph.D. in hydrology at the University of Nevada, Reno. I joined DRI upon the completion of my Master’s degree in 2000 working primarily on groundwater modeling projects. In 2006, my family and I moved to Colorado while I was finishing my Ph.D. on mercury transport in the Carson River. I’ve been able to maintain projects at DRI and build new science programs because of the wonderful support of my division director as well as from DRI faculty and staff who still look out for me despite not being on site.
My current research is focused on groundwater and surface water interactions. Specifically, I create numeric models, or computer simulations, of watersheds that begin high in the mountains and are fed primarily by snowmelt, like those in the East River where I live. I am trying to understand how snow dynamics influence the amount of groundwater that feeds into mountain streams. In 2014, I began working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory using the East River as their experimental watershed to quantify how mountain systems store and release water and solutes and the relationship of that process to climate. Through these efforts, I am interacting with a wide range of scientists from universities, national labs, and federal agencies as well as with water managers in the state of Colorado.
What are the challenges in studying hydrology in mountainous landscapes like the East River? The challenges are largely associated with either lack of data or the difficulty in collecting data. Mountainous watersheds contain steep terrain and extreme weather to make access, safety and maintaining deployed sensor networks difficult. I am in charge of the East River stream network. Avalanches are a very real problem here, and some of our stream field sites require skiing 20 miles round-trip to sample in the winter. In the spring, streams are fast and cold and not safe to wade. Spring runoff can also wash away equipment, erode banks and make rivers very turbulent. All of this puts traditional techniques of observation to the test and can mean lost data. We also spend quite a bit of effort protecting equipment from animals. Beavers, moose, elk and cattle are an inevitable part of planning a sensor network in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
It sounds like mountain hydrology involves a lot of time outdoors. How often do you go out in the field? I am part of a larger team of field scientists and technicians, so I go out about once a week but I now largely oversee several others. The fieldwork is rigorous, and the conditions are not easy. There’s a lot of hiking and backcountry time, including skiing and snowmobiling, and there’s intense spring runoff to contend with. My next big field push will be in September and October to make sure all our equipment is winterized before snow begins to accumulate.
Carroll checking weather station monitoring equipment in the East River, CO.
So taking measurements directly from streams is one thing, but modeling a watershed seems an entirely different challenge. How exactly do you build a model, and what goes into it? Essentially what you’re doing with a hydrologic model is combining data on climate—precipitation, temperature—and watershed characteristics—elevation, vegetation, soils, geology—into a single framework to solve mathematical equations that describe how water moves through the system. The model is tested against data we can collect in the field, like streamflow, solar radiation and snow accumulation.
As part of our modeling approach, we integrate LiDAR (light detection and ranging) radar imaging of snow through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO). ASO essentially produces a 3-D map of snow depth. We use these detailed snow maps to show how snow redistributes through forces like avalanches or wind. We see that the majority of East River snow resides in the upper subalpine, or the zone between the tree-less alpine environment and the forested subalpine. The upper subalpine is a mix of barren and low-density conifer forests.
Carroll measuring water content in snow of the East River, CO.
What does your hydrologic model help us understand? What our model shows is that the upper subalpine is a very important location in the watershed for replenishing groundwater supplies, which is called recharge. Snow is redistributed to the upper subalpine, where it lasts late into the spring and summer—it then melts quickly and this generates recharge. In addition, snowmelt from steep, alpine regions in the watershed is transported via shallow soil or weathered rock to the upper subalpine where it recharges into the deeper groundwater system.
Over the last several decades, the model suggests that groundwater replenished by snowmelt in this zone has remained stable, even in low snowpack years. This could mean that the water supply coming from a watershed with a large upper subalpine area may be more resilient to climate variability than watershed with little of this zone.
At least that is what our model is suggesting. The next steps are to observe this recharge process in the field, and to see if something similar is happening in other mountain watersheds with different geology. Ultimately, we want to explore how this kind of information can be used by water managers in long-term watershed management planning in the Colorado River and other snow-dominated systems around the world.
Carroll’s model suggests that the upper subalpine zone—where forest gives way to the alpine zone—could be a particularly important place for replenishing groundwater supplies in mountain watersheds like East River, Colorado.
Photo: Duane Moser (left) and Xuelian Bai (right) collect filters from the sampling pump to take back to the lab for analysis.
Research on antibiotic resistance genes at DRI
Antibiotic resistance—the ability of bacteria to survive in the presence of antibiotics—is an increasing environmental and public health concern as more antibiotics enter urban waterways and treated wastewater is increasingly used to supplement limited water resources. Current wastewater treatment processes have difficulty removing antibiotics, which also encourages the growth of antibiotic resistance in urban watersheds, such as the Las Vegas Wash.
“Contaminants that are persistent in treated wastewaters that are discarded or reused may lead to health risks for humans,” explains Dr. Xuelian Bai, the principal investigator (PI) of this project that also includes co-PI Dr. Duane Moser and student researcher Rania Eddik-Zein. “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and numerous other global and national agencies recognize antibiotic resistance as a critical challenge.”
The Las Vegas Wash is a unique watershed that is highly affected by anthropogenic activities and flooding during wet seasons.
“A lot of research has been done to monitor chemical contaminants such as nutrients, heavy metals, and organic contaminants, as well as antibiotics in the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Mead,” Bai says. “However, there is still a lack of information on the presence of microbial contaminants and antibiotic resistance genes [ARGs] in the watershed.”
Understanding the presence and abundance of ARGs in this watershed will provide insight into possible antibiotic resistance developing in the wash.
For this project, the researchers will evaluate the occurrence and prevalence of ARGs in the Las Vegas Wash.
“Resistance to antibiotics is encoded in ARGs, which are segments of DNA that enable bacteria to fight antibiotics,” Bai explains. “The major concerns about antibiotic resistance are the tendency of bacteria to share ARGs through horizontal gene transfer and that efforts to kill resistant bacteria, such as UV or chlorine disinfection in wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities, may not remove ARGs.”
The researchers anticipate that the data from this study will provide insight into the prevalence of ARGs in the wash and provide valuable information that can be used to determine water quality and potential human health concerns in southern Nevada.
First, the researchers will take field samples of water and sediment from the Las Vegas Wash to assess the presence of ARGs in an urban wetland ecosystem.
“Municipal wastewater appears to be a significant reservoir of ARGs,” Bai says. “Many studies have detected ARGs at all stages of the municipal wastewater treatment processes.”
Urban water supplies are particularly susceptible to developing antibiotic resistance because of the concentrated quantities of antibiotics that are released when treated municipal wastewater is discharged into the environment.
“Microorganisms in wastewater discharge can transport ARGs to downstream surface waters used for recreation or sources of drinking water, which can lead to human exposure over local, or even global, scales,” Bai explains. “This is a concern in southern Nevada because five major wastewater treatment plants discharge into the Las Vegas Wash. The Las Vegas Wash then discharges into Lake Mead, which is the primary drinking water supply for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area.”
The DRI research team including (from left) Duane Moser, David Basulto, Hai Pham, and Xuelian Bai carry equipment down to the bank of the Lake Mead, one of several sampling sites along the Las Vegas Wash.
Lake Mead supplies water to millions of residents in the southwestern United States, so identifying potential antibiotic resistance is increasingly important, especially with the drastic population growth in the region. Effluent discharged from wastewater treatment plants, urban runoff, and floodwaters during wet seasons carry sediment, nutrients, and other contaminants to Lake Mead. This generates several water-quality concerns, particularly about the effects of contaminants on aquatic habitats.
“The Las Vegas Wash provides the full continuum of major freshwater aquatic habitats, includingwetlands, flowing water, lake water, and sediment,” Bai explains. “Wetlands, flowing water, and lake water are defined by aerobic conditions and exposure to photosphere influence. However, sediments almost always go anoxic very quickly below the surface, usually within millimeters in eutrophic systems. The fate of antibiotics and the microbial genes that mediate changes in anaerobes have been relatively understudied.”
The researchers anticipate that the field sampling and the lab studies conducted for this project—which include microcosm and microbial community experiments, and DNA analysis—will allow them to specifically identify southern Nevada water issues.
“We will detect and quantify target ARGs in water samples collected upstream and downstream along the Las Vegas Wash, as well as target ARGs in sediment samples collected from the Las Vegas Wash wetlands,” Bai says. “We will also determine the fate and spread of ARGs in the aquatic ecosystems, and assess the effects of elevated antibiotic concentrations on the ecosystem.”
Because evaluating ARGs in surface water and sediment has not been fully studied locally or globally, this project will address local water issues in Nevada and provide useful antibiotic resistance data about urban watersheds that can be used worldwide.
Photo: Drone pilots look toward their aircraft flying through the smoke. Credit: DRI’s Dave Vuono.
Fire science research using drone technology at DRI
“It was sort of like a deep-sea exploration, with a submarine scanning the ocean floor,” said DRI research technician Jesse Juchtzer. “We’d never flown into a smoke plume above a fire like this, no one has. We really didn’t know what we’d find.”
Juchtzer and a team of DRI researchers, along with nearly 35 other scientists, embarked on a unique kind of camping trip this June. The group spent several days and nights in a remote area of central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest to do something that’s never been done before: to light 2000 acres of forest on fire and conduct the biggest prescribed fire experiment yet attempted.
Led by the U.S. Forest Service, the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE) has been years in the making. Tim Brown, Ph.D., Research Professor of Climatology at DRI and Director of the Western Region Climate Center, began collaborating on the project with colleagues at the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station in 2013, with the idea of giving scientists the unprecedented opportunity to collect a range of data before, during, and after a large wildland fire.
Today, the project has evolved to bring together researchers from several universities and government agencies, including NASA and the EPA, in order to study fire from as many angles as possible, like the characteristics of the burning fuels, the chemistry of the smoke plume, fire behavior, and more. Roger Ottmar, Ph.D., Research Forester with the U.S. Forest Service and FASMEE lead, says the diversity of expertise is essential to the project’s goals.
“This is multi-agency and multi-organizational because we’re trying to collect not just smoke or soil but an entire suite of data that can be used to both evaluate and advance the fire and smoke models we use now,” Ottmar explained.
Fire managers rely on models to make critical on-the-ground decisions, like who to evacuate and when, where to allocate resources on the fire line, and when to issue air quality warnings, to name just a few. However, fires are changing, and the tools designed understand them aren’t keeping up.
“As fires get bigger and more destructive, we’re finding that the tools scientists and resource managers use to understand fires and predict their behavior are becoming inadequate,” explained Adam Watts, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor and director of DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) Lab. “We need to develop the next generation of tools to help us understand modern wildfires, and that’s what this project aims to achieve.”
Adam Watts, PhD, outfits a drone in the ASTER laboratory with a custom air sampling canister. Credit Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum.
The DRI team, which included Watts and Juchtzer along with Dave Vuono, Patrick Melarkey, and David Page, deployed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) outfitted with scientific instruments over the fire as it burned. This is precisely the specialty of the ASTER lab: developing and refining scientific equipment, installing it on DRI’s UAS fleet, and deploying them in challenging environments like wildland fires.
For this FASMEE burn, the DRI team’s particular focus, among the many research areas explored in the project, was to better understand the chemical and biological components of smoke. To study these elements, DRI collaborated with the EPA and the University of Idaho to fly custom air quality sensors and samplers above and inside the smoke plume.
This research burn allowed the team to not only collect valuable data but also run critical tests of their equipment. The task of getting the UAS loaded with scientific instruments off the ground and into the hot column of smoke was a daunting technical challenge. When asked how this UAS flight compared to others he’s piloted in the past, DRI field technician Patrick Melarkey just laughed.
“It was like night and day,” he said. “During the flight, they’d say, okay, see that dark, black part [of the smoke plume]? Fly into that.”
Now that the burn is over, researchers have returned to the lab to analyze samples and make the necessary updates to their equipment. Though this project was the first of its kind, Watts says it’s definitely not the last.
“In the future, I expect that we’ll incorporate even more sophisticated science teams and work to develop more innovative equipment to collect data,” he explained. “This work is essential if we’re going to create the next generation of tools to help us cope with modern, extreme fires.”
The team will be heading back to central Utah later this year for the next FASMEE research burn. Stay tuned for updates about the project this fall!
The DRI-led team at the June burn included (from left) Dave Vuono, Johanna Aurell of the UNiversity of Dayton Research Institute, Adam Watts, Dave Page, Brian Gullet of the Environmental Protection Agency, Leda Kobziar of the University of Idaho, Patrick Melarkey, and Jesse Juchtzer. Credit: Dave Vuono/DRI.
Photo: A collection of marine debris including microplastics. Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program/Flickr.
Microplastics research at DRI
Even the tiniest pieces of plastic are a big pollution problem.
Microplastics are plastic pieces ranging in size from 5mm to microscopic particles, in other words, the size of a pencil’s eraser or smaller. They come from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of larger products like single-use plastic bottles and from the microbeads in products like facewash and toothpaste.
The extent of microplastic pollution is only just beginning to be understood, with researchers discovering the tiny plastic pieces everywhere from the air we breathe to the deep ocean. Because microplastics are durable, insoluble, and potentially toxic, they could pose threat to natural ecosystems and human health. But to determine the impact of microplastic pollution, researchers must first understand just how much tiny plastic is out there and where it’s coming from.
