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

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

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

January 25, 2023

Lynn Fenstermaker
Remote Sensing
NASA Space Grant

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

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

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

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

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

Fenstermaker and Knight

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

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: What first brought you to DRI?

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

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

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

team competing in national soil judging contest

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

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

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

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

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

DRI: Tell me about the NevCAN project.

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

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

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

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

NevCAN transect locations

NevCAN transect locations in Nevada’s Snake Range.

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

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

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

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

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

female digging holes in the desert

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

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

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

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

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

Director of Nevada NASA EPSCoR and the Nevada Space Grant Consortium

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

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

DRI: What are your plans for retirement? 

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

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

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

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

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

soil presentation for 4H

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

Credit: Lynn Fenstermaker/DRI.

DRI: Is there anything else you think is important?

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

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

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

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

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

Jan. 24, 2023

Water Treatment
Water Filters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applications for fall 2023 internships will open in spring 2023.

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

Female scientist testing water samples in lab

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

Credit: DRI.

flouride water samples in flasks in lab

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

Student Researchers: Jennifer Arostegui, Rocio Cortez, Shaezeen Vasani

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

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

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

The Risks of Fluoride Over-Consumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researching Water Filters for Fluoride Removal

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

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

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

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

testing materials in lab

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

Credit: DRI.

Embracing the Research Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

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

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

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

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

January 17, 2023

By Robin Smuda, Climate Reporter Intern

Air Filtration
Reservation Communities
Wildfire Season

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

air quality data in reno

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

Data Source: EPA.

air quality data in douglas

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

Data Source: EPA.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




tapping air filters together

Step 1: Tape two filters together using duct tape.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

bending air filters into triangle

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

Credit: Robin Smuda.

fitting cardboard on top of filters

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

Credit: Robin Smuda.


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

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

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

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

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

air filtration workshop in classroom

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

Credit: Provided by Piercen Nguyen.


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

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

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

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

Jan. 5, 2023

Prehistoric Ceramics 
California Desert District

A Q&A With Archaeologist Greg Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

map of mojave desert region

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

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

great basin brown ware decoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

example of a Tizon Brown Ware body sherd

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

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

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

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

DRI: Would ceramic artifacts last much longer than that?

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

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

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

example of Lower Colorado Buff painted ware

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

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

DRI: And what can we learn from these artifacts?

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

DRI: What do you mean by “wares”?

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

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

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

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

rim morphologies
example of a Lower Colorado Buff plain sherd

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

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

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

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

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

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

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

LCBW vessels

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

Credit: Greg Haynes/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

DRI: Any final thoughts?

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

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

More Information

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

Tim Minor: Celebrating a Career in GIS and Remote Sensing

Tim Minor: Celebrating a Career in GIS and Remote Sensing

Tim Minor: Celebrating a Career in GIS and Remote Sensing

DECEMBER 21, 2022

Tim Minor
Remote Sensing

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

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

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

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

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

Tim Minor and Mary Cablk

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

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

DRI: What first brought you to DRI?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newspaper clipping of Tim Minor running photo

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

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

DRI: Tell me more about your competitive running career.

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

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

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

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

DRI: What are some of your career highlights?

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

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

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

DRI: Tell me more about the project in Ghana.

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

DRI: Are these wells still in use?

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

Tim Minor and students at UNR sitting at a table

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

Credit: Tim Minor/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRI: What advice do you have for young scientists?

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

DRI: Do you speak another language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air Pollution Near Roads is Changing

DECEMBER 5, 2022
RENO, Nevada

Air Pollution

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

Credit: Photo by plherrera, iStock. 

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

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

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

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

California sampling map

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

Credit: Elyse DeFranco/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on this study:

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

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

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

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

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

NOVEMBER 21, 2022

Climate Change
Water Quality
Tropical Reservoirs

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

Credit: Arturo Peña Romano Medina, iStock Photo.

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

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

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

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

DRI: What was the impetus for this research?

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

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

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

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

ALMD and water quality sampling site's geographical location.

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

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Tommy Gugino/DRI.

More on this study:

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

Published Sep. 5 in the Journal of Environmental Management

Jim Hudson: Celebrating a Career in Cloud Physics

Jim Hudson: Celebrating a Career in Cloud Physics

Jim Hudson: Celebrating a Career in Cloud Physics

NOVEMBER 17, 2022

Cloud Physics
Cloud Condensation Nuclei
Atmospheric Science

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

Credit: Jim Hudson/DRI.

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

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

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

DRI: What inspired you to become a cloud physicist?

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

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

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

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

Jim Hudson and other male scientists

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

Credit: Jim Hudson/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRI: What advice do you have for future scientists?

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

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

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

male scientist in lab holding equipment

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

Credit: Jim Hudson/DRI.

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

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

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

SEPT 19, 2022

By Robin Smuda, Climate Reporter Intern

Native Climate

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

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

washoe lands map

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

Credit: Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hímu burden basket on top of table

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

Credit: Robin Smuda.


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

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

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

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

graph of 7-day warm spells

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

Credit: Paige Johnson and Kyle Bocinsky, Native Climate.


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

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

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

Valley hímu near a creek

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

Credit: Robin Smuda.


