Raiders Foundation Supports Students with NFL Foundation Digital Divide Grant

Raiders Foundation Supports Students with NFL Foundation Digital Divide Grant

Raiders Foundation Supports Students with NFL Foundation Digital Divide Grant

May 25, 2022
LAS VEGAS

Digital Divide
Technology
Technology Careers

Above: High school students listen as a panel of technology leaders talk about their careers at Tech Tomorrow. 

Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LAS VEGAS RAIDERS.

Thirty junior and senior high school students surprised with new laptops

The Raiders Foundation has teamed up with DRI and Jobs 4 Nevada’s Graduates (J4NG) on “Tech Tomorrow” to help bridge the digital divide in Southern Nevada. Thirty junior and senior high school students selected by J4NG were treated to a special event at the Credit One Club in Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. The students received an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of Allegiant Stadium, showcasing how technology plays a role in nearly all aspects of a NFL game, and heard from an inspiring panel of technology leaders about careers in technology. At the end of the event, all 30 students were surprised with a brand-new laptop, wireless mouse, and backpack, all in an effort to bridge the digital divide.  

“The Raiders Foundation is excited to play a role in helping to bridge the digital divide in our community,” said Raiders Foundation Executive Director Alan Diskin. “This endeavor matches our mission tenet of youth development and reinforces our commitment to making the Silver State a better place for today’s youth, who will become tomorrow’s leaders.” 

“The ability to access computers and the internet plays a significant role in solving our world’s greatest challenges, and technology has become increasingly important for science exploration and research,” said DRI President Kumud Acharya. “We are very appreciative to the Raiders Foundation for selecting DRI as a partner to administer the NFL Foundation Digital Divide grant and produce ‘Tech Tomorrow.’”  

“Exposure to technology and jobs in Nevada allows our students to explore career opportunities they might not have otherwise known about,” said J4NG Executive Director Dr. Rene Cantu. “We want to thank the Raiders Foundation for funding this opportunity and partnering with DRI to administer the program. The technology career panel inspired our students about a future in a tech-based job. We are grateful to the Raiders Foundation for the NFL Digital Divide Grant, which provided our students with new laptops to help them further their career and college goals after graduation.”

The “Tech Tomorrow” event provided a foundation for these students to continue to learn and build technology into their future.  

tech tomorrow group picture

Thirty junior and senior high school students pose with leaders from the Las Vegas Raiders Foundation, DRI, and J4NG. After the photo, the students were surprised with a brand-new laptop, wireless mouse, and backpack. 

Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE LAS VEGAS RAIDERS.

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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 www.dri.edu.

About Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates 

Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (J4NG), is a statewide nonprofit, part of the national organization, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG). J4NG empowers positive futures for Nevada’s youth by working with students to achieve graduation and find career pathways. J4NG helps Nevada students reach their potential using in-depth mentoring, instruction, data-driven strategies and long-term support. 60 schools across Nevada offer J4G programs through J4NG, serving more than 3,300 students. J4NG students receive over 120+ hours of career readiness instruction, guidance and support through graduation and the first 12 months after graduation. 

HELP of Southern Nevada and DRI Recognize the 2022 STEM Force Graduates

HELP of Southern Nevada and DRI Recognize the 2022 STEM Force Graduates

HELP of Southern Nevada and DRI Recognize the 2022 STEM Force Graduates

May 25, 2022
LAS VEGAS

STEM Careers
Career Development
Workforce Innvoation

Above: DRI President Kumud Acharya speaks to the graduates of the 2022 STEM Force program. 

Credit: Tommy Gugino/DRI.

HELP of Southern Nevada and DRI honored the graduates of its 2022 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) STEM Force Program. Families and pupils gathered inside DRI’s Roger’s Auditorium to commemorate the student’s achievements in environmental research as they go on to pursue a potential STEM career. The ceremony kicked off with opening remarks from DRI President Kumud Acharya followed by a video montage of events throughout the program, and a reception filled with beverages and cake for all. Those in attendance included STEM Education Coordinator at DRI, Shawna Witt, STEM Force Program Director, Craig Rosen, HELP of Southern Nevada Chief Workforce Officer, Denise Gee, and Workforce Services Program Manager, Christina Sewell.    