DRI’s Monica Arienzo, Zoe Harrold, Meghan Collins, Xuelian Bai, and University of Nevada, Reno undergraduate Julia Davidson are exploring these questions in two bodies of freshwater in Nevada: Lake Tahoe and the Las Vegas Wash.
“There has been a lot of work done to understand how much microplastic is in marine environments, but there have been far fewer studies in freshwater, and far fewer even in alpine lakes,” explained Collins, Education Program Manager at DRI. “This study is really well placed to identify what microplastics may be in the water, their sources, and their characteristics.”
The research team is collecting samples from four different sites in Las Vegas—one in Lake Mead and three in the Las Vegas Wash—and six sites in Lake Tahoe. Sites were selected to include areas both high and low human activity, like the Tahoe Keys with significant boat traffic and Emerald Bay State Park where human impact is low. Additional sampling was also conducted at three stormwater outfalls into Lake Tahoe in collaboration with the League to Save Lake Tahoe’s Pipe Keepers citizen science program.
The research team sets up the pump and filter system at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park in May 2019.
“The sampling methods we’re using are unique,” said Arienzo, assistant research professor and project lead. “Past studies collected samples by trailing a large net from a boat or standing with it in a moving stream. Our approach is to sample and filter water in the field for microplastics using a pump, which allows us to filter upwards of 15 gallons of water in locations with still water and in places where boat access is limited.”
“Plus, we don’t have to haul netting around or carry the samples back to the lab—everything we need fits into a backpack, which makes sampling in remote and hard to access locations more feasible,” Arienzo added.
To make this novel method work, researchers place a stake with a funnel clipped to it about 20 feet from the water’s edge. The funnel, positioned on the surface of the water, is connected to tubing that runs back to the pump on shore, which draws water through the tubing and over a series of filters which can capture particles of different sizes.
Tubing runs into the column of filters, which capture particles at three different sizes as water flows through.
Tubing runs into the column of filters, which capture particles at three different sizes as water flows through.
Sampling in all locations took place throughout the spring, and now the team is set to process and analyze the samples over the summer.
“To isolate the plastic pieces, we first have to get rid of all the organics, and we’re going to do that by oxidizing them,” explained Harrold, assistant research scientist in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. “It’s a delicate balance between getting rid of the bugs and twigs and whatever else has ended up in there and not dissolving your plastics.”
Once the team oxidizes the organic particles left behind on the filters, they’ll separate the plastics from any remaining sediment using a high-density liquid separation method which will cause the sediments will settle to the bottom while plastics will float to the top.
From there, the team will begin identifying the different kinds of plastic pieces they find. The type of plastic, its size and shape, and the location where it was collected all provide clues about where it may have come from—for example, a nylon fiber may have come from the breakdown of synthetic clothing, and a piece of Styrofoam could have come from a single-use cup.
Harrold removes a filter from the sampling instrument to bring it back to the lab for analysis.
However, making determinations about where individual pieces of microplastic originate is far from straightforward.
“We’re only discovering more sources of microplastics,” explained Harrold. “Recent studies have shown that microplastics can be transported through the atmosphere, so though some of what we find might be coming from local sources, the pollution could also be coming from a factory manufacturing plastic on the other side of the world. We just don’t know.”
While it’s daunting that there’s so much still unknown about this increasingly problematic pollutant, the research team also finds it exciting.
“This is the second study ever to be done on microplastics in Lake Tahoe,” said Arienzo. “It’s amazing to be a part of advancing the science in this new area of study.”
The team hopes that this work will contribute to a foundation of scientific information about the extent of microplastics pollution in Nevada freshwater so that scientists will be able to better identify the sources of microplastic, potential harmful effects to plant and animal life, and ways to remove it from the environment.
From left: Harrold, Arienzo, Collins, Davidson, and Bai after sampling at Emerald Bay in May 2019.
Funding for this project came from the DRI Foundation’s Innovation Research Program (IRP), which is designed to support DRI faculty and staff as they pursue their very best ideas. The IRP is funded by individual contributions from science enthusiasts like you—if you’d like to donate to the IRP and help make projects like this one possible, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/foundation/innovation-research-program.
Meet Dante Staten, a Ph.D. student in environmental science with an emphasis in environmental chemistry. Staten recently graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a Master’s Degree in environmental science. At DRI, Staten is working with Dr. Andrey Khlystov in the Organic Analytical Laboratory to study the human-caused air pollutant emissions and their effects on public health.
DRI: What brought you to DRI?
DS: I was brought to the Desert Research Institute following the pending completion of my master’s degree in environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I focused on chemistry and the public health implications of nicotine containing products. I have a lot of experience with analytical devices used in chemistry and have a strong interest in public health implications in general. After a tour of Professor Andrey Khlystov’s laboratory, a brief about some of the work that is being done there, and an overview of the incredible range of instruments they have available, there was no question about joining the laboratory. I am excited to be a part of their team for my PhD track.
DRI: What are you studying?
DS: Currently I am working on a PhD in environmental science with an emphasis in environmental chemistry. More so, I am interested in chemistry and human-caused pollutant emissions into the environment that lead to public health implications.
Staten poses with friends and family at his recent graduation from the University of Nevada, Reno.
DRI: What research projects are you working on? And who are you working with here at DRI?
DS: I am currently working in the organic analytical laboratory run by Professor Andrey Khlystov. I am hoping to eventually collaborate with another one of his students on electronic cigarette work, and I am finishing a thesis defense from my master’s degree where I focused on manufacturer discrepancies found within smokeless tobacco products in regards to the accuracy of contaminant labeling. My major research project is coming within the next few months under a grant—I cannot discuss this project in depth, but it is relevant to forest fires and the public health implications resulting from them!
DRI: What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI?
DS: I believe that the people that I am working with here at DRI are very smart. I believe that is a very important quality of the work environment, especially in a competitive field such as science and academics. To be surrounded by such people is inspiring. Regarding my goals both short-term and long-term, they are simply to become the best scientist and best version of myself with the help of my colleagues.
DRI: Tell us about yourself. What do you like to do for fun?
DS: I enjoy a bunch of things, including binge-watching shows on Netflix, volleyball, taking pictures, skateboarding, good food, the gym, and studying!
Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor and social scientist with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. She grew up in northern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Humboldt State University, a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador, and a Ph.D. in environmental anthropology from the University of Georgia. Kristin has been a member of the DRI community since 2016, when she came to DRI for a postdoctoral position. In her free time, she enjoys spending time outdoors – road cycling, hiking, and snowshoeing in the Sierras.
DRI: What do you do here at DRI?
KV: I see my job in two parts. One is that I do purely social sciences research. For example, right now I’m working with the National Park Service at Pipe Spring National Monument in northern Arizona to do a series of oral history interviews with tribal communities and the descendants of early pioneers. Together, those groups have inhabited the area surrounding the monument for a very long time, and NPS wants to build out its oral history archives with their knowledge, experience, and stories. They’ll use that information to help inform the park’s interpretation and management.
The other main area that I work in is to provide social science support to physical scientists such as the climatologists in DRI’s Western Regional Climate Center when their work applies to land and natural resource management. On these projects, I’m often liaising between the researchers and management professionals. I’m also evaluating their research processes or products to help ensure that the results are useful to management.
DRI: What is the importance or value of integrating social science work with other types of scientific research? What can a social scientist bring to the table?
KV: The social sciences have a lot to offer theoretically and methodologically, as well as a different perspective. They also have a lot to offer in practical application. For example, over the last several years, there has been a proliferation of climate-related decision support tools intended for use in land and natural resource management, but in many cases, researchers have produced those tools without end-user feedback. When I first came to DRI as a postdoc, I worked on a project with Tamara Wall where we conducted a multi-stage or “developmental” evaluation of a web interface that provides managers access to climate data and analysis tools. The results emphasized the need to involve end-users from the start and for evaluation to be embedded throughout the development of tools like this. So, as social scientists, we can make evaluation a part of the research process to help ensure that research products are useful to the intended users.
DRI: We understand that you’re involved with an interesting project related to heat related illnesses. Can you tell us about that?
KV: It’s a project with colleagues here at DRI that looks at the messaging about the health impacts of extreme heat and heat waves on vulnerable populations in southern California and northwestern Mexico. The impacts of extreme heat and heat waves on human health can be significant, but heat consistently ranks of little concern to the public in comparison to other climate-related hazards.
So this is an interdisciplinary project, and we’re using a “vulnerability mapping” approach that combines past and projected trends in extreme heat and heat waves with data on cases of heat-related illness and heat-related deaths to identify vulnerable populations in those areas. We’re then doing focus groups with members of those populations to evaluate current heat warning messaging, like from the National Weather Service and public health entities in the U.S. and Mexico. Specifically, we are interested in understanding what knowledge those populations have about extreme heat and heat waves and the impacts to human health, whether they receive messaging, whether they do or do not take recommended protective actions and why. We’re doing this in the interest of helping those messaging agencies to increase the effectiveness of their communications by better targeting them both geographically and socioculturally.
DRI: How did you become interested in this line of work?
KV: I happened upon a notice for a postdoc position within the Western Regional Climate Center where they were looking for someone with a social science background to work in an applied interdisciplinary setting on land and natural resource management issues. I had already been working in such a setting in agricultural research and knew that I liked it, because as much as I love anthropology, I also enjoy learning about other disciplines and what other people do. So, there was a lot of appeal for me in the opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary setting on purposeful research—research focused on environmental problem solving, or now in the case of the heat-health project, on supporting activities to help safeguard human health.
Photo: Ruins of adobe houses, Lost City of Nevada. Credit: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.
Nevada’s “Lost City,” located northeast of Las Vegas on a terrace above the Muddy River, has been lost twice before – first abandoned by the native people who built it, then later flooded beneath the waters of Lake Mead – but a team of archaeologists from the Desert Research Institute’s Las Vegas campus hopes to ensure that it isn’t lost a third time.
This summer, DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Tatianna Menocal, and Megan Stueve plan to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone technology to create high-resolution 3-D maps of the Lost City archaeological site, which consists of about 46 adobe structures that date back more than 1,000 years. Working with representatives from the National Park Service, the team will then use these detailed maps of the structures and topography to devise best management practices for the continued preservation of the site.
“The structures are set on old river terraces and lake deposits that are really susceptible to erosion, and as the level of Lake Mead has dropped, the erosion seems to have accelerated quite a bit,” said Lancaster, Assistant Research Scientist of Archaeology at DRI. “Our goal with this project is to try to figure out where erosion is particularly bad and to try some different techniques to help control that erosion.”
During summer 2019, DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Megan Stueve and Tatianna Menocal plan to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone technology to create high-resolution 3-D maps of the Lost City archaeological site.
Lost in time
Lost City, also known as the Pueblo Grande de Nevada, was home to a small community of people of the Puebloan culture from about 800 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Here, they lived along the banks of the Muddy River, farming crops such as corn, squash, cotton and beans, and supplementing agriculture with wild and hunted foods.
No one knows exactly why Lost City was abandoned by its original inhabitants, but once the remains were discovered in the 1920s, they were mapped by archaeologists. After the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1935, the rising shoreline of Lake Mead became a threat the site.
“The area was inundated by the rising waters of Lake Mead after the construction of the Hoover Dam. Original researchers and the Civilian Conservation Corps were under a time crunch to get all the data they could while the Dam was being constructed, all the while knowing it would be lost after inundation,” said Stueve, Staff Research Scientist of Archaeology. “Fortunately, only half the site was inundated by high water levels and as the water receded from years of drought, the site was fully exposed once again and available to study.”
The ruins were studied again in more detail in 1979 through the 1990s, by which time extensive erosion had already damaged a number of the structures.
“One thing that has always been noted in the archaeological studies is the level of erosion in this area,” said Menocal, Assistant Research Scientist of Archaeology. “Entire landforms or portions of the landforms have been eroded away, so portions of the site are no longer there. In some places, entire houses are gone.”
Today, Lost City is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and managed by the National Park Service as part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Lancaster, Menocal, and Stueve approached NPS with an idea for a partnership to aid in preservation of the site. When an opportunity to fund the project through DRI’s Lander Endowment became available they realized the partnership was a possibility.
“We were looking for ways that we could branch out and impact the local community and the local resources around us a bit more,” Lancaster said. “We have a lot of capabilities at DRI; it’s the type of place that has the infrastructure for us to do high quality and meaningful environmental science.”
A photograph of an unidentified person sitting in a group of restored pueblo homes at Lost City located near Overton, Nevada, circa 1930s-40s. Photo from University of Nevada, Las Vegas Special Collections.
A plan for preservation
To help protect Lost City from further damage, the DRI team plans to use UAS technology to create high-resolution maps of the area, through a process called photogrammetry.
“The UAS will fly around and take a series of several hundred photos of the area of interest, and we’ll use that to essentially build a 3-D model of the surface,” Lancaster explained.
They will use the maps to identify areas where erosion has occurred in the past and present, as well as areas where they expect erosion to occur in the future. During the summer of 2020, before the monsoon season hits, the DRI team will work with representatives from NPS to design effective treatments for the erosion problem. They plan to monitor the results of their efforts using UAS photogrammetry as the monsoon season progresses.