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

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

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

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

Credit: Robin Smuda.

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

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

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

Heading to the Mountains?

The Living Snow Project needs your help
JULY 8, 2022

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Living Snow Project
Snow Algae
Citizen Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

female scientist digs through patch of light pink snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: DRI

Want to participate in the Living Snow Project?

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

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

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


About DRI

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

Meet Victoria Wuest, Graduate Researcher

Meet Victoria Wuest, Graduate Researcher

Meet Victoria Wuest, Graduate Researcher

JULY 5, 2021


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

Credit: Alison Swallow/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scientists extracts DNA from water sample

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

Credit: Alison Swallow/DRI.

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

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

Scientist samples stream water

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

Credit: Duane Moser.

DRI: What are your research goals?

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

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

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

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

scientist samples mainstem in water

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

Credit: Duane Moser.

Additional Information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

Meet Brianda Hernandez Rosales, Graduate Researcher

MAY 23, 2022


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

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

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

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

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

DRI: What are you studying?

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

Brianda Hernandez Rosales headshot

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

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

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

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

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

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

Hualapai Community Garden

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

Credit: Alexandra Lutz.

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

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

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

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

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

pebble wrestling

“Pebble wrestling” in Rocky Mountains National Park.

Credit: Mike Hernandez.

Additional Information:

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

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

DECEMBER 6, 2021

Ecosystem Sciences

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

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

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

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

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

DRI: What are you studying?

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

Van Der Nagel moapa

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

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

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

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

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

van der nagel ant nests

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

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

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

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

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

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

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

Van Der Nagel in Zion

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

Credit: Charlotte van der Nagel.

Additional Information:

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

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

Meet Anne Heggli, Graduate Researcher

OCTOBER 27, 2021
Atmospheric Science

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

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

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

Credit: M. Heggli.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Heggli: The applied and operational approach towards research.

DRI: What are you studying?

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

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

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


Anne Heggli at Sagehen Creek Field Station

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

Credit: M. Heggli.

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

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

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

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

Anne Heggli with Hydropower agency in Panama

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

Credit: M. Heggli.
Additional Information:

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


Meet Graduate Researcher Nicholas Kimutis

Meet Graduate Researcher Nicholas Kimutis

Meet Nicholas Kimutis, Graduate Researcher

SEPTEMBER 29, 2021

Public Health

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


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

Credit: Lauren Redosh.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

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

DRI: What are you studying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Credit: Ryan Wong

Additional Information:

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


Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Natasha Sushenko, Graduate Researcher

May 11, 2021

By Kaylynn Perez

Environmental Microbiology
Pathogenic Bacteria

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

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

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

Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

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

Credit: Detra Page/DRI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Natasha Sushenko

Additional Information:

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

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


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

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

Restoration by Drone

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

MAY 3, 2021

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Forest Restoration

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

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

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

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

Credit: DRI.

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

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

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

Credit: DRI.

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

drone landing in burnt forest

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

Credit: DRI.

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

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

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

Credit: DRI.

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

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

Credit: DRI.

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

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

Credit: DRI.

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

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

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

Credit: DRI

Additional photos: 

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

Links to Media Coverage:

Restoring area forests one flight at a time, KOLO8 –

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

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


About Desert Research Institute

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

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Dylan Person, Graduate Researcher

APRIL 19, 2021

By Kaylynn Perez

Cultural Resource Management

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

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

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

Credit: Greg Haynes.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

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

DRI: What are you studying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Lizzie Person.

Additional Information:

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

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


Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

Meet Nathan Chellman, Ph.D.

MAR. 25, 2021

Ice Cores
Climate Change

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

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

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

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

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Monica Arienzo/DRI.

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

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

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

DRI: What were the working conditions like in Greenland?

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

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

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

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

Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

DRI: Do you have any plans to return?

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

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

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

Additional Information:

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

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


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

DRI scientist Nathan Chellman.

Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

DRI welcomes new graduate students to Reno and Las Vegas campuses

DRI welcomes new graduate students to Reno and Las Vegas campuses

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

Natasha Sushenko

Natasha Sushenko

Natasha Sushenko
Las Vegas Campus

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

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


Victoria Wuest

Victoria Wuest

Victoria Wuest
Las Vegas Campus 

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

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



Manuel de Cespedes Molina

Manuel de Cespedes Molina

Manuelde Cespedes Molina 
Las Vegas Campus

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

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



Marc Berghouse

Marc Berghouse

Marc Berghouse
Reno campus 

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

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




Anne Heggli

Anne Heggli

Anne Heggli
Reno campus 

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

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




Porraket Dechdacho

Porraket Dechdacho

Porraket (Porra) Dechdacho
Reno campus 

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

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




Zakaria Jibrin, DEES (Coming soon) 

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

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

Making Sense of Remote Sensing

SEPT 28, 2020

Remote Sensing
Hydrologic Sciences

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

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

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

Matt Bromley

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

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

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

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

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

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

OpenET data showing evapotranspiration graph

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

Credit: OpenET.

screenshot of OpenET website

To learn more about OpenET project, visit their website at

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

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

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

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

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

OpenET data showing evapotranspiration graph

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

Credit: OpenET.