“With a growing need for a workforce skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), DRI is committed to helping students achieve long term outcomes both inside and outside of the classroom. Through the STEM Force Program, students are taught fundamentals and are exposed to scientific solutions so that they can pursue future STEM careers,” said Rosen. “We are delighted to once again partner with HELP of Southern Nevada to support their mission and ensure students are equipped with the background knowledge and tools to succeed in their future career.” 

The 10-week STEM Force Program provided WIOA program members with the opportunity to learn about STEM topics and careers through a series of presentations, field trips and hands-on projects. Students of the program were able to interact with highly skilled scientists, engage in experiments and work collaboratively with one another to develop work-readiness skills such as creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and determination.  

“We want to thank DRI for their incredible partnership and urgency to continue helping our clients help themselves,” said Sewell. “As we set our clients up for success, we believe it is important to build a foundation for their future through various workshops, support groups and networking.” 

STEM Force Graduates 2022

The 2022 STEM Force Graduates with DRI STEM Education Coordinator Shawna Witt and DRI Community Engagement and Professional Development Administrator Craig Rosen.

Credit: Tommy Gugino/DRI.

More Information:

For more information on HELP of Southern Nevada’s programs, please visit https://www.helpsonv.org/programs.php. 

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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 www.dri.edu.

About HELP of Southern Nevada 

HELP of Southern Nevada provides assistance to low-income families, homeless youth and other individuals, to help them reach self-sufficiency through direct services, trainings and referrals. HELP operates 10 departments, consists of 200 employees and serves tens of thousands of unduplicated clients each year. Programs available include Behavioral Health Services, Coordinated Entry Community Matchers, Homeless Response Teams, Family Housing Services, Framing Hope Warehouse, Holiday Assistance, Adult Housing Programs, Community Relations, Shannon West Homeless Youth Center, Weatherization and Workforce Services. For more information, call HELP of Southern Nevada at 702.369.4357 or visit www.helpsonv.org. Follow HELP of Southern Nevada on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Nevada Receives National Science Foundation Research Award for $20 Million

Nevada Receives National Science Foundation Research Award for $20 Million

drone in wildfire

May 17, 2022
LAS VEGAS

Fire Science
Wildland Fire Research
Workforce Development 

Nevada Receives National Science Foundation Research Award for $20 Million

To increase capacity for wildland fire research, education, and workforce development

The Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) has been awarded $20 million over a period of five years for the Harnessing the Data Revolution for Fire Science (HDRFS) project. This project is funded through the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR); whose mission is to enhance research competitiveness of targeted jurisdictions (states, territories, commonwealth) by strengthening STEM capacity and capability. 

The overarching goal of the RII Track-1: Harnessing the Data Revolution for Fire Science (HDRFS) project is to increase the capacity of Nevada for wildland fire research, education, and workforce development and to demonstrate this increased capacity through technology-enhanced fire science in the regionally important sagebrush ecosystem. 

This system-wide partnership involves the three research institutions, the Desert Research Institute (DRI), the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). Further involvement includes faculty and students from NSHE undergraduate institutions.  

“NSF continues to serve as an essential partner in supporting the critical work of the NSHE EPSCoR,” said NSHE Board of Regents Chair Cathy McAdoo. “As our region currently faces extreme fire and water challenges, we appreciate this investment in Fire Science research and workforce development; giving NSHE institutions (DRI, UNLV, UNR) more capacity to solve our most pressing environmental issues.”  