“The erosion is focused in these deep gullies that have formed in soft sediments, and these gullies are causing damage to the site as they expand and run into each other,” Lancaster said. “So, we’re planning a paired study. We’ll install an erosion treatment in one gully, and the other gully in that pair will not get a treatment. We’re essentially testing the effectiveness of erosion treatments approved by NPS management.”
The team is still looking for funding for another component of the project, which would utilize a thermal sensor on the UAS to detect structures or stone objects that are buried beneath the land surface.
“Out at Lost City, there are probably still structures that are buried beneath sediments, that you can’t actually see,” Lancaster said. “If we could discover where they were, and discover where gullies or erosion might expose them and start to damage them in the future, we could actually prevent them from being damaged or exposed in the first place. That’s one really exciting aspect of the project that we’d love to have the opportunity to test.”
DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Tatianna Menocal and Megan Stueve work with drones at DRI’s Las Vegas Campus.
Joshua Sackett, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Josh specializes in the study of microbes that inhabit Earth’s deep subsurface environments. He grew up in southwestern Colorado, and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biology from University of Colorado Denver, and a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Josh has been a member of the DRI community since 2014, when he moved to Las Vegas for a position working in DRI’s Environmental Microbiology Laboratory. In his free time, he enjoys hiking and exploring Mount Charleston and other natural areas around Las Vegas.
Right now, I am studying microbes such as bacteria and archaea that inhabit Earth’s deep subsurface fluids, which we access primarily through deep wells and mine shafts. We’re looking at the genetic material of these microbes using a technique called single-cell genomics where we isolate individual microbes, sequence their genomes, and learn about their potential role in their environment based on what genes are present.
What do you hope to learn about these deep subsurface organisms?
We’re interested in how organisms live life independent of sunlight. These organisms are usually anaerobic (able to live without oxygen, some requiring the complete absence of oxygen), and they live a different lifestyle than most organisms that you think of. Humans, for example, we breathe oxygen and we metabolize organic carbon; these organisms don’t necessarily do that. So, learning about how these organisms live in the absence of oxygen, sunlight, or in environments where organic carbon is scarce gives us insight into potential for life on other planets where oxygen and dissolved organic carbon are likely limiting or not present at all.
Our research has potential for biotechnological applications as well. Sometimes, organisms that live in unique or austere environments are capable of degrading certain compounds, such as contaminants, or produce enzymes that are of interest to the scientific community.
Josh Sackett, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI’s campus in Las Vegas.
Where does your research take place?
One of our study sites, called BLM1, is located in Inyo County, near Amargosa Valley, Nevada. It’s a 2,500-foot deep well, which really isn’t all that deep. However, the earth’s crust is actually really thin in this area, so you don’t have to drill very deep to access hot fluids. Because of this, BLM1 serves as a stellar field site for investigating life in the subsurface. We also have a study site located along the Juan De Fuca Ridge, off the coast of Washington State, and we plan to look at microbial activity in sediments and fluids from that environment.
How did you end up here at DRI?
I was born and raised in southwest Colorado, in a little town near Durango. I moved to Denver for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After that, I was searching for a laboratory to do my Ph.D. research in, and came across Duane Moser’s lab. I was interested in the plethora of projects he had going on, and I thought I could gain a lot of research experience and exposure to many different topics in his lab.
Initially, I wanted to be a physician. However, I caught the microbiology bug — no pun intended — as an undergraduate student, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I really became interested in it because I’m interested in how microbes influence biogeochemical cycling, or how microbes contribute to earth’s processes, on a global scale.
John Watson, Ph.D., is a research professor of air quality science with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. John specializes in air quality measurements, source apportionment (tracing pollutants to their sources), and adverse effects of air pollutants. He recently received the 2018 Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award in honor of his five decades of air quality studies in central California. He grew up in southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degrees in physics from the State University of New York at Brockport, a master’s degree in physics from the University of Toledo, and a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from the Oregon Health and Science University. John has been a member of the DRI community since 1982. In his free time, John enjoys hiking in the mountains; his favorite National Park is Lassen.
DRI: What do you study here at DRI?
JW: Most of my work involves air pollution studies with a focus on small particles — the inhalable kind that get into your body. The two big pollutants we’re interested in right now are ozone and particulate matter. Most of the other major pollutants have been pretty much brought under control.
Right now, some of our biggest projects are for the national speciation networks, where we prepare and send out air quality filters to locations all over the country, including many sites in national parks and wilderness areas (the IMPROVE program and Chemical Speciation Network). When we get the filters back to DRI, we analyze them for different compounds that impact things like visibility and human health.
Another big thing we’re looking at right now is wildfires. As our climate is changing, we’re getting prolonged periods of droughts interspersed with very extreme storms. We’re seeing that these are becoming not only more numerous, but more intense. We’ve developed a method that separates fire contributions from other sources of the particulate matter. We do this by measuring what we call the brown carbon. It turns out there’s a different color to the smoke. You don’t always know it when you see it, but once you sample it and make a measurement of it, we can separate it from things like engine exhaust.
DRI: You mentioned that you are especially interested in ozone and particulate matter. Why are these two pollutants so concerning?
JW: Air quality standards are based on public health. It should be of concern to most people that they’re taking years off their lives if they live in a polluted environment. These pollutants also cause material damage. Ozone destroys rubber, so windshield wipers, tires, and things like that deteriorate more rapidly.
Particulate matter deposits onto surfaces. Back when we had belching smokestacks, it used to be that you couldn’t hang your clothes out on a clothesline to dry, because they would be covered in black soot. In the mid-80s, we had a tremendous haze here in the Truckee Meadows because of pollution related to residential wood smoke, and even some of the road sanding. They were using a very fine sanding material to improve traction on the roads, which wasn’t effective; it was from volcanic material and it crushed up into very fine particles so it that would get suspended and be a nuisance as well. A more durable granite sand is currently in use.
DRI: What kind of tools and technology do you use to take air quality measurements?
JW: We’re starting to use small air quality monitors, which are battery powered devices that you can put in different places. Some have a wi-fi interface so you can look at the data in real time. Since they’re so small, you can power them with a five-volt charger. There are thousands of them in China, and some in California.
These types of micro-sensing devices are probably one of the areas where we’ll see a lot of growth in the future. Most of our instrumentation is bigger and bulkier, and a lot is based on filters that we take and we run thru different analyses in our laboratory. We can get up to 200 or 300 different chemical components from these samples.
The chemistry is important for several reasons – it’s kind of a fingerprint, so if you have a pattern of chemistry, you can use that to identify where the compounds came from. The other important aspect is the adverse environmental effects on health, ecosystems and other things.
Richard Corey (on left) of the California Air Resources Board congratulates DRI scientist John Watson (on right) on the receipt of the Haagen-Smit Award for air quality research in February 2019. Credit: California Air Resources Board.
DRI: You were recently awarded the California Air Resource Board’s 2018 Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award for your work in California. Can you tell us about that?
JW: Arie Haagen-Smit was one of the early scientists that worked in air quality in Southern California. He is the one that discovered the mechanism of photochemical smog back in the late 1940s or early 1950s, which linked smog in Southern California to engine exhaust. He came up with some ingenious methods for measuring ozone; he didn’t have all the equipment we have now. He was also the first chair of the California Air Resources Board. The award was established to honor him and those who follow in his footsteps. I received the award for my work in air quality science; there are also categories for international contributions, policy, and control technology.
I’ve been working in air pollution in California for almost 50 years. California is one of the best air quality laboratories in the world, because it has such diverse terrain, populations, meteorology, and types of emissions. We’ve made some important discoveries over the last few decades. I would say probably the one we learned the most from was the Fresno Supersite, mainly because we kept at it for almost 10 years, from 1999 to 2007.
We had a large array of instrumentation out there, and this allowed us to discover some new phenomena. Probably the most important one from an air pollution control standpoint was seeing that the ammonium nitrate particles, which form from atmospheric gases, are created above the surface at night, then mix down to the surface after sunrise. The implication of this is that oxides of nitrogen emissions need to be reduced throughout the entire Central Valley, not just in the cities where these emissions from engine exhaust are most intense. The Supersite provided opportunities to experiment with new technologies, try out new things, and interpret the data in ways that revealed new air pollution science.
Jim Hudson, Ph.D., is a research professor of physics with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. Jim specializes in cloud physics, and has worked throughout his career to gather and analyze field measurements of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) from around the world. He is originally from Michigan, and holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from Western Michigan University, a master’s degree in physics from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in atmospheric physics from the University of Nevada, Reno. Jim has been a member of the DRI community since 1970, when he started here as a graduate research assistant. In his free time, Jim can often be found at an ice rink; he is a passionate hockey player and carries his equipment wherever he goes.
DRI: You are DRI’s longest serving employee. What initially brought you here to DRI?
JH: Yes, I’ve been here the longest of anybody – almost 50 years. I came as a grad student in 1970. I had been studying physics at the University of Michigan, looking at aurora and air glow, which is an upper atmospheric phenomenon. But my interests drifted, and the job situation drifted. I had seen brochures from DRI and UNR about lower atmospheric work, mainly to do with clouds, which I thought was a little more interesting. So, I applied and came as a graduate student in 1970, and continued on as a grad student for six years and got my Ph.D. My professor left shortly after I got my Ph.D., but I was able to stay and continue the work that he was doing here.
Inside of the Aerosol Physics Laboratory at DRI, Jim Hudson examines an instrument screen on the CCN spectrometer, used to measure cloud condensation nuclei. February 2019. Credit: DRI.
DRI: What is the focus of your research?
JH: I study cloud condensation nuclei (CCN), which are tiny particles in the atmosphere that cloud particles form on. In my work, I compare the measurements of the CCN with cloud droplet measurements and other characteristics of clouds. Over the years, I have worked with two or three different engineers to develop instruments that go on airplanes to measure the full spectrum of these cloud condensation nuclei. We make the CCN measurements while other instruments on the plane measure the cloud droplets. Then we compare them and write papers on our findings.
DRI: Why are cloud condensation nuclei important to measure and understand?
JH: Cloud condensation nuclei are actually the greatest uncertainty in climate, because many of these particles are manmade, from air pollution. If you have more cloud condensation nuclei, you have more cloud droplets. And if you have more cloud droplets, you reflect more sunlight back to space. This is a primary determinant of global climate.
At the moment, we don’t know how many of these CCN particles are manmade compared to how many are natural. We know that there are natural sources, because certainly there have been clouds long before human beings started perturbing the atmosphere, but we don’t understand the natural sources very well.
Jim Hudson stands near a CCN Spectrometer, an instrument designed by Jim and other DRI team members to measure cloud condensation nuclei from an aircraft. February 2019. Credit: DRI.
DRI: Can you tell us about a project that you’re working on right now?
JH: My latest work, starting six years ago, focuses on the size spectrum of these CCN particles. We have enough resolution in our instruments to detect bimodality in the CCN spectrum, meaning that we are often seeing two different size classes of CCN. And we only see that under clouds. Where you don’t have any clouds, you don’t have this bimodality, you just have one mode (size class). A similar type of bimodality has been observed previously by scientists that measure particle size distributions, but our instrument is the first one that has seen this in the cloud condensation nuclei.
I’ve found that this bimodal spectrum of CCN is having different effects on different types of clouds. When we find the bimodal spectrum under stratus clouds, it tends to make clouds with more droplets but less precipitation, because the droplets are smaller and can’t get big enough to fall out. In cumulus clouds, it seems to be exactly the opposite – when you have the bimodal spectrum, you get fewer droplets and more precipitation. But these observations are only from two field projects. I want now to go back and do additional analysis using data that we’ve collected in about 25 other projects to see if this is a general thing that happens or how often it happens.
DRI: What has been your most memorable day on the job?
JH: That’s hard to say. I’ve been involved with 30 or so field projects over about three decades, all over the world. During those projects, we’d go off for a month or sometimes two months, often on islands, so that we could fly out over the oceans. I’m not a pilot, I would never do that. But I’ve logged thousands of hours flying. The Azores were very interesting. And in the Indian Ocean, the little island of Malé — that was very interesting because you had very polluted air coming off of India, but a few times we flew south, below the equator, and the air down there was very clean. So there was a big contrast.
I used to really enjoy doing fieldwork, but my last field project was in 2011. I thought that I would not be that interested in sitting around analyzing data, but I found that this latest work on the bimodal spectrum is extremely interesting. Looking at the data, analyzing the data – I’ve never had anything more interesting in my entire career.
Thanks to support from the Knowledge Fund, researchers across the Silver State have been busy cultivating the intellectual property that will continue the diversification of our economy for years to come. DRI researchers have leveraged over $11 million in state support over the last five years for projects focusing on public health, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) development, and commercialization of new technologies.
Applied Innovation Center (AIC)
Inception: March 2014 Total funds awarded (all years): $6M Status: Current project End Date: June 30, 2019
The AIC leverages the intellectual capital of DRI faculty and 60 years of environmental science research in four main areas of applied research: climate, weather, and energy nexus; Internet of Things (IoT) and remote sensing; engineering and design; and life sciences and informatics. From these four core areas, the AIC builds hardware and software for industry, leverages these platforms for sponsored projects, creates jobs, and helps build innovative companies in Nevada.