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

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

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

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

Additional information

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

To learn more about the OpenET project, please visit:

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

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

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Sandra Brugger, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Researcher with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences, and a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Fellow.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Brugger: I started at DRI in October 2019 with an Early Postdoc Mobility grant funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). DRI is home of one of the world-leading ice core labs. I am extremely grateful that I could join Professor Joe McConnell’s ice core group in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) and be co-supervised by Professor Dave Rhode in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences (DEES).

DRI: What are your research interests?

Brugger: I am interested in past vegetation dynamics and their relationship with climate change and human activities. Using optical pollen, charcoal, and other microfossil analyses in ice cores, we can infer how the ecosystems and fire regimes have changed over time. We can then try to reconstruct sensitive ecosystems in high latitude regions to gain a better understanding how they will react to rapid global warming.

DRI: What is the SNSF Fellows Virtual Conference?

Brugger: The conference is a multidisciplinary platform where Postdoc fellows are sharing their exciting results and show how diverse the research is that the Swiss National Science Foundation is funding with over 700 projects around the world.

DRI: How did you get involved in helping lead this unique event?

Brugger: Most conferences were cancelled this summer. Young scientists rely very much on presenting their results, networking at scientific meetings, and interacting with other research fellows. Therefore, my SNSF-Mobility fellow Tobias Schneider (University of Massachusetts) and I spontaneously decided on a Friday evening over a virtual glass of wine on Zoom to turn our own pandemic misery into a virtual conference for us and our fellow SNSF-postdoc fellows in the US and around the world. Six weeks and several virtual wine glasses later, we are ready and excited to host the four-day long conference on Zoom.

The multidisciplinary character of the conference is also reflected in the exciting keynotes that will be presenting their research. Among them, we have two from DRI: Professor Monica Arienzo will introduce us to her latest research on microplastics in Alpine environments, and Professor Joe McConnell will be presenting on Roman lead pollution in Arctic ice cores.

Since we have one thing in common among all fellows, the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to hold a daily panel on COVID-19 with invited frontline workers that will be hosted by Theresa Watts, Professor at ORVIS School of Nursing at UNR. On Thursday, Professor Ajay Sethi from the University of Wisconsin-Madison will give a keynote on conspiracy theories around COVID-19.

Sandra Brugger (Klimaforscherin), Institute of Plant Sciences, PhD student – Palaeoecology. © Manu Friederich

DRI: What are you hoping to accomplish? What would be the best outcome for this event?

Brugger: We hope to provide an inspiring meeting where people can present their work, get new input, and maybe even provide additional research motivation during difficult home-office situations they are experiencing. And above all, we are excited to get to know our fellows and their fascinating research projects.

DRI: How can people get involved or watch the event?

Brugger: The event is free of registration and will be hosted on three platforms: Zoom, Youtube and Remo. The program and the links to join the virtual conference can be found on our Event website: hosted by Swissnex Boston, our partner for the conference.

DRI: How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?

Brugger: My own research has been severely impacted. I started the project only 8 months ago and since March we have only very limited access to lab facilities. This is critical for sample preparation and analyzing data in this early stage of the project.

Also, our group had to cancel fieldwork and as mentioned above, most conferences got cancelled this summer and for the upcoming months hopefully can be replaced by virtual meetings. It was a tough time to arrive new to the USA from Switzerland and to face the pandemic in a foreign country.

Meet Gai Elhanan, M.D.

Meet Gai Elhanan, M.D.

Gai Elhanan, M.D., is a health data scientist with the Division of Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. He specializes in health care informatics, and is a physician with more than 12 years of experience in internal medicine and infectious diseases. Gai received his M.D from Tel Aviv University and his M.A in Medical Informatics from Columbia University. He also completed a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at the Medical Informatics Department, New York Presbyterian Medical Center/Columbia University. In his free time, Gai enjoys listening to jazz and classical music, flying radio-controlled airplanes, and doing woodwork.

What do you do here at DRI?

I came to DRI in 2017 to work with the Healthy Nevada Project. I am a physician by training, so, I am the guy within the Healthy Nevada Project that gives the clinical perspective on the data and questions. I provide the viewpoint of a health professional, whereas the other people on the team are geneticists, data scientists, or have backgrounds in other scientific fields. We sometimes collaborate with the physicians at Renown, cardiologists or other specialists, but they are very busy taking care of their many patients; we can’t really utilize them to the extent we would like. So, that is exactly where I come in. It might not be that I am the most up-to-date in every field of medicine, but I bring the clinical perspectives and medical knowledge to the team.

One of your specialties is in health care informatics. Can you tell us a little bit about this field of study?

Yes, I’ve been involved with health informatics for 20-something years now. Basically, it’s a very broad field that investigates how data can be used to improve health care. In health care, we have vast amounts of data, and we don’t use it optimally. When you visit a doctor, everything is coded – your diagnosis, procedures, medical services. These codes are mostly used for billing purposes, but we can also extract clinical information for research. For example, We can utilize the genomic information we collect from the HNP participants and correlate it to clinical findings and diagnoses in the electronic medical records to try and predict risk and factors that are associated with outcomes of certain conditions.