This project will inform and improve land and fire management by providing scaling of fire effects and impacts from smaller to larger fires in four fire science areas: Ecology; Hydrology between fire events; Fire Processes; and Fire Emissions and their Atmospheric Aging during fire events. This will be achieved through strategic investments in expertise, facilities, Cyberinfrastructure Innovations, and Education and Workforce Development creating end-to-end pipelines for research and STEM advancements. 

“This project will generate and harness large amounts of data from diverse sensor platforms to accurately model landscapes and wildland fires from plot to watershed scales,” said Frederick Harris, Nevada NSF EPSCoR Project Director. “We will study how fires impact the societal needs outlined in the Nevada Science and Technology Plan.” 

In addition, NSHE researchers will study potential new areas of economic development for Nevada, emphasizing new opportunities for workforce development, diversity, hiring new faculty, and providing more scholarship opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields.  

“This NSF award funds critical fire science research, which continues to be a priority for Nevada,” said DRI President Kumud Acharya. “DRI has expertise in wildland fire research, and we look forward to working with our fellow NSHE institutions on this important project.” 

The award will enhance Nevada’s capabilities in wildland fire science, UAS, data acquisition, processing, and modeling, and rapid deployment, while strengthening Nevada’s network of external collaborators and stakeholders, who already include the major fire and land management agencies in the Great Basin and Western United States. 

“This marks an important investment for Nevada and the West,” said UNR President Brian Sandoval. “This National Science Foundation EPSCoR-supported project takes a comprehensive, collaborative approach. It will enhance the capacity of Nevada’s public research institutions to further tackle an issue of utmost importance and will do so by further deploying technology and cyberinfrastructure, and further building on the expertise and capabilities of our researchers and faculty.” 

“By joining forces, UNR, DRI, and UNLV are poised to reveal the power of cooperation in Nevada when it comes to addressing challenges important to the state and beyond its borders,” said UNLV President Keith Whitfield. “This research will advance our fundamental understanding of wildfires as it strengthens the capacity of our campuses to engage with each other and with Nevada’s students and citizens in addressing today’s complex challenges. This is but one example of how research works for Nevada.” 

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About NSHE

The Nevada System of Higher Education, comprised of two doctoral-granting research universities, a state college, four comprehensive community colleges, and one environmental research institute, serves the educational and job training needs of Nevada. NSHE provides educational opportunities to more than 100,000 students and is governed by the Nevada Board of Regents. The System includes the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada State College, Desert Research Institute, the College of Southern Nevada, Great Basin College, Truckee Meadows Community College, and Western Nevada College. For more information regarding NSHE please visit: https://nshe.nevada.edu/ 

About the Nevada System Sponsored Programs and EPSCoR

The mission of the Nevada System Sponsored Programs and EPSCoR is to promote collaboration and multidisciplinary learning among NSHE institutions, and to enable alignment of efforts with the needs of the state to increase research and STEM competitiveness. The goal is to create new opportunities in the State of Nevada for workforce development and promote the development of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines for the state. For more information regarding Nevada EPSCoR please visit: https://epscorspo.nevada.edu/ 

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 www.dri.edu.

For Outdoor Workers, Extreme Heat Poses Extreme Danger

For Outdoor Workers, Extreme Heat Poses Extreme Danger

extreme heat and workforce health

May 11, 2022
LAS VEGAS

Extreme Heat
Outdoor Workers
Workforce Health

For Outdoor Workers, Extreme Heat Poses Extreme Danger

Study explores effects of summertime heat waves on workforce health in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles

Working outdoors during periods of extreme heat can cause discomfort, heat stress, or heat illnesses – all growing concerns for people who live and work in Southwestern cities like Las Vegas, where summer temperatures creep higher each year. But, did you know that female outdoor workers are experiencing disproportionate impacts? Or, that more experienced outdoor workers are at higher risk than those with fewer years on the job? 

In a new study in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, scientists from DRI, Nevada State College, and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities explore the growing threat that extreme heat poses to workforce health in three of the hottest cities in North America – Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Their study results hold important findings for outdoor workers, their employers, and policymakers across the Southwestern U.S.   