The Healthy Nevada Project: Developed by the Renown Institute for Health Innovation (Renown IHI), this is one of the first community-based population health studies in the nation. A world-class team of researchers and physicians from DRI and the Renown Health healthcare network are working together to use genetics, environmental data, and individual health information to create a healthier Nevada.
PHASE ONE: Open to northern Nevada residents, the comprehensive pilot phase of the study offered community members the opportunity to volunteer for research and gain access to their individual genetic information free of charge on September 15, 2016.
The pilot phase of the study enrolled 10,000 participants in less than 48 hours.
Subsequent DNA sample collection from each participant was completed in just 60 working days.
DNA genotyping was done with personal genetics company 23andMe.
Participants in the pilot phase of the study range from ages 18 to 90 years old and come from 135 zip codes in northern Nevada.
PHASE TWO: For the second phase of this project, research teams will have greater depth and quality of DNA data thanks to a public-private partnership with Helix, a personal genomics company that uses Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology and operates one of the world’s largest, most highly accredited exome sequencing labs.
Utilizing Helix’s proprietary NGS technology and uniquely personalized suite of DNA-powered products, research teams are offering an additional 40,000 Nevadans the opportunity to have their DNA sequenced and participate in the next phase of the study which opened for enrollment on March 15th, 2018.
In Phase Two, Renown IHI will begin providing advanced calcium score screenings to pilot phase participants at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. This will allow researchers to examine the link between genetics and calcium buildup in the heart. Additionally, based on pilot phase data, researchers have seen increased use of regional healthcare correlated with fluctuations in air quality and so-called “bad air events” such as wildfires and atmospheric inversions. Renown IHI will also evaluate possible links between genetics and increased susceptibility to respiratory ailments.
In the years ahead, Renown IHI aspires to offer genetic testing through the Healthy Nevada Project to every Nevadan interested in learning more about their health and genetic profile and drive positive health outcomes statewide. Simultaneously, the Healthy Nevada Project will expand the state’s access to cutting-edge clinical trials and foster new connections with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.
“Nevada is leading the country in growth and innovation. But sadly, we continue to rank among the worst regarding health at 47th in the nation. Through the Healthy Nevada Project, we now have the gift of insight to make needed changes not just for ourselves and our loved ones but for Nevada.” – Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, The Healthy Nevada Project’s first participant
Desert Research Corporation: Venture-Capital Funding Raised for Tu Biomics, AIC Tu Biomics Inc., born from DRI’s expertise in microbial ecology, is an agricultural pharmaceutical company that targets industrial scale farming and its significant soil health challenges. In conjunction with DRI’s soil and molecular biology scientists, Tu Biomics is driving the development of organic antifungal chemicals as a cost-effective alternative to currently available options. DRI scientists have demonstrated the ability of Biological Control Agents (BCAs) to eliminate white rot, a fungal pathogen impacting onion and garlic crops, under laboratory conditions.
First AIC, Desert Research Corporation Spin-Out Company Launches Predira Inc. leverages DRI’s weather intelligence platform to provide localized pest and disease forecasts for industrial scale farming through a web-based software product called ForecastView. With its companion smartphone app, FieldScout, users can input real-time data and get timely, detailed pest and disease forecasts as well as response options to mitigate significant crop loss. DRI scientists are completing software development and beta testing of ForecastView and FieldScout with some of California’s largest berry growers.
WaterStart (formerly the Nevada Center of Excellence in Water):
Inception: April 2014 Total Funds Awarded (all years): $3.7M Status: Current Project Project End Date: June 30, 2019
As fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, water resource management and sustainability will be vital to maintaining quality of life and economic development in communities around the world.
WaterStart is a cluster of global leaders in the implementation of water technology. Formed in 2013, WaterStart was established through a joint venture between academic, public, and private sectors to create a statewide network to deploy and test compelling, early-stage technologies that address Nevada’s greatest water management challenges. This network now includes, Nevada’s two largest drinking water utilities that serve approximately 80% of the state’s population, the largest agricultural producer, the largest employer and commercial space operator and has recently expanded to include out-of-state, as well as international drinking water utilities.
This group has collectively provided support through WaterStart’s membership program by contributing $400,000 to support technology recruitment and project development activities, opening up their facilities and infrastructure to host pilot projects, and providing more than $800,000 in additional funding to support these pilots.
Nevada and Queensland, Australia recently signed a sister state agreement, which includes $500,000 in funding for Queensland innovators to collaborate with WaterStart to improve local urban water supply systems and take their ideas to Nevada and the world. This agreement makes WaterStart truly international.
Its network of early adopters has effectively created a unique process for prioritizing, implementing, and evaluating new water technologies. This process, which is the foundation of WaterStart’s Commercialization Program, has rapidly accelerated the rate of technology deployment and provides a critical pathway for new technologies to successfully enter the U.S. water market. Waterstart and its members have:
Developed a list of more than 60 innovation priorities.
Assessed more than 300 technologies based on member needs.
Evaluated more than 220 proposals from companies seeking to participate in the Commercialization Program.
Implemented 17 projects.
Funded nearly $1.5M to deploy and test new water technologies.
Partnership for Research to Open Markets for an Emerging Technology: Helping to Expand Unmanned Systems (PROMETHEUS)
Total Funds Awarded (all years): $491K Status: Current Project Project End Date: June 30, 2019
NSHE-Industry Unmanned Autonomous Systems (UAS) Collaboration Program: This project’s purposes include developing new technologies and applications as they relate to fire science research and fire management; assessing the commercial potential of fire-UAS applications and assisting Nevada companies in targeting relevant markets; building capacity and conducting outreach to promote fire-related UAS business for our Nevada partners in the field of fire science and fire management; and seeking opportunities to conduct demonstrations, operations, and relevant supporting research.
Consulted with three Reno-based UAS startups on strategy and market.
Planning (Phase I) for the largest fire research project in history, Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE).
Supported or submitted external funding proposals for more than $25 million.
Development of specialized UAS payloads for air-quality monitoring and measurements for fire- smoke impacts ad public health applications.
Known returns to industry partners and Nevada represent more than $10 for each dollar invested in this project by GOED.
Inception: November 2015 Total Funds Awarded (all years): $750K Status: Past Project End Date: June 30, 2018
DRI, in partnership with AviSight and Drone America, developed and tested UAS technologies for cloud seeding operations. This includes creating forecasts and conducting flight planning for manned and unmanned aircraft, cloud seeding using manned and unmanned systems and ground generators as well as estimating effectiveness of UAS cloud seeding operations.
The goals of the project were four-fold:
Development of new UAS technologies for cloud seeding operations while demonstrating Nevada’s Public COA and commercial COA and 333 authority.
Operation of UAS for cloud-seeding operations, both alone and in conjunction with ground-based generators and manned aircraft.
Assessment of the effectiveness of unmanned cloud seeding platforms using newly-developed technology and tools.
Assessment of the broader market potential and development of a commercialization process for UAS cloud seeding in other areas.
Longest commercial UAS flight in US airspace, and DRI’s first beyond-line-of- sight (BLOS) flight.
More than two dozen print-media and web stories by local, state, national and international media, including a feature article in Popular Science.
Letter of collaboration to pursue cloud- seeding work in UAE with industry partners.
Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for Agricultural Applications – Winnemucca Farms (AA/WF):
Inception: April 2016 Total Funds Awarded (all years): $152K Status: Past Project Project End Date: December 31, 2017
DRI, in collaboration with AboveNV, deployed AboveNV’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in support of agricultural and water management of critical crop fields owned and managed by Winnemucca Farms, Inc. The project tested the applicability of UAS data to address large-scale, multi-crop agricultural needs, particularly water- related crop stress and irrigation efficiencies.
Winnemucca Farms, Inc. is one of the largest in Nevada and expressed interest in assessing UAS data products to improve farm management. UAS activities were conducted using AboveNV’s Section 333 Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) and the team worked with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) to become a NIAS Node that allowed use of the NIAS blanket COA from the FAA.
DRI and AboveNV proposed a near-term and long- term approach to utilizing UAS collected imagery to monitor irrigation management and crop health. The project focused on UAS data acquisition to identify and map agricultural crop stress that will lead to improved water use while maintaining and/or improving crop yields (project location is a portion of Winnemucca Farms’ properties). Highlights included:
Image processing methods were further defined and UAS imagery of fields in bare soiled condition acquired. This enabled the assessment quality of elevation mapping from standard image processing techniques.
In response to the client’s needs, the original intent of developing a Geographic Information System (GIS) database was changed to pursue a secure web-based interface that the farm manager and his staff will be able to use from a computer or handheld devices such as notebook and smart phone assisting in his crop management decisions. This exemplifies customer driven applied R&D solutions.
Collaboration with a DRI faculty member, which resulted in the preparation of a secured website to display data acquired for Winnemucca Farms at multiple spatial scales. It includes both USGS digital elevation model data and a Landsat 8 satellite multispectral 13 image that encompasses the entire main farm fields and immediate adjacent areas with the UAS-acquired images being embedded.
DRI personal provided training to local start-up AboveGeo on the calibration and operation of FLIR thermal cameras and how to establish ground-based calibration targets for acquisition of thermal images using UAS. This is a good example of how an applied research institution can support a local early stage company by providing vital technology and equipment know-how.
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 Charlene Martin, a financial accounting specialist who has served DRI for 24 years.
“I am honored to win the Technical Employee of the Year award, when there are so many deserving technologists at DRI,” Charlene said of the recognition. “I strive to be a team player and assist where needed. I come in each day to complete my tasks and I am grateful that others recognize my value and have nominated me for this award.”
Get to know Charlene in this Q&A!
DRI: How long have you worked here at DRI? How long have you lived in Reno?
Charlene Martin: I moved to Reno in 1981. While working in the casino industry for 10 years I applied for a part-time position in the DRI Controllers Office in 1995. In 1999, I took a full-time Financial Assistant position in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences (DEES) until the business manager retired when I then took a position in the Financial Services Office. Wow, 24 years have passed since then.
DRI: What does your work involve?
CM: I currently work in the budget office. This entails setting up and closing internal accounts, transferring funds, quarterly and annual reporting to the System Office, and preparing a monthly DRI report detailing current financial information of the Institute.
DRI: What do you like best about working at DRI?
CM: There is a great faculty and staff at DRI which I get the opportunity to work with daily, and I appreciate all their hard work, especially those that bring in the ICR to keep the Institute operating and giving me this job opportunity.
DRI: What does it mean to you to receive this recognition?
CM: I am grateful and blessed that others have seen my worth. DRI has given me an opportunity to excel and yet be heard. I know there are many technologists who also give their all and I hope they will receive this award at some point.
DRI: What do you like to do in your free time?
CM: I enjoy hikes on the Tahoe Rim Trail, traveling, Jazz Festivals, auctions, and helping others.
“Our record of sub-annually resolved, accurately dated measurements in the ice core starts in 1100 BC during the late Iron Age and extends through antiquity and late antiquity to the early Middle Ages in Europe, a period that included the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations,” said the study’s lead author Joe McConnell, Ph.D., Research Professor of Hydrology at DRI and Director of the Ice Core Lab. “We found that lead pollution in Greenland very closely tracked known plagues, wars, social unrest and imperial expansions during European antiquity.”
The research team on the project included scientists, archaeologists, and economists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the University of Copenhagen.
This is the second time research out of the DRI Ice Core Lab has been recognized in the Discover magazine round up of the year’s top science stories. In the January 2008 issue, findings on rising black carbon levels in Greenland ice cores during the industrial revolution made the magazine’s 2007 top 100 list.
“Selection of these findings as among the world’s top science stories of 2018 is very exciting for the members of our research group and our international collaborators. It is especially rewarding for me in that a largely ice core based study was selected as among the top stories in archaeology rather than in earth or environmental sciences. This all demonstrates the vast potential of highly interdisciplinary research teams working together.”
Other DRI researchers who worked on this study are Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., assistant research professor, and graduate student researcher Nathan Chellman.
Erick Bandala, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor of environmental science with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Erick specializes in research related to water quality and water treatment, including the use of nanomaterials in developing new water treatment technologies. He is originally from Mexico, and holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Veracruz State University, a master’s degree in organic chemistry from Morelos State University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Erick has been a member of the DRI community since 2016, when he moved to Las Vegas to begin his current job. In his free time, Erick says that he enjoys doing nothing – a passion that is not shared by his wife of nearly 30 years, who enjoys doing many things.
DRI: What do you do here at DRI?
EB: My work here is to develop advanced technologies for water treatment, such as processes that can deal with the pollutants in the water that are not removed by conventional water treatment methods.
DRI: We understand that a lot of your work involves nanomaterials. What are nanomaterials, and how do you use them in your research?
EB: Nanomaterials are materials that are so small that if you compare the size of one of these materials with a basketball, it’s like comparing the size of the basketball with the size of the earth. These nano-sized materials have applications in many different fields.
In my case, what I’m doing with the nanomaterials is using them to promote reactions in the water that can produce chemical species capable of destroying contaminants. Not only to remove the contaminants, but to destroy them from the water.