In health care informatics, we look at how data should be presented for research or patients or clinicians, and how to draw conclusions from the data. By improving the utilization of the data within the electronic health record, we improve the quality and efficiency of the care provided, we improve the ability to do research on the data and, overall we improve the health of the population. How to get the right data, how to organize it, and how to present it optimally for each task are all very important things.

What are you working on right now with the Healthy Nevada Project?

Right now, with the Healthy Nevada Project, we’re trying to improve participation for specific groups of individuals. Originally the Healthy Nevada Project was testing whoever walked in, they were encouraged to provide their saliva and join the project. But now, for several reasons, we’re also trying to improve targeted recruiting in order to better represent the actual population of the region. So, we’re trying to identify who might be good potential participant for the project, and work with Renown’s research coordinators and ambassadors for the project to reach out to people who we would like to have participate.

I am also working on a project with Gilead, the pharmaceutical company, concerning a condition called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis). NASH affects a significant portion of the population here in Northern Nevada, and can result in life threatening outcomes. This is a strategic collaboration to collect and analyze genetic and electronic health data that can enhance the understanding of NASH and potentially inform development of treatment options for the disease.

How did you end up here at DRI?

I did my medical training in Israel, and also did my residency there. We ended up in the U.S. because my wife is originally from the States. She is a physician as well, a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist. I decided that I didn’t want to practice medicine in the U.S., I wanted to do something else. So, in 1995, I got a NIH grant to do a postdoc fellowship at Columbia University in New York. I got a master’s degree there in medical informatics. We came to Reno a few years ago when my wife was offered a position at Renown, and that’s when I started at DRI with the Healthy Nevada Project. Her position didn’t work out and she went back to New York, but I like the potential in the Healthy Nevada Project and the group of people I’m working with so I stayed with the DRI team to keep doing my work.  The team here is a really nice group of people.

To learn more about the Healthy Nevada Project, please visit:

To learn more about Gai’s work with the Renown Institute of Health Innovation (Renown IHI), please visit: 


Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.


MAY, 2020

Scientific Illustration

Meet DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira and learn about her work in botany and scientific illustration in this interview with DRI’s Behind the Science blog.

Tiffany Pereira, M.S., is an assistant research scientist with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. She has been a member of the DRI community since July of 2019, and specializes in field biology, range ecology, and scientific illustration. Tiffany is originally from southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from University of Southern California and a Master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). In her free time, she enjoys doing artwork, singing in a community choir, hiking, and taking care of a small army of pets – ten species of frogs, geckos, a salamander, a caecilian (a legless amphibian), and three snakes.

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs

DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira collects a sample of Merriams Bearpoppy (Arctomecon merriami), a sensitive species, at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.  

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Pereira: I specialize in the flora and fauna – so, plants and animals – of the desert southwest, and the ecological processes going on in the region. In my work, I try to provide land managers and resource managers with sound advice and sound research to back up issues that they might have when it comes to protecting and conserving our natural resources. I’m also a scientific illustrator, so I try whenever I can to incorporate artwork into what I do.

I started here at DRI in July of 2019 after graduating with my masters from UNLV, so I haven’t been here quite a year yet – but so far, one of my main tasks has been to provide resource management planning out at the Nevada Test and Training Range. I’m also working on a new project to do a botanical inventory out at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.

Las Vegas Bearpoppy (Arctomecon california), another sensitive species found at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument. April 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

DRI: Where is Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, and what do you hope to learn there?

Pereira: Tule Springs is a new park that was formed by the National Park Service in 2014 on land that was formerly managed by the BLM. It is a vast landscape, and it’s located on the north edge of Las Vegas with housing developments that back right up to the border, so it is what you would consider an urban park. The park is known for the presence of Ice Age fossils – including some really cool ancient mammals like mammoths, lions, bison, ground sloths, and camels – but there is also a diverse array of modern-day Mojave Desert flora and fauna on the site that hasn’t really been studied yet.

The park managers at Tule Springs are facing some unique challenges, because people used to have basically unlimited access to do whatever they wanted on the land. Now, the park is trying to manage the land and resources in a more sustainable way, but they don’t have much baseline data to support what they are trying to accomplish. It’s hard to manage rare plants and invasive species if you don’t really know what’s out there, or where those populations are occurring. So, that’s where this botanical inventory comes in.

Above: Tiffany Pereira collects samples of Merriams Bearpoppy (Arctomecon merriami; the white flower) and Las Vegas Bearpoppy (Arctomecon californica; the yellow flower) at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020. Both are sensitive species, says Tiffany, and it is special to have them both in the park. 

Photographs by Ali Swallow/DRI.

How do you do a botanical inventory?

Well, the monument itself is 22,605 acres. It’s a really large area to cover, so we can’t aim for 100 percent coverage, but we will go out to randomly located sample sites to get a feel for the vegetation, the cover, and what the dominant species are. Then we’ll move to different spots and get different plants from different areas – for example, if we spend some time in a creosote shrub community, then we’ll move down into a sand dune community, or down into the washes. We will also go out at different times of year in order to capture peak flowering periods of each major group of plants. Our job to collect specimens that will be stored in an herbarium at the Nevada State Museum as a permanent record of the plants found at this monument, and also to create a species list for the park, like a checklist. That’s where scientific illustration might come in – I might try to illustrate some of the more prolific species, or rare or special status species found on the monument.