To assess the relationship between extreme heat and nonfatal workplace heat-related illness, the study compared data on occupational injuries and illnesses for the years 2011-2018 with heat index data from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Heat index data combines temperature and humidity as a measure of how people feel the heat. 

“We expected to see a correlation between high temperatures and people getting sick – and we found that there was a very clear trend in most cases,” said lead author Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor of environmental science at DRI. “Surprisingly, this type of analysis hadn’t been done in the past, and there are some really interesting social implications to what we learned.” 

First, the research team analyzed changes in heat index data for the three cities. They found a significant increase in heat index at two of the three locations (Phoenix and Las Vegas) during the study period, with average heat index values for June-Aug climbing from “extreme caution” in 2012 into the “danger” range by 2018. Over the same period, data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics showed that the number of nonfatal heat-related workplace injuries and illnesses in each of the three states increased steadily, climbing from below the national average in 2011 to above the national average in 2018.  

heat-related nonfatal workplace injuries

According to new research, the number of heat-related nonfatal workplace injuries in Arizona, California, and Nevada increased between 2011 and 2018. The three states now exceed the U.S. average.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

“Our data indicate that the increases in heat are happening alongside increases in the number of nonfatal occupational injuries across these three states,” Bandala said. “Every year we are seeing increased heat waves and higher temperatures, and all of the people who work outside in the streets or in gardens or agriculture are exposed to this.”

Next, the study team looked deeper into the data to learn about the number of male and female workers being affected by heat-related workplace injuries. At the beginning of the study in 2011, 26 to 50 percent of the people affected across the three states were female. By 2018, 42 to 86 percent of the people affected were female.

Study authors believe that the reason for this increase may be due to more women entering the outdoor workforce, or it could be related to the vulnerability of women to certain heat-related effects, like hyponatremia — a condition that develops when too much plain water is consumed under high heat conditions and sodium levels in blood get too low.

“As the number of female workers exposed to extreme temperatures increases, there is an increasing need to consider the effect of gender and use different approaches to recommend prevention measures as hormonal factors and cycles that can be exacerbated during exposure to extreme heat,” said study coauthor Kebret Kebede, M.D., associate professor of biology at Nevada State College.

The authors examined other variables, such as the length of an employee’s service with an employer. They found that the number of heat-related injury/illnesses tended to increase as the length of service with the employer increased, and that those with more than five years of service were at greater risk than those with less than one year of service. This may be due to employees with more years of service having a reduced perception of risk, or could be a cumulative effect of years of chronic heat exposure on the well-being of outdoor workers.

heat-related injuries/illnesses

New research shows that in Arizona, Nevada and California, the number of heat-related injuries/illnesses tended to increase as length of service with the employer increased.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

In severe cases, heat-related illness or injury can cause extensive damage to all tissues and organs, disrupting the central nervous system, blood-clotting mechanisms, and liver and kidney functions. In these cases, lengthy recoveries are required. The authors found concerning evidence that heat-related injuries are keeping many outdoor workers away from work for more than 30 days.

“These lengthy recovery times are a significant problem for workers and their families, many of whom are living day-to-day,” Bandala said. “When we have these extreme heat conditions coming every year and a lot of people working outside, we need to know what are the consequences of these problems, and we need the people to know about the risk so that they take proper precautions.”

heat-related injuries

Authors of a new study on the impacts of extreme heat on workplace health found concerning evidence that heat-related injuries are keeping many outdoor workers away from work for more than 30 days.

Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.

The study also explored connections between heat-related injuries/illnesses and the number of hours worked, the time of day that the event occurred, and the ethnicities and age groups that were most impacted.

Study authors hope that their results will be useful to policymakers to protect outdoor workers. They also hope that the information will be useful to outdoor workers who need to stay safe during times of extreme heat, and employers who rely on a healthy workforce to