Erick Bandala, Ph.D. at work in DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab. Credit: Dave Becker, Nevada Momentum.
DRI: What type of contaminants do you hope to remove? Can you tell us about one of your projects?
EB: Right now, we are trying to get nanoparticles made of something called zerovalent iron, which is iron with no charge on it. We are planning to use this to remove antibiotics from water. As you know, we all use antibiotics every now and then. And when you use them, the antibiotics get into your body and you will probably only use about 15 percent of the total amount that is present. Whatever remains is discarded with your feces or urine into the wastewater.
Once the wastewater arrives at the water treatment plant, the conventional water treatment processes will probably not be able to remove the antibiotic. So, the antibiotic passes through the wastewater treatment system and keeps going with the treated effluent. In the case of Las Vegas for example, it goes back to Lake Mead. This is a problem, because we are learning now that bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics just by exposure – and when bacteria in the environment become resistant to the antibiotics, there is no way for people to treat infections.
So, in our work, we hope to use nanoparticles to destroy the contaminants in the wastewater. At the moment we are just running some trials in the lab, but we eventually hope to run the experiment at pilot level to see if we can treat wastewater coming back from plants to the lake, and ensure that we will not have these contaminants going back to our environment.
Another part of my research is on how to use solar energy to remove contaminants from water. This way you can save some money by using an energy source that is common in Nevada, widely available. We have a lot of sunshine here.
Information about nanomaterials from DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab. Credit: Dave Becker, Nevada Momentum.
DRI: How did you become interested in working on water treatment and water quality?
EB: My very first job was working in a research institute in Mexico that was devoted entirely to water. The group that I arrived to work with was dealing with water quality and treatment in wastewater and drinking water. So, I started down this path just because it was available and I needed the job – but my plan was to spent two years working on this and now it has been more than 25 years. I feel very passionate about this field of work. I feel like this is the way that I have to try to help people, and I love it.
DRI: You are originally from Mexico. What brought you to DRI?
EB: When the position at DRI opened three years ago, I started learning about the water related issues that Nevada and particularly Las Vegas was facing, and was fascinated. The city gets its water supply from Lake Mead then sends treated wastewater back to the lake — so having almost 100 percent recycling of the water is something that caught my attention immediately. Not only because it’s wonderful, but that it may also result in other problems like the recycling of some pollutants that you probably don’t want in your drinking water. That idea really captured me. So I decided to apply for the job, and have had three years of great fun trying to deal all of those problems and promote some solutions that may help to deal with the reality we’re facing in Las Vegas. Reno is not that different – we all need water when we’re living in places where water resources are so scarce. I was really intrigued by how to deal with all of these problems and how I might help.
Erick Bandala (second from left) and his colleagues from DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab.
It’s safe to say that 2018 has been a great year for DRI. From launching new programs to engage community members in science and technology to making new strides in our core research areas, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, and we’re looking forward to all that next year may hold. For our final blog post of the year, we review twelve (but by no means all) of our 2018 highlights, originally posted as a series on our Instagram, @DRIscience.
Day 1: In early 2018, DRI researchers Ben Hatchett, Ph.D., and Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., published research investigating snow droughts, which have become increasingly common in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in recent years, as warming temperatures push snow lines higher up mountainsides and cause more precipitation to fall as rain. Their findings traced how snow droughts evolve over a winter season and impact local watersheds and economies.
Now, McEvoy, Hatchett, and collaborator Justin Chambers are working to develop this research further by creating tools that can help scientists track snow droughts and share that information with resource managers.
Day 2: In February, the DRI Science Alive Program, the PreK-12 education and outreach arm of DRI, collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art to host the first annual Nevada Steam Conference, which brought together nearly 200 educators, administrators, and presenters from across the state to discuss best practices and new approaches to education in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math).
In 2019, the Nevada STEAM Conference will happen on Saturday, February 2nd.
Day 3: This spring, viewers around the world fell in love with the great horned owl family that nested on an office building at our Reno campus. Their nesting situation was unusual, never before recorded by scientists: a trio of owls, two female and one male, tending two nests side by side. In coordination with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, DRI installed a nest camera and live-streamed the video to YouTube so that anyone could observe this rare nesting situation. The feed quickly went viral and became a news sensation, attracting viewers from around the world and coverage by outlets such as National Geographic and the Audubon. By the time the two owlets successfully fledged in May and the live stream was turned off, the video logged over 20 million hours of viewing.
Day 4:This spring, the researchers in DRI’s ultra-trace ice core laboratory published remarkable new findings, tracing the rise and fall of the Roman economy through lead deposits in Greenland ice cores. The team of scientists, archaeologists, and economists from DRI, the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and the University of Copenhagen used ice samples from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) to measure, date, and analyze European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800.
Their results provided new insight for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time, and the research captured the attention of media outlets around the world, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist. Just this month, the team’s research was listed as one 2018’s top science stories in Discover Magazine.
Day 5:In May, DRI hosted the third annual May Science Be with You open house as part of the Las Vegas Science and Technology Festival. Nearly 3,000 community members visited DRI’s Las Vegas campus for lab tours, hands-on activities, special presentations, and Star Wars themed fun.
Stay tuned for more details on the 2019 May Science Be with You open house—rumor has it there may one more than one open house, and one in Reno, too!
Day 6: This June, DRI published its first ever Research Highlights magazine, a revisioning of our Annual Report to showcase engaging stories about research projects and programs at DRI. This fall, the magazine was recognized with awards by Public Relations Society of America chapters in Reno and Las Vegas!
Day 7: This summer, DRI researchers Markus Berli, PhD, and Rose Shillito published research with colleagues from UC Merced about how soils respond to low-severity fires like prescribed burns. Their findings indicate that prescribed burns may do more damage to soils than previously believed, sometimes resulting in long-term damage to soil structure and increasing its susceptibility to erosion. It’s not yet clear whether the negative impacts on soil associated with these low-severity fires outweigh the positives (like recycling nutrients back into the soil and getting rid of overgrown vegetation), but the research team hopes that their work will help inform land managers as they manage wildfires and plan prescribed burns.
Day 8: In August, DRI participated in the 22nd Annual Tahoe Summit, a yearly gathering of federal, state, and local leaders dedicated to the goal of restoring and sustaining Lake Tahoe as one of our most precious environmental treasures. DRI showcased a variety of research projects impacting the Lake Tahoe Basin, including research using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to monitor wildfires and stormwater management.
Day 9: This fall, sixteen interns began the first ever DRI Cybersecurity Internship Program, a semester-long program that provides training, certification, and hands-on experience for individuals interested in obtaining marketable job skills related to cybersecurity in collaboration with the SANS Institute, a world-renowned internet security research and education organization. All semester long, the interns have been working with DRI’s Chief Information Security Officer, Brandon Peterson, to gain hands-on experience building cyber-infrastructure using best practices from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Day 10: Fall of 2018 marked the close of the third season of Science Distilled, events presented by DRI and the Discovery Museum that make cutting-edge science approachable through presentations on current and curious topics held at hip locations in a social atmosphere. Topics this year ranged from genetics and heart health to cybersecurity and resilience, and each of the six talks attracted dozens of science enthusiasts around the Reno area.
Stay tuned for news on the 2019 season! There’ll be six fascinating talks, plus surprise science content coming soon.
Day 11: We at DRI are especially proud of how our researchers work to bring scientific knowledge to the forefront of society by engaging with reporters, policymakers, and community members. For example, Tim Brown, Ph.D., Director of the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI, recently worked with SciLine—a service that connects reporters to academic and industry experts—to produce an in-depth catalogue of information on wildfire science for journalists. Free and open to the public, this scientific information can help provide the expertise and context needed to make sense of scientific topics in the headlines.
Day 12: As we conclude our twelve days of reflection on the incredible year we’ve had, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge one of the key things that’s made it great: YOU! Whether through citizen science projects, community outreach events, collaborations on research projects, or just following along with us online and on social media, you are such an important part of the DRI team. Thank you for being here for science, today and every day.
Meet Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences. At DRI, Rennie is working with Dr. Hans Moosmüller from the Division of Atmospheric Science (DAS) to study aerosols and mineral dust for their optical properties that effect Earth’s energy budget.
What brought you to DRI? After completing my bachelor’s degree at UNR, I am continuing on into my Master’s and my Ph.D. at UNR. The Desert Research Institute offers students access to amazing faculty and research opportunities at one of the world’s leading research organizations.
What are you studying? I am studying aerosols (small particles of solid and liquid that are suspended in the atmosphere) and mineral dust for their optical properties that effect Earth’s energy budget. These properties give insight into how the local and global climate is being affected by the presence of dust and aerosols.
Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.
What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with? I am working primarily with my graduate advisor, Hans Moosmüller. We are working on publishing a paper on particles of iron oxide, the most predominant mineral in most soils on Earth, that have been suspended in water to determine how much light and energy they absorb and scatter. We are also a project to characterize the optical properties of aerosols that are emitted from the burning of cheatgrass. These optical properties are important to clarify the role smoke from cheatgrass plays in changing the Earth’s energy budget.
What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI? My short-term goal is to publish and get my masters finished. My long-term goal is to complete my Ph.D. at UNR and DRI while building a solid foundation in research.
Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun? When I’m not working or doing homework, I love to go hiking with my husband and our dogs and spending time with my family and friends. I also love to bake and try to read as much as I can.
Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.
Christine Albano is a hydrologist and graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. She’ll be attending AGU for the first time this year.
DRI: In a couple of sentences, what is the ‘plain English’ summary of what you are presenting at AGU?
Christine Albano: Through our research, we are examining how the nature and magnitude of atmospheric river impacts vary across the western US in terms of contributions to snowpack, soil moisture, and river flows. We further describe the relative roles of atmospheric and land surface conditions during atmospheric river storms in determining how precipitation is partitioned into soil moisture, river flow, and snowpack.
DRI: What are you most looking forward to at AGU this year? What do you hope to learn, or who do you hope to connect with?
CA: This is my first AGU, so I’m looking forward to (and bracing for!) the spectacle of 25,000+ scientists gathering all in one place. I’m also really looking forward to connecting with others from across the country who are working on similar research questions and to the exposure to research topics that I don’t even know exist yet.
DRI: There’s a challenge on Twitter right now for AGU presenters called #HaikuYourResearch that asks scientists to communicate their research in the form of a Haiku, a 3-line poem that uses just 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line, and 5 syllables in the final line. Would you be interested in attempting a haiku about your research?
CA: Rivers in the sky Where will the rainwater go? The VIC model tells
DRI: The theme of this year’s meeting is “What Science Stands For.” From your perspective, what does science stand for?
CA: To me, science stands for the pursuits of truth, understanding, and discovery. It stands for the progress of humankind, understanding the universe in which we live, and our ability to create.
Meet Christine at her AGU poster, “Spatial and Temporal Variability of Atmospheric River Hydrologic Impacts across the Western U.S.,” happening Monday, December 10th during the morning session. (Session H11V-0754 in the program.)
To learn more about Christine’s work, visit her Featured Graduate Student profile, available here.
This Q&A is part of a series of profiles of DRI scientists who will be participating in the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting, to be held in Washington DC during the week of December 10th. Learn more about this annual meeting of 24,000 scientists from a wide range of disciplines here: https://fallmeeting.agu.org/2018/.
“I knew our research institutions were doing solar energy research, but I didn’t realize how much they were doing,” said Nevada State Assemblyman Chris Brooks in welcoming attendees to the “Solar Nexus: Nevada’s Research Institutions Supporting our Community” panel event at the Springs Preserve on November 14th.
The Solar Nexus project (for short), which also includes researchers from University of Nevada, Reno, began in June 2013, its focus the nexus between solar energy generation, Nevada’s limited water resources, and the state’s fragile environment. Existing industrial solar panel models require water to keep them producing solar power at the rate at which they were intended and alter their surrounding environments, so research is needed to provide solutions to these potential barriers to widespread solar energy adoption in desert environments like Nevada.
Dr. Robert Boehm and Dr. Jacimaria Batista of UNLV describe the original idea for the Solar Nexus project.
All areas of study pursued by the project interweaved the goals of promoting economic diversification in Nevada, minimizing the negative environmental impacts of solar energy development while achieving maximum benefits, and developing the cyberinfrastructure and diverse, educated workforce needed to sustain the renewable energy industry in Nevada.
“The Solar Nexus project has put Nevada on the map with regard to the engineering and research related to solar energy,” said Dana, DRI project director and Nevada EPSCoR Director.
During the panel discussion, Dana and her fellow panelists were quick to point out, however, that research goals were not the only ones met by the project: the economic and workforce development outcomes of the project were also significant.
Brian Beffort, Director of the Sierra Club, Toiyabe Chapter (standing far left) moderated the discussion at the Solar Nexus panel event held at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas. Speakers, from left: Eric Wilcox, Dale Devitt, Bob Boehm, and Gayle Dana. November 14, 2018.
“Workforce development is a really big part of the Solar Nexus project, and we have a number of different mechanisms built in to develop this pipeline of educators and students,” said Dana. The project helped create new faculty and graduate student positions at each of the state’s research institutions, filling out each institution in terms of research area expertise related to solar energy that hadn’t been represented in the past. In all, nearly forty students graduated with advanced degrees related to renewable energy after working on the Solar Nexus project.