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Why do you like to use scientific illustration in your work? What do you see as the benefit of an illustration, over, say, a photograph?

Oftentimes, especially with certain medical, botanical, or wildlife illustrations, illustrations are done in black and white. That’s because you can actually get a lot more detail and texture to come across in an illustration than in a normal photograph. It also is better for people who are colorblind, or who have trouble discerning the subtleties of color.

 With an illustration of a plant, you can look at multiple examples and sort of illustrate the average to get the best possible representation of that particular species or specimen, rather than just choosing one and saying “all right, this is the one I’m going to take a picture of.” You can also show multiple life stages at once, or show a specimen from different angles.

Scientific illustration is actually something that has been around forever. All of the graphics in our textbooks, those are scientific illustrations. Early researchers like Darwin and Audubon, they had to rely on illustration to convey their findings and to progress their fields. So, it does have a very deep thread winding through the course of scientific discovery. And in the age of trying to think more about science communication, and getting our work out there in an accessible and sharable way, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Why read an abstract that is confusing and painstaking, when you can look at a visual abstract that graphically depicts the findings of a paper?

In addition to the more traditional approaches to scientific illustration, there are also some more modern scientific illustration techniques that are accepted as part of this growing field. The use of stacking software is one, where you take photos through a microscope and focus them at different levels, then use software to compress and combine ten or twenty images into one beautiful photo that is focused all the way through.

“In the age of trying to think more about science communication, and getting our work out there in an accessible and sharable way, a picture is still worth a thousand words.”

How did you become interested in scientific illustration?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a Disney animator because I loved illustration, I loved artwork. As I got older, my love for science kind of chipped in on that – but I always had a mentality of “why not both”? As an undergrad, I combined the two as much as I could – I was a science major, but I also minored in fine arts. And then, I was pleasantly surprised to come across the whole field of scientific illustration, and realize that it really is its own thing.

Once I learned that scientific illustration was a field in its own right, I thought, never again will I try to separate the two aspects of my being. There really is a field that combines science and art, and that’s exactly how I am as a person. So, I incorporated it as part of my undergrad, I had a whole chapter of my master’s thesis dedicated to it, and I’m pleased and grateful to DRI for allowing that to be a part of my career now.

Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs

DRI scientist Tiffany Pereira works at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in April, 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Meet Ben Hatchett

Meet Ben Hatchett

Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., is an assistant research professor in the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. Ben has been a member of the DRI community since 2005 when he began as an undergraduate lab assistant. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in geography, Master’s in atmospheric sciences, and Ph.D. in geography, all from the University of Nevada, Reno. Ben specializes in dryland and alpine hydroclimatology and hydrometeorology. In addition to his research and teaching, he enjoys watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee before going backcountry skiing, climbing, or mountain biking in the Sierra Nevada.

DRI: You’ve been in Reno for some time now. Could you tell us about what brought you to Reno originally and your educational background? 

BH: I came to the University of Nevada as an undergraduate. I was always planning on going to Montana State, but I grew up snowboarding on Donner Summit, and friends and I would ride Boreal for the night sessions. I remember riding there one night, in the evening when the sun was setting and everything was purple and pink in alpenglow, and I thought, I just can’t leave. This is where I’m from, and this is what I do, and I want to keep doing this. And I can go to school right down the street from here. Perfect! So, that’s what brought me to UNR.

During my time as an undergrad, I took the full sequence of avalanche safety courses because I’d gotten really into being in the backcountry. Those courses started convincing me that I needed to learn more about meteorology, then I spent a summer in Chamonix, which reinforced that idea. Skiing in the Alps, in an environment so different than the Sierra Nevada with huge glaciers and extreme hazards, and seeing how fast the weather changed there, made me realize that I really needed to learn more about weather and its relationship to snow science.

DRI: Now you do quite a bit of work related to avalanches. What does that research involve, and what are the big questions? 

BH: My goal is to better apply what we know about meteorology to understand the timescales and prediction skill for avalanches and how we can use that to minimize risk. Subtle changes in weather, like wind direction or snow crystal shape, can quickly create massive changes in the safety of a slope and the state of a given snowpack. As soon as you want to apply what you know about snow to understand its relation to the mountain environment, you need meteorology so you can say, for example, this is the sort of storm that can create large and widespread avalanche activity, thus we’ll need extra patrollers at the resorts.

For me, it all comes from the question: where’s the best safe place to ski and why? So much of my work is seeing something interesting while I’m in the mountains and thinking “I wonder why that happened?” For example, why did that slope slide when another didn’t? How does that tie into the meteorological history of the snow season?


A skier poses on the massive pile of snow and debris left behind by the Valentine’s Day 2019 avalanche on Mt. Shasta. Credit: Ben Hatchett.

DRI: Can you tell us about one of those times you saw something interesting out in the field and investigated it? 

BH: Probably the best recent example I have is the avalanche that took place on Valentine’s Day 2019 on Mt. Shasta. In late June of last year, we skied up what was left after the avalanche, a fifty-foot-tall pile of debris. Skiing up it and seeing the remnants many months later was really striking and made me want to look further into it.

The big question that folks in my field were speculating about was when it happened, because that can tell us a lot about why it happened. I thought of checking the seismic network to see if it would have registered there, and sure enough, it did! This allowed us to pinpoint the time of the slide to the second it occurred. From there, we could evaluate all the other information we typically look at, like wind speed and direction, precipitation phase, and temperature, and begin to make more-informed hypotheses about what caused the avalanche.

DRI: Have you seen that snowpacks, and the potential for avalanches, are changing under warming climate conditions? 

BH: Climates have always changed, but what we’re seeing now across mountain landscapes is something different. We have background warming, which is causing more precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow in middle and lower elevation mountains. This warming is also causing fewer freezing nights in the spring, which goofs up our historically awesome spring skiing. We’re seeing more extreme loading events, with lots of snow falling all at once, but also more prolonged (and warmer) dry spells. High elevation rain-on-snow events are becoming more frequent, which creates an unstable surface for additional snowfall once they freeze. All of this favors weaker snowpacks, which suggests more, and larger, avalanches may be possible.

I’m working on an article right now related to this and the future of skiing. As lower elevation snowpacks disappear, more skiers and snowboarders are pushed into the higher elevations, where conditions are often sketchier and more objectively hazardous. With more people recreating in a relatively small area, there’s a greater likelihood that people will be exposed to avalanches.

snowpack graphic

This graphic shows that snowpack accumulation is taking longer and longer–it’s now happening about 15 days later in the season than it did in 1985. Credit: Ben Hatchett.

DRI: What’s happening with our snowpack in the Sierra Nevada this year? 

BH: This winter is a classic “what the heck?!” winter. It started off very dry, with well-below normal precipitation into November. Then we had a warm, wet storm around Thanksgiving to get us back to “normal” mid-winter conditions up high. Throughout December, the storms we got were cold enough to accumulate a healthy, above-average snowpack. January was very dry, but we had a few nice cold storms. This was followed by one of the driest Februaries on record. Basically, we enjoyed spring skiing conditions in February and early March that are more typical of April. Mid-March brought us an ideal snow-producing storm that did wonders for the ski conditions and made a nice dent in the snowpack deficit. So far, April has brought us another decent storm. These spring storms help to create interesting avalanche situations as the sun becomes increasingly intense and temperatures warm. While we’re still looking likely to end up with a below-average year, compared to the other recent drought years this season has far and away had the best ski conditions.

This winter, along with the other variable winters we’ve seen in the last decade, makes me wonder whether this is the jumping off point into a new kind of mountain recreation landscape, where we can go from excellent conditions to something that’s not so great in no time. I think the Sierra Nevada, and other maritime mountain ranges, are going to continue to become more susceptible to changes in weather and climate variability.

DRI: What drives you to continue doing this work? 

BH: Just being in the mountains and trying to pick the optimal weather conditions for ski runs or mountain bike rides has been a huge motivation for my research. I’m most mentally productive when I’m climbing up mountains. You’re able to just let go of everything when you’re spending several hours going up a hill, whether that’s on skis, on a trail, on rock, wherever! It gives you a lot of time to think, observe, and consider.

I’m always trying to see new things and then better understand what I’ve seen. As a backcountry enthusiast, you get to see all kinds of interesting environments with different kinds of weather, geology, as well as human relationships to those places. Wanting to protect alpine environments and get other people psyched on them inspires my research quite a bit.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe. Credit: Ben Hatchett.

Meet Steve Bacon, M.S.

Meet Steve Bacon, M.S.

Steve Bacon, M.S., P.G., C.E.G. is an associate research scientist of geomorphology with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno. Steve specializes in geology, paleoclimate, and landscape evolution, and has been a member of the DRI community since 2005. He is a licensed geologist and certified engineering geologist in California. He is also originally from southern California, and holds a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in environmental systems – geology from Humboldt State University. In his free time, Steve enjoys skiing and camping with his family.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

Bacon: I work in engineering geology, geomorphology, and geologic hazards, which are fields focused on understanding  why landforms and landscapes look the way that they do and how they can potentially pose a hazard. I’m currently finishing up my pursuit for a Ph.D. in hydrology, focusing on paleoclimate modeling of Owens Lake in central California. Outside of my Ph.D. research, I work on U.S. Navy projects at China Lake through DRI’s Naval Earth Science Engineering Program (NESEP) , doing engineering geology and geomorphology. I also commonly work on Department of Energy (DOE) projects to assess the hazards related to surface erosion for DOE facilities in the western US, as well as on a National Institute of Health (NIH) project characterizing the spatial distribution of naturally occurring mineral fibers across northern Nevada.

Steve Bacon samples sediments along the bank of the Snake River in Idaho.

DRI: Can you tell us about your research at Owens Lake?

Bacon: Yes, I’ve been working to identify past precipitation changes in the Owens River watershed, in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains – so looking at how wet and how dry the environment in that area has been over many thousands of years. I’ve developed a lake-level record of Owens Lake going back 50,000 years. To do that, I’ve been dating shoreline deposits using radiocarbon and luminescence age dating techniques, and integrating lake sediment core records to produce a continuous lake-level record.