Beyond building capacity in the research expertise of Nevada’s research institutions, the project also helped expand the possibilities for commercialization of new technologies related to solar energy. This entrepreneurial activity has a ripple effect.
“Universities are an economic driver for the community,” explained Wilcox, associate research professor of climatology at DRI and solar forecasting researcher on the Solar Nexus project. “Economic growth draws on the intellectual production of faculty at our research institutions.”
With this project coming to a close this year, researchers are looking ahead to the next round of EPSCoR funding and another project that can build research excellence and drive economic development. EPSCoR is a program run by the National Science Foundation that works to stimulate research capacity and competitiveness in states that receive comparatively less federal funding. Nevada is one of 28 states, in addition to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, eligible for EPSCoR funding.
RENO, Nev. (Nov. 28th, 2018) – Michael Dettinger, Ph.D., a leading climate researcher in Nevada, has been named a lifetime Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in honor of his remarkable achievements in advancing scientific understanding of the connections between climate and water resources in the Western U.S. Dettinger is one of 416 AAAS members receiving this honor this year, and one of just ten in the Atmospheric and Hydrospheric Sciences section.
“I am both very honored and quite surprised by this turn of events,” Dettinger said humbly of the recognition. “Make no mistake, this kind of honor is rarely for a one-man show. I have always been eager to pitch in however I can and to collaborate with really fine scientists.”
Dettinger holds several professional and academic appointments: he is a senior research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Research Program, a resident scientist at the University of Nevada Reno, a research associate of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and a distinguished visiting researcher at the Desert Research Institute (DRI).
Over the course of his career, Dettinger has monitored and researched the hydrology, climates, and water resources of the West, focusing on regional water resources, watershed modeling, causes of hydro-climatic variability and extremes (including atmospheric rivers and droughts), and climate change influences.
“Looking forward, I figure that the best use of this kind of honor is to see whether it can be used as a wedge for helping better science and better things happen generally,” said Dettinger.
This year’s Fellows, who represent a broad swath of scientific disciplines, were selected for diverse accomplishments that include pioneering research, leadership within their field, teaching and mentoring, fostering collaborations and advancing public understanding of science. They will be formally recognized at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington D.C., where they will be presented with an official certificate and the AAAS Fellows’ gold and blue rosette pin, the colors of which represent the fields of science and engineering respectively.
AAAS’ annual tradition of recognizing leading scientists as Fellows dates to 1874. Since then, AAAS has honored distinguished scientists such as astronomer Maria Mitchell, inventor Thomas Edison, chemist Linus Pauling, and computer scientist Grace Hopper. Four of the 2018 Nobel Prize laureates – James Allison, Arthur Ashkin, Frances Arnold, and George Smith – are also AAAS elected Fellows.
Rose Shillito is a hydrologist and graduate student researcher working with Markus Berli, Ph.D., associate research professor of environmental science. Rose has worked at DRI since 2011, and she plans to defend her doctoral dissertation at UNLV and earn her Ph.D. in geosciences this fall.
DRI: In a couple of sentences, what is the ‘plain English’ summary of what are you presenting at AGU?
Rose Shillito: Fire can cause soils to become water repellent—water will not spontaneously enter the soil. We have developed a physically-based model to understand and predict the effect of soil water repellency on infiltration, thus on the potential for post-fire flooding and erosion.
DRI: What are you most looking forward to at AGU this year? What do you hope to learn, or who do you hope to connect with?
RS: At AGU, I like to get an overview of research in my specific topic, but also get a general overview of research directions and methods in my field (hydrology). I get a chance to connect with colleagues and make new connections with other researchers.
DRI: The theme of this year’s meeting is “What Science Stands For.” From your perspective, what does science stand for?
RS: Currently, to me, science is about answering questions.
Meet Rose at her AGU poster session, “Effective Infiltration Measurements for Fire-Affected Water-Repellent Soils,” happening Tuesday, December 11th during the afternoon session. (Session H23L-2548 in the program.)
This Q&A is part of a series of profiles of DRI scientists who will be participating in the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting, to be held in Washington DC during the week of December 10th. Learn more about this annual meeting of 24,000 scientists from a wide range of disciplines here: https://fallmeeting.agu.org/2018/.
DRI graduate student Yang Han, fifth from left, received a Young Algae Researcher Award in October.
November 5, 2018 (Reno, Nevada): Desert Research Institute (DRI) graduate student Yang Han was one of six student scientists to be honored with a Young Algae Researcher Award at the 2018 Algae Biomass Summit in The Woodlands, Texas in October.
Han, who received first place for outstanding research in algae engineering, is a Ph.D. student in the atmospheric sciences program. He is currently working under DRI faculty advisor S. Kent Hoekman, Ph.D., to convert algae into biofuel using a high temperature, high pressure thermochemical process known as hydrothermal liquefaction.
There are many potential benefits of using algae as a source of biofuel, Han says.
“Compared with other terrestrial biomass feedstock, algae won’t compete for resources with food production, and will have less impact on land use change and biodiversity,” Han explained. “It can be cultivated in diverse environments – fresh water, waste water, and salt water. Algae also has great potential to rapidly recycle or sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
Yang Han works in the energy lab at Desert Research Institute, in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum.
The Young Algae Researcher Awards recognize outstanding research by early-career scientists using algae to address challenges in energy, human health, climate change, agriculture and other fields. A panel of judges evaluated more than 100 posters based on six key criteria: presentation, methodology, data analysis, poster integrity and the presentation of the poster by the presenter him or herself.
“I felt very honored to receive this award, and look forward to continuing my research in this area,” Han said.
Meet Nic Beres, a Ph.D. student in atmospheric sciences. At DRI, Beres is working with Dr. Hans Moosmüller from the Division of Atmospheric Science (DAS) in Reno to study the mechanisms by which light-absorbing impurities such as dust reduce surface reflectance of snow and ice.
What brought you to DRI? I began my master’s degree in atmospheric science through DRI after working in the gaming industry here in Reno. Instead of helping to develop ways to trick people into losing their money behind a slot machine, I wanted to learn more about the natural environment and contribute to a greater good through some subset of climate science. Growing up in the Reno/Tahoe area, DRI was the perfect fit to satisfy this desire to learn more.
What are you studying? For my Ph.D., I am working to better understand the mechanisms by which light-absorbing impurities reduce surface reflectance of snow and ice. These impurities can include aerosol such as mineral dust or black/brown carbon from combustion processes, or biological material like snow algae.
Graduate student Nic Beres conducts field research on surface reflectance of snow and ice. February 2018.
What research projects are you working on? And who at DRI are you working with? I am primarily working alongside my graduate advisor, Hans Moosmüller. Together, we designed an experimental solution to artificially deposit aerosol of known properties onto the snow surface to derive its incremental reflectance-reducing effect. We can then compare those results to those predicted through modeling. Additionally, I am exploring the lesser-known effect that brown carbon aerosol – which is emitted through combustion processes like wildfire – has on the snowpack. I find myself spending as much time in the field as I do in the lab or behind a computer, so I feel lucky to be where I am.
What are your short-term and long-term goals while at DRI? Short term: publish. Long term: publish.
Tell us about yourself. What do you do for fun? Like many staff, students, and researchers here at DRI, I find myself getting into the mountains. I love rock climbing, hiking, and skiing. I also enjoy photography, travel, and spending time with family, friends, and others that inspire and explore with me.
In his free time, graduate student Nic Beres enjoys spending time in the mountains.
On a Monday morning in mid-October, several small groups of students from Pyramid Lake Junior/Senior High School gathered around tables inside of a conference room at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, sketching ideas, visions, and plans of what they want life on Earth to look like for future generations.
Schuyler Chew, a University of Arizona graduate student who is currently studying climate change resilience and vulnerability with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, encouraged the students to incorporate indigenous language, words, drawings, maps, poems, and stories into their drawings.
“Enlightenment. Growth. Water is life,” one group of students wrote on their poster paper, with key words and themes surrounding a drawing of Pyramid Lake. Another group sketched native wildlife and buildings outfitted with solar panels.
A Youth Day participant sketches his vision for Earth’s future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
A team of Native Waters on Arid Lands Youth Day facilitators adds their visions for the future. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
The activity, part of a day-long event called Youth Day, was one of many hands-on activities, presentations, and discussions designed to engage the students in thinking about how to embrace the challenges of the future with regard to climate, water, and food.
The event was held as part of the Native Waters on Arid Lands project (NWAL), which partners scientists from research institutions such as DRI and the University of Nevada Reno with extension experts and members of tribal communities from across the Great Basin and American Southwest to explore the potential impacts of climate change and evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture.
“The young people here today are incredibly gifted and creative, and our communities will rely on them to employ those gifts in facing the challenges of water, food, and climate in the future,” said Meghan Collins, youth engagement coordinator for the Native Waters on Arid Lands project and Assistant Research Scientist in environmental science at DRI.
Although the NWAL project did not initially place an emphasis on youth engagement, early feedback from project participants from various tribes was that they did not want to be talking about issues of climate without including younger voices in the conversation. In response, the NWAL team has held a series of events for tribal youth and college students at locations such as Salish Kootenai College in Montana, Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, and DRI in 2017 and 2018.
Youth Day organizer Meghan Collins of DRI instructs students in the use of Stories in the Snow kits. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
During the course of their day at DRI, the group heard from Chris Caldwell from the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, who discussed the work that he does with the school’s Sustainable Development Institute. Schuyler Chew, the graduate student from Arizona State University, described his research on climate change resilience and vulnerability with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Steven Chischilly, Associate Professor at Navajo Technical University, described some of the educational opportunities available at his school in New Mexico.
Collins, the event organizer, led the students through an outdoor activity using Stories in the Snow macro-photography kits to explore the environment on the DRI campus and get a taste for scientific inquiry. DRI’s Science Alive Americorps volunteers Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros concluded the event with an activity on the salinity and water quality of western rivers.
“The lively and reflective conversations that I heard today were inspiring,” Collins said. “Students brought their best, and we had a lot of intergenerational dialogue that meant everyone in the room walked away with new perspectives on these issues related to the environment.”
DRI Science Alive team members Brooke Stathis and Chelsea Ontiveros lead an activity at DRI Youth Day. October 2018. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
Later in the week, the Native Waters on Arid Lands project hosted their fourth annual Tribal Summit at the Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno. This event featured two days of presentations and interactive discussions related to climate change, water resources, agriculture, traditional knowledge, livestock and ranching, conservation practices, and other topics. More than 90 people attended the 2018 Tribal Summit, travelling from communities and reservations located across Nevada, North Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Wisconsin, California, Ohio, and Hawaii.
Native Waters on Arid Lands is funded by a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Partners in the project include the Desert Research Institute, the University of Nevada, Reno, the University of Arizona, the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium, Utah State University, Ohio University, United States Geological Survey, and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program in Nevada and Arizona.
DRI faculty involved in this project include Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D. (program director), Christine Albano, Kyle Bocinsky, Ph.D., Meghan Collins, Richard Jasoni, Ph.D., Alex Lutz, Ph.D., Anna Palmer, Beverly Ramsey, Ph.D., and Kelsey Fitzgerald.
The Native Waters on Arid Lands team at DRI in October, 2017. Credit: NWAL/DRI.
Visit DRI’s Northern Nevada campus on a clear afternoon, and you may hear a near-deafening buzzing. A massive swarm of bees? Thankfully, no—it’s an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, being flown by researchers from DRI’s Airborne Systems Testing and Environmental Research (ASTER) laboratory.
Adam Watts, Ph.D., associate research professor of fire ecology and director of the ASTER lab, has worked over the last several years to apply UAS technology in a variety of research projects in dangerous or hard-to-access environments. Perhaps most notably, Watts led a 32-mile UAS flight at 1,500 feet above ground, the longest commercial UAS flight in American aviation history, in 2017. This historic flight was part of a larger effort to determine the feasibility of routinely using UAS for aerial cloud-seeding operations, which until recently have required pilots to fly in dangerous winter storm conditions. (You can read a full write up on the project in Popular Science.)
Drone America’s Savant sUAS flies with cloud seeding flares at the Hawthorne Industrial Airport in Hawthorne, Nev. on Friday, April 29, 2016. The test was successful by igniting the silver-iodide flares at 400 feet and flying for approximately 18 minutes. Photo by Kevin Clifford/Drone America.
More recently, Watts and his team in the ASTER lab have been working in entirely different environmental conditions: above prescribed burns.
“One of the big questions in land management, and in public health, is how smoke from prescribed fires versus wildfires differ, and what the effects are,” said Watts. His team is looking to UAS technology to explore this question and learn more about the differences between prescribed fire emissions and those from wildfire.
Earlier this year, postdoctoral researcher and fire ecologist Kellen Nelson, Ph.D., led the development of an innovative air sampling payload—a set of sensors and sampling equipment installed aboard the UAS—used to collect samples of wildland fire smoke. Traditionally, smoke has been collected by researchers from the air thousands of feet above the fire, or from a safe position on the ground far from the center of the smoke plume. Using a UAS, the research team has the unprecedented ability to collect samples directly from plumes and to move with a fire as its behavior changes, taking real-time measurements of CO2, CO, particulate matter, temperature, humidity, and pressure.
Jayne Boehmler holds up the data logger she designed to track real-time air quality measurements and remotely open the sampling canisters aboard the UAS. Kellen Nelson (left) and Adam Watts prepare the UAS (center) for flight in the background. October 2018.
“By collecting air samples, we’ll be able to test for trace gases and other constituents that we don’t have sensors to measure in real-time,” explained Nelson.
To do this work, the ASTER lab team has worked collaboratively with the researchers in DRI’s Organic Analytical Laboratory (OAL), a group that’s conducted ground-breaking air quality research over the last several years, including work to better understand the compounds present in e-cigarette emissions. The OAL provided sampling canisters to be installed on the UAS that are evacuated of all their contents. While in flight, the canisters are opened remotely to suck in the surrounding air, all using a handheld touchscreen controller developed by the team’s research physicist, Jayne Boehmler. Once the UAS is back on ground, the canisters are removed and returned to the OAL for analysis. Researchers hope these air quality data will improve understanding of smoke emissions from different fuel types.
“Smoke is really ephemeral,” explained Watts. “You’ll have a smoke plume moving around, or a little column of smoke coming up from a patch of vegetation that’s burning. Our custom payload on an unmanned aircraft is a powerful tool to make targeted measurements.”
Adam Watts explains how he’ll pilot the UAS for the test on DRI’s Northern Nevada Campus on October 11th, 2018.
Nelson and Watts successfully tested the payload at the Prescribed Fire Research Consortium’s research burn in Florida this spring and under laboratory conditions this fall. They’ve shown that the UAS can handle eight pounds of equipment with minimal vibration in flight and that the real-time data measurement is accurate. Going forward, Watts, Nelson, and Boehmler hope to test the payload in the field over live prescribed burns.
Last week, the team traveled to the Sycan Marsh Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property in southern Oregon, to test the UAS in the field with the Missoula Fire Lab and the Nature Conservancy. Unfavorable conditions prevented prescribed burns from happening on this trip, but the team has their sights set on getting the UAS back in the field soon.
Boehmler and Nelson work on the UAS at the Sycan Marsh Preserve in October 2018. Credit: Craig Bienz/The Nature Conservancy.
Watch the video to hear from Watts, Nelson, and Boehmler as they prepare for their trip to Oregon and learn more about UAS applications for wildland fire research.
Henry Sun, Ph.D., is an associate research professor of microbiology with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Henry specializes in the study of microscopic organisms that live in extreme environments, often using specimens from here on earth to learn about possibilities for life on Mars. He is originally from China and has a bachelor’s degree in botany and master’s degree in phycology (the study of algae) from Nanjing University. He also holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from Florida State University and completed a post-doc in astrobiology (the study of life in the universe) at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA. Henry has been a member of the DRI community since 2004. In his free time, he enjoys playing pickup basketball with friends in Las Vegas, and spending time with his wife and two kids.
DRI: What do you do here at DRI?HS: I do quite a few things, all centered around the study of life in extreme environments – places that are in one way or another similar to Mars. We are studying what we call analog environments, trying to understand whether there’s life in these places that are comparable to Mars, learning how to go about detecting life and organisms, and developing ideas for reliable instruments that we can send to Mars to look for life there.
DRI: How did you become interested in this line of work? HS: It started in graduate school, when I was given the opportunity to go to Antarctica, to a place called the Dry Valleys, to do my dissertation work. Until 1976, this was a place thought to be devoid of all life. But my former adviser, Imre Friedmann, extrapolating from his work in the hot deserts in the southwestern U.S., discovered thriving communities of microalgae and cyanobacteria in the pore spaces in the Antarctic sandstone. Sandstone is translucent, so sunlight can penetrate the first few millimeters. The stone holds onto water in the pore spaces so it doesn’t dry out right away. And that’s all you need to support life. I fell in love with these organisms on my very first trip there.
Henry Sun at work in Antarctica, January 2005.
DRI: What did you learn from studying those organisms? HS: Probably the most remarkable thing we have learned about these organisms is that they have a very slow growth rate. We have monitored a few rocks closely over the last 50 years and never saw any appreciable signs of growth. In fact, they are so long-lived that their age can be determined by radiocarbon decay. In other words, if you look at their radiocarbon content, you would think they are dead, fossilized organisms. But we know they are alive because as soon as we thaw them to a normal temperature they start to breathe, taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. And because they start to grow and reproduce when we put them in a petri dish and incubate at more favorable temperature conditions.
That said, we still have a lot to learn about these organisms, and the opportunity for a serious study presented itself this year. When my former advisor passed away in 2007, he left behind a large collection of thousands of rocks from Antarctica, amassed over his career, in a walk-in -30oC freezer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Last year, Florida State decided to decommission that building, and the samples were about to be thrown out. This past June, with a little help from DRI and NASA, we raised some money and purchased three freezers. I drove to Florida and hauled all of the samples back in a cargo van full of coolers and dry ice. I moved the entire collection to Las Vegas without them ever being thawed, so now they are sitting at DRI waiting to be studied.
An outcrop of Antarctic sandstone at one of Henry Sun’s field sites.
DRI: What are you planning to do with these samples? HS: Inside of the freezers, the samples are kept at temperatures of -30oC (-22oF) and in complete darkness, but the microbes are still alive. As I said, we have thousands of samples. Only two samples have been studied using modern-day DNA analysis. So, the first thing we want to is a comprehensive molecular study and find out what lives in these samples.
We are also working with colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center to look for cyanobacteria that can grow not using the visible light, but using the infrared. Visible light, which photosynthetic organisms prefer, is filtered out by the sandstone. But the infrared is still present. It is not as good as the visible, but that is all the organisms at the bottom of the colonized zone have. We speculate that they may subsist on the infrared.
Closeup of one of Henry Sun’s Antarctic rock samples, home to unknown species of microorganisms.
DRI: What do you like best about what you do? HS: I feel most rewarded when we engage school teachers and their students in what we do. We do this through a program called Spaceward Bound, which was created by Chris McKay, DRI’s Nevada Medalist from two years ago. The goal is to train the next generation of space explorers in remote but scientifically interesting places that are analogous to the moon or Mars. The reason why we need to start this now is because the first human mission to Mars may happen as early as the 2030s. The scientists who will go to Mars to study its environment are still in school today. We have done several Spaceward Bound expeditions in the Mojave and Death Valley area with teachers and students from Nevada. To me, there is no greater reward than to see children get inspired by the work we do so that one day they may become scientists themselves and continue to push back the frontier of knowledge.
Henry Sun talks with a student at DRI’s 2018 ‘May Science Be With You’ event in Las Vegas.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program learn about dry sanitation during a field trip to the University of eSwatini (Swaziland) project site at the community of Buka, eSwatini. September 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
In August and early September 2018, several faculty members from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) found themselves far from home – teaching courses in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and environmental issues in the Kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, a small country nestled along South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique.
The courses, all focused on a set of interconnected environmental issues and public health challenges referred to by the acronym “WASH” (short for water, sanitation, and hygiene) are part of an ongoing WASH Capacity Building Program, operated by DRI’s Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS). This program received a five-year funding award from humanitarian non-governmental organization World Vision earlier in 2018 and provides technical capacity training to field staff who work in the WASH sector in developing countries.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program on a field trip to a World Vision and eSwatini Water Services Corporation Program site in Matsanjeni, southeastern eSwatini. Students learned about management of piped water supply systems, sanitation technologies and transboundary water issues. September 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program on a University of eSwatini University-led field trip to the Mbabane Wastewater Treatment site. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI. September 2018.
“The WASH Capacity Building Program is a partnership between DRI, the University of Nevada, Reno, Drexel University, and World Vision,” explained Braimah Apambire, Director of CIWAS. “We’ve developed six courses which we teach partly online and partly face-to-face, and the students take four of those courses to complete our post-graduate certificate program. In April, we taught two courses in Ghana, and the two courses that we just taught in eSwatini were the next in the series.”
The current cohort — the third since the program’s pilot season in 2016 — consists of 30 students from 18 African countries. In eSwatini, their coursework focused on water supplies and environmental management in developing countries, and on cross-cutting issues in WASH. The classes were taught by Apambire, DRI’s Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D., and Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., and Emmanuel Opong, Ph.D., of World Vision.
Participants in DRI’s WASH Capacity Program gathered in eSwatini during August and early September 2018 to complete courses in cross-cutting issues in water, sanitation, hygiene and environmental issues. The 2018 cohort includes 30 students from 18 countries. Sept. 2018. Credit: World Vision eSwatini Communications.
From left to right: Courses were taught by instructors Braimah Apambire, Ph.D. (DRI), Emmanuel Opong, Ph.D. (World Vision), Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D. (DRI), and Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D. (DRI). Sept 2018. Credit: World Vision eSwatini Communications.
The classroom time was interspersed with field trips to rural areas, dams, water and sanitation facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and more. Students got a firsthand look at some of the WASH challenges that are common in eSwatini and a chance to experience some of the region’s unique culture and countryside. CIWAS collaborators from the University of eSwatini gave guest lectures and organized field trips for the students during face-to-face teaching in the country.
“ESwatini is a mountainous country and very, very beautiful,” Apambire said. “It is a kingdom with a king who is the ruler of the country, and a traditional culture that is almost completely intact. Their government and NGOs, including World Vision, take interest in developing social programs that help people, especially the poor. But they still have rural areas that do not have water and sanitation facilities.”
Sibebe Rock, north of Mbabane, Capital of eSwatini, one of southern Africa’s most impressive geological features. Sept 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program take a field trip to eSwatini’s Buka Community. September 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Most notably, says Apambire, people of eSwatini are currently experiencing WASH challenges related to an ongoing drought, which neighboring South Africa is experiencing as well. DRI has had discussions with the University of eSwatini and some governmental departments about how the institute can help address their challenges.
“Because of the impact of climate change and reductions in rainfall, they are having some existing wells dry up,” Apambire said. “There needs to be more research to find out what some of the causes are and how to mitigate that. Artificial recharge is one option, and they probably also need to look for alternative sources of drinking water for those communities. That’s their biggest challenge right now.”
Students from DRI’s WASH Capacity Building Program on a University of eSwatini University-led field trip to a house in the Buka community where wastewater is used to grow vegetables. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
Five women are enrolled in the 2018 cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program, receiving training that will help them become leaders in the WASH sector. Sept 2018. Credit: Braimah Apambire/DRI.
For women and girls in many African nations, challenges related to WASH impact everything from their ability to go to school each day to the survival and well-being of their children and families. For this reason, Apambire is pleased to report that, for the first time, five of the students in this year’s cohort are female.
“DRI is helping to build women leaders in this sector,” Apambire said. “Women in Africa are the ones that the burden of fetching water falls on. When you are a girl and there is no water in your village, you spend a lot of time going to fetch water, sometimes a mile or two away. Then you are not able to go to school, so it affects education. Having women become trained as WASH professionals and go back to the villages really empowers them to become a part of the implementation and management of these projects.”
This fall, students in the 2018 cohort of the WASH Capacity Building Program will finish their coursework online, with instruction from Apambire, Seshadri (Shey) Rajagopal, Ph.D. of DRI, Emmanuel Opong, Ph.D., and John Akudago, Ph.D., WASH Sector Expert. The program is now accepting applications for their 2019 cohort.
Several DRI researchers reported on recent projects at the Nevada Water Resources Association (NWRA) Fall Symposium in Reno this week. They were among engineers, resource managers, water rights professionals, and other stakeholders from across Nevada brought together by NWRA to discuss current water resource management topics, research and technology development, and legal issues related to water in the state.
DRI researchers explored a wide range of topics in their presentations, including drought and fire danger, innovations in irrigation, hydromechanics in mining operations, and more:
Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., assistant research professor of climatology and regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center, identified a correlation between drought and dire danger indices and is now working with stakeholders to develop prediction strategies for fire based on EDDI (evaporative demand drought index).
Alan Heyvaert, Ph.D., associate research professor of biochemistry, discussed the impacts of wildfire on surface water, including ash deposition, erosion, and declining water clarity.
Zhiqiang Fang, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, described two recent projects, including evaluating the effects of stresses on tunnels in mining operations using coupled hydromechanical models, and analyzing constant rate fluid injection into rock in geothermal systems.
Hai Pham, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences, showed how his team has used groundwater models to examine the effect of groundwater pumping on surface water in the Tahoe Valley South groundwater basin.
Maureen McCarthy, Ph.D., research faculty in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Christine Albano, graduate research assistant in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, and Justin Huntington, Ph.D., research professor of hydrology, presented with colleagues from other institution–including the University of Nevada, Reno and USGS–about the Water for the Seasons project, a program that partners scientists with community water managers and water right holders in the Truckee-Carson River System (TCRS), to explore new strategies and solutions for dealing with extreme climate events such as droughts and floods. The four year study is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and uses the TCRS in a pilot study to learn how to best link science with decision-making in snow-fed arid-land river systems. By working collaboratively with stakeholders, Water for the Seasons aims to create a model for improving community climate resiliency, or ability to adapt to extreme climatic conditions.