All of the precipitation and snowmelt from the watershed ultimately goes to the lake, so when the lake fills up, that’s a function of how much precipitation has occurred. So, using the continuous lake-level record, I’m doing watershed and lake hydrologic modeling to learn about changes in prehistoric precipitation levels that occurred over the last 12,000 years.

DRI: How will this information be used?

Bacon: Ultimately, it can be used to understand past atmospheric circulation patterns, like, where the jet stream was at different periods of time. For example, if it was dry in the southern Sierras, chances are the jet stream was further to the north. And when there were periods where it was relatively wet, the jet stream was further south. Atmospheric modelers can use that information to refine their models of the past.

This information can also help us to understand the future, to better understand climate change. To understand what potentially can happen in the future, we rely on the past; that’s one main reason why you study the past.

View from Steve Bacon’s field camp during a research expedition in the southern Owens Valley. Owens Lake and the Sierra Nevada mountains are in the distance.

DRI: How did you become interested in this particular research question?

Bacon: I love the east side of the Sierra Nevada. I always have, ever since I was a kid and we’d drive up to Mammoth or go camping out in Death Valley and Panamint Valley. I had an opportunity as a grad student to investigate the Owens Valley fault, which last ruptured in 1872 and produced the third largest earthquake in California. We trenched that fault to characterize the earthquake history, but to understand the earthquake history, we had to characterize the lake-level history, because the fault broke up the shoreline deposits left by the lake. So that’s when I started putting together the lake-level history of Owens Lake, as part of my master’s thesis at Humboldt State University. I’ve been working on this problem for 21 years.

DRI: What do you like about studying the ancient history of places like Owens Lake?

Bacon: It’s like a scavenger hunt. You’re looking around for clues to solve a puzzle. It’s a big geologic puzzle. We go four-wheel-drive around in the desert, or hike with a shovel, digging, cleaning off geologic exposures on different landforms, such as riverbanks and alluvial fans, just finding clues. Geologic clues. It’s fun. I like it. That’s why I do it, I guess.

Steve Bacon samples sediments along the bank of the Snake River in Idaho.

For more information on Steve Bacon and his work, please visit his directory page.

Meet Ken McGwire, Ph.D.

Meet Ken McGwire, Ph.D.

Ken McGwire, Ph.D., is an associate research professor of geography with the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. He specializes in environmental mapping, monitoring and modeling using satellite imagery and geographic information systems (GIS)software for viewing and analyzing geographical data. Ken came to DRI in 1994 from the University of California Santa Barbara, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in geography. In his free time, he enjoys skiing and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. 


DRI: What do you do here at DRI? 

Ken McGwire: I study how things vary in space and across time in the environment, using satellite image analysis, computer mapping, and general database and programming skills. I came to DRI 25 years ago from U.C. Santa Barbara with degrees in physical geography, and what I’ve worked on here at DRI has been all over the place. There are so many cool interdisciplinary connections you can make here; I’ve found a lot of opportunities to apply the sorts of ways I look at the world to other disciplines.  

I’ve worked on everything from 3-D imaging projects with paleontologists, to scanning images of ice cores, to working with virologists from the University of Nevada, Reno on epidemiology studies. I was a member of the science team for a NASA satellite mission called “Earth Observing 1,” looking at the ability to map invasive species with a type of technology called hyperspectral imaging. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work with some of the older, well-used satellite systems – making use of the long archive of historical observations to look at how the environment has varied and may be changing over time. 


DRI: We understand that you’ve recently completed a detailed statewide map of all of Nevada’s wetland areas. Can you tell us about that project? 

McGwire: Yes, about two years ago, I was awarded a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency through the Nevada Natural Heritage Program, in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, the Spring Stewardship Institute, and the Nevada Division of Wildlife, to develop a better understanding of the distribution of where wetlands are in Nevada, and to develop tools for characterizing how they change over time.  

Different land management agencies define wetlands differently – the boundary for what the Forest Service uses to define a wetland may be different from what the Bureau of Land Management uses, for example. So, the first part of that project was to compile a statewide map of Nevada’s wetlands using data from multiple different agencies and sources. This map is now available on the DRI website 

A second part of that project was to develop a wetland analysis tool to help land managers and scientists from across the state better understand how various wetland areas have been changing over time. This tool, called WetBar, is used within the ArcMap GIS software package. It links the state wetland map with information about each wetland, and with an archive of satellite imagery dating back to 1985 that is available in Google Earth Engine. 


McGwire’s wetland map and WetBar ArcGIS analysis tool can be used to learn about how wetland areas in Nevada are changing over time. This wetland is located at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch Preserve near Beatty, Nevada.


DRI: How is this wetland analysis tool used? Can you give us an example? 

McGwire: WetBar allows you to identify, group, and sort different wetland sites based on different criteria. I can use it to look at the boundary of a water body like Lake Mead, and how the shoreline of the lake has retreated or flooded over timeFor example, using Landsat satellite imagery that goes back to 1985, I can use this tool to select only areas of the lake that have been flooded for 15 to 30 years, and create a map of just that area. This might help researchers get a feel for site conditions prior to visiting a field site, or help them to visualize the impacts of water withdrawals or changes in climate on a water body like Lake Mead. 

There are a lot of other ways you can use this tool. You can sort all of the wetland areas in the database by climate sensitivity, based on how much the wetlands have changed in satellite imagery over the last three decades. This could help land managers to prioritize certain sites for protection, or determine how frequently a certain species can withstand flooding. You can use it to monitor reservoir depletion, or how long it takes reservoir to fill. I recently received funding to provide outreach to people about what this toolbar can do, and try to get feedback on what other functions would make it more useful to decision makers, so more capabilities may be added as the project moves forward.   


(Click to enlarge) Screenshot of a wetland map made using the WetBar ArcGIS toolbar. By linking satellite imagery to known data about various wetlands in Nevada, scientists can use this tool to learn about changes in water and vegetation cover over time.


DRI: Does your any of your work take you out into the field? McGwire: Yes, definitely. Most of my fieldwork in the last couple years has been supporting the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD)’s efforts to control dust emissions from Owens Lake, which has become mostly dry lakebed since the 1920s due to water diversion to Los Angeles. The lakebed is in a desert environment, and as the wind blows, clouds of sediment can blow toward Arizona. It was the biggest source of PM10 air pollution in the country for a while 

To mitigate the dustGBUAPCD has developed a variety of land cover treatments. They’ve turned portions of the lakebed into detention areas, which can be shallow flooded. They do drip irrigation of saltgrass in areas that have natural vegetation, to try to get vegetation to establish and grow on the lakebed. They spread gravel in some areas, and in other areas they’re distributing some of the natural brines from the center of the lake to form a hard salt crust. So I’ve been working with the GBUAPCD to develop monitoring methods to monitor the status of these treatments, which requires creating maps of treatment areas, as well as field visits to monitor conditions on the ground.  


What do you enjoy most about your line of work? 

McGwire: Working with satellite imagery is very visual, and the scientific investigation aspect of what we do creates a lot of variety in terms of intellectual stimulation. There’s a creative aspect to it, a visual aspect to it, and I enjoy finding ways to make that sort of way of looking at the world useful to other people.  


To learn more about Ken McGwire and his work, please visit his DRI directory page.

Meet Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D.

Meet Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D.

Rosemary Carroll, Ph.D., is an associate research professor in DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences. She has been a member of the DRI community since 2000 when she was hired as a research hydrologist. Rosemary works remotely from Crested Butte, Colorado, where she studies mountain hydrology. She recently published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters titled, “The Importance of Interflow to Groundwater Recharge in a Snowmelt-Dominated Headwater Basin,” so we sat down to talk to her about the project and her other work at DRI.

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.

Rosemary Carroll

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.

Rosemary Carroll

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.

Rosemary Carroll

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.

Meet Graduate Researcher Dante Staten

Meet Graduate Researcher Dante Staten

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.

Dante Staten at graduation.

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!

Meet Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D.

Meet Kristin VanderMolen, Ph.D.

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.

Meet Josh Sackett, Ph.D.

Meet Josh Sackett, Ph.D.

Josh 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.  


What do you do here at DRI? 

I am a microbial ecologist and postdoctoral researcher with the Environmental Microbiology Lab at DRI. Some of my graduate work took place out in Amargosa Valley, Nevada, where we were looking for differences in the microbial community between Devils Hole and the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility. We learned that the lack of cyanobacteria in the fish conservation facility may be impacting the survival of the Devils Hole Pupfish, which is critically endangered.

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.

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.

Meet John Watson, Ph.D.

Meet John Watson, Ph.D.

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

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.

To learn more about John Watson and his research, please visit:

To view his recent presentation from the 2018 Clean Air Leadership Talks, please visit:

Meet Jim Hudson, Ph.D.

Meet Jim Hudson, Ph.D.

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.

Jim Hudson examines an instrument screen inside of the Aerosol Physics Laboratory at DRI.

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.

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.

For more information about Jim and his research, please visit:

Meet Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

Meet Erick Bandala, Ph.D.

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.

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.

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. 

Erick Bandala (second from left) and his colleagues from DRI’s Environmental Engineering Lab.


For more information about Erick and his research, please visit

Meet graduate researcher Meghan Rennie

Meet graduate researcher Meghan Rennie

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.

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.

Meghan Rennie, a Master’s student in atmospheric sciences at DRI.

Q&A with AGU presenter Christine Albano

Q&A with AGU presenter Christine Albano

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?

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.)


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:

Q & A with AGU Presenter Rose Shillito

Q & A with AGU Presenter Rose Shillito

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.

(Rose was recently featured by the UNLV Foundation for her work on post-fire water repellency. Read the article here:

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:

Meet Graduate Researcher Nic Beres

Meet Graduate Researcher Nic Beres

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.

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.

In his free time, graduate student Nic Beres enjoys spending time in the mountains.


Meet Henry Sun, Ph.D.

Meet Henry Sun, Ph.D.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Henry Sun talks with a student at DRI’s 2018 ‘May Science Be With You’ event in Las Vegas.

For more information on Henry Sun and his research, continue to his research page:

Meet Brittany Kruger, Ph.D.

Meet Brittany Kruger, Ph.D.

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.

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.

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.

Brittany Kruger collects samples from an underground mine site.