In operation for more than 70 years, NWRA is a non-profit professional association that provides education, networking, and training opportunities for water resources professionals in Nevada. To learn more about NWRA, visit: http://www.nvwra.org/
Photo caption: Prototype sky-imaging camera. Credit: Eric Wilcox.
By: Jane Palmer
Reno, NV (September 1, 2018) – Solar energy is a clean and renewable energy source, but integrating solar power into the grid is not without challenges. For electricity to be useful, it needs to be delivered to users in a steady, reliable, and affordable way, says NEXUS scientist Eric Wilcox of the Desert Research Institute (DRI). But solar energy can only be generated when the sun is shining, so to guarantee a reliable source of electricity requires using power from other sources when the sun goes down or clouds shade solar panels. “This poses both a technical and an economic challenge,” Wilcox says. “How can we design systems so that solar power is maximized and backup power generation is minimized?”
NEXUS researchers have addressed this question from a variety of perspectives. Scientists at DRI and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) have investigated the fluctuations in solar power production due to cloudiness, in an attempt to build accurate forecasts. At UNLV, researchers have built a microgrid—a mini version of the electric power grid—that can operate independently of the main grid for testing “smart” technology. Such technologies will maintain a steady power supply when transitioning between solar power, gas-generated backup, and battery storage systems. Economics researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) have also been performing economic analyses to determine how behavioral economics can motivate greater efficiency and utilization of renewable energy.“The promise of the approaches used and technology under development by this group is central to the mission of increasing the utilization of solar energy and mitigating pollution, by reducing the amount of fossil-fuel generated backup power needed to protect electricity grids from fluctuations in solar power generation,” Wilcox says.
Although Nevada enjoys many sunny days each year, every few weeks or so, the North American monsoon effect carries moisture from the Gulf of California to form clouds over Southern Nevada. And when these clouds come, solar facilities can’t produce as much power.
Numerical weather prediction models can determine when one of these weather events will arrive up to five days in advance, but the models can’t predict when a particular cloud will move in between a solar panel array and the sun. Typically during these times, the amount of sunlight reaching a panel can vary dramatically over very short time scales, causing large fluctuations in voltage and power. Ideally, grid operators could anticipate from the forecasts when these events occur, so that they could coordinate a smooth transition toward using alternative power sources.
“The research has demonstrated the validity of using fluctuations in regional humidity over Las Vegas to characterize the error in solar forecasts derived from numerical weather prediction models,” Wilcox says. “So it will help achieve more accurate day-ahead solar forecasting.”
To detect and predict these quick power fluctuations, Wilcox and his team have built a prototype sky-imaging camera that takes images of the sky in the vicinity of solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays. The weatherproof camera takes the pictures and then analyzes them to distinguish cloudy pixels, which are the smallest units of a digital image, from clear sky pixels. Using this information, a computer algorithm can then track the movement of a cloud and predict when it will shade the PV array.
Following from this work, UNLV assistant professor Brendan Morris has explored more accurate prediction algorithms and UNLV scientist Venkatesan Muthukumar has investigated other concepts to produce distributed sensors for forecasting solar fluctuations. “This idea has really seemed to have caught on now and spread well beyond our DRI lab,” Wilcox says.
The low cost of the developed tool means the scientists could deploy the instruments at distributed solar PV sites in the city of Las Vegas and develop a shared database of sky images. This wealth of data will mean the researchers can continue to refine the algorithms that predict the cloud movements. “The goal is to build networks of sensors that can make predictions of solar generation fluctuations and communicate those forecasts to advanced control systems,” Wilcox says. The researchers are continuing to work on developing the idea of making short-term forecasts of cloud cover in as little as 5 to 20 minutes away. The goal is to determine if the low-cost forecasting technology can make a difference in optimizing the use of batteries, such as the Tesla Powerwall batteries. “Grid operators may also be interested in the networked nature of this solution, so that optimization can happen at the neighborhood scale,” Wilcox says.
As the U.S. electric grid has been starting to run up against its limitations, the Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a vision of a future, more resilient, “smart” electric power infrastructure. The DOE Smart Grid Research and Development Program considers microgrids— localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously—as key building blocks for this smart grid. Using such microgrids would facilitate integrating renewable sources of energy into the electrical infrastructure and offer other advantages for grid reliability.
“Microgrids can strengthen the grid resilience which is becoming increasingly important in the face of the increased frequency and intensity of power outages caused by severe weather due to climate change,” says NEXUS scientist Dr. Yahia Baghzouz of UNLV.
Baghzouz and his team have built a small microgrid at UNLV, which acts as a test bed to investigate the various devices that will be needed for the smart grid and technologies that will ultimately help with the integration of renewable energy resources into the grid infrastructure. Using this microgrid, the scientists have demonstrated that advanced inverters, which convert the output of photovoltaic solar arrays into utility frequency alternating current, can be configured to ride through voltage and frequency disturbances as well as assist with voltage support and reactive power requirements.
Simultaneously, NEXUS scientists Mehdi Etezadi-Amoli and M. Sami Fadali at UNR have built a new lab for simulating real-time digital monitoring and control of remote systems, such as the UNLV microgrid. Baghzouz is also testing the DRI forecasting technology for its ability to smooth out variations in solar power output to the electricity grid when coordinated with a battery energy storage system. “The microgrid is the natural place to see how we can combine forecasting technology with other smart grid technology with the goal of increasing the reliability of solar power on the electric grid,” Wilcox says.
A Different Type of Forecast
Solar power has the potential to supply a sustainable and clean source of energy to households and industry in the state of Nevada and beyond, but to fully realize its benefits requires a detailed understanding of the economic costs and risks associated with its use. “The incorporation of solar into our power supply has to be done with the highest of knowledge, not only in engineering but also in economics,” says NEXUS economist Dr. Thomas Harris at UNR.
Consequently, Harris has also been looking at the risks, for investors, associated with this sustainable energy source. His work has demonstrated that income tax credits and appropriate depreciation schedules can yield rates of return on solar development greater than 15 percent, which is sufficient for private investment. The study also estimates that solar energy development on the 60,000 acres of Nevada designated by the Bureau of Land Management as Solar Economic Zones has the potential to yield $326 million annually in positive impacts on output, employment, and household income.
NEXUS economist Dr. Dilek Uz has been looking into solar energy policy and its political implications. “If, as a society, we have ambitious environmental goals, it is important that we reach them in the most cost effective way possible,” Uz says. When it comes to solar, large-scale projects seem to offer significant cost advantages relative to residential rooftop installations, however the whole issue is highly controversial and politically charged, Uz says.
Storage is the key to integrating renewables into the grid and this is where the new frontier in power utility regulation is, Uz says. Currently the renewable energy policy toolbox of many states includes rebates for residential rooftop solar installations as well as favorable rates for residential solar power. Uz is researching how the different benefits provided by owning a rooftop panel are valued at the residential level. It is research that will inform policy on the correct subsidy level for better use of tax payer money. She is also looking into how owning a rooftop solar panel correlates with voting patterns on energy related issues.
The economics team is also collaborating with the DRI researchers in analyzing the benefits of improved cloud forecasting techniques to mitigate the impacts of intermittency on the economics of solar. “How much does using this technology cost?” Harris says. “It is a very complicated issue from a solar standpoint.”
For solar power to be not just sustainable, but profitable, in future decades economists have to investigate all the variables and permutations associated with this relatively new industry, Harris says.
A Model Future
A common thread running through the research investigating maximizing the benefits of solar power while minimizing the costs is that of building models to test out different systems, technologies and theories. At DRI, the scientists numerically simulate the weather using a supercomputer and at UNLV, the engineers have constructed a physical model of a grid in the form of the experimental microgrid.
Creating such models allows the scientists to see how such complex systems would react in different scenarios e.g., to investigate how the solar power responds to different degrees of cloudiness, or how different technologies can smooth out fluctuations in the grid. Questions like these are difficult to answer only by observing real systems because often so many elements of the system change at the same time. “Modeling is an important research tool for estimating the behavior of such complex systems because we can carefully control the environment,” Wilcox says.
Similarly, at UNR, the NEXUS economists have constructed numerical models to simulate the economic relationships among participants in the energy and development markets in Nevada.
Fluctuations in solar and wind generation are often cited as a limiting factor in preventing generation of a large majority of electricity from renewable sources, Wilcox says. “We seek to understand the economic factors that may limit solar electricity development and then we seek to mitigate the fluctuations that limit the extent to which the grid can depend on solar electricity,” he says. “Overcoming these limitations is essential to reducing greenhouse gases and other pollution emissions from traditional fossil fuel sources of electricity generation.”###
Started June 1, 2013, the Solar Nexus Project is a multifaceted five-year research project focusing on the nexus (or linkage between) solar energy generation and Nevada’s limited water resources and fragile environment. The focus of the Solar Nexus Project is creating a center of research excellence on solar energy conversion to electricity, minimizing its negative impacts on water usage and the environment. In essence, seeking to create a paradigm shift in how solar plants are built and utilized, helping Nevada establish itself as a competitive state in the field of solar nexus research.
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.
Brittany Kruger, Ph.D., is a staff research scientist in geobiology with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, NV. She specializes in the study of microbes that live in deep underground environments, such as those found inside of deep mines. Brittany is a Minnesota native, and holds a Ph.D. and Master’s Degree in Water Resources Science from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her work has taken her to diverse environments, including Lake Superior, Lake Malawi in Africa, Woods Hole, MA, Japan, and a mile-deep abandoned gold mine in South Dakota. She has been a member of the DRI community since 2014, when she moved to Las Vegas for a position in Dr. Duane Moser’s Environmental Microbiology Lab. In her free time, Brittany enjoys rock climbing in Red Rock Canyon and making trips into the Sierras.
DRI: What do you do here at DRI? BK: I am a staff scientist here at DRI. I support a number of different projects that focus on deep biosphere life, which essentially means we try and examine life as deep as we can access it underground. Specifically, we look for microbial life and try and understand how those organisms are functioning given the stresses that they encounter deep underground.
DRI: How do you access deep underground environments? BK: There are a couple different ways you can access the deep biosphere. One way is to actually go there – you can go down in deep mines, for example. In that scenario we can actually bring instruments and equipment down with us. One of our most recently active field sites is an old gold mine in South Dakota, where we are able to go about a mile underground.
Another option to access subsurface life is to use deeply drilled wells that access water or aquifers that are very far underground. This is the approach that we use at active field sites in the Death Valley and Armargosa Valley areas. There aren’t a lot of places in the world where you can access the very hottest, deepest part of the earth quite as easily as we can in this area, because that surface layer of the earth is a little bit thinner here, particularly in the Death Valley region.
Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.
DRI: We understand that some of your research has implications for life on other planets. Can you tell us about that? BK: One of the projects that I’ve been focusing on since I started here at DRI is the NASA Astrobiology Life Underground Project. I have served as continental fieldwork coordinator for that project since joining DRI. We try to access the deep biosphere in multiple locations to install experimentation and collect samples, and we use what we learn about the way microbes are metabolizing and surviving in those locations to help us understand how life might be functioning on other planets that experience the same or similar stressors, like extreme heat, temperature, pressure, radiation, lack of sunlight, etc.
Right now, we’re installing experiments that focus on better understanding exactly what chemical reactions microbes are using to live in these deep environments. If you think about it, the majority of life that we understand well, the life on the surface of the planet, uses sunlight for energy at some point in their food chain. But these microbes deep underground do not. Instead they’re able to rely on dissolved metals or other compounds to produce the energy they need to live. Sometimes they need to be in actual physical contact with these compounds, and attach to those surfaces to live. It’d be similar to us having to go touch a rusty car in order to breathe. So we’re installing various mineral materials into these deep biosphere environments and studying the microbial populations that colonize them.
As an additional component to that project, we also work closely with members of the SHERLOC instrument team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who are developing an instrument slated to fly on the Mars 2020 Rover that uses Raman and Luminescence scanning to detect organics and chemicals. A lot of the field samples and experiment results are analyzed with that instrument to learn more about our samples and to help provide background data for the instrument prior to its Mars deployment.
Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.
DRI: What is it like to work deep underground? BK: It’s great. I love it. I’m always excited to go down. It’s absolute pitch black, and it gets hotter the deeper you go. At our hottest underground site, it is something like 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It is uncomfortable to be there for a long time, for sure. But the facility we work in does a really good job of trying to mitigate air flow while we’re there to keep that a little more comfortable.
One of the best parts is also spending time with the old miners. I go to South Dakota every few months, and spend multiple days underground accessing our sites in what was once the Homestake Gold Mine. Mining has ceased in the facility, and the entire mine has now been dedicated solely to science and is called the Sanford Underground Research Facility. So it’s a really unique facility where people who previously mined the workings are now employed as underground guides for scientists. There are extremely high-level physics labs located about a mile underground on the deepest accessible level. You’d never know you were underground in those labs; they’re like any state of the art aboveground facility.
But, that’s not where we want to go – we want to go to the far away, dirty, dark, hot places where it’s not maintained and where we can access the unaltered water flowing out of the mine wall. So, we get to hang out with the old miners that know the mine, and know how to access those places and know how to do it safely. So that’s fantastic – we get to see some really exciting things and some really awesome old history. It’s fun.
Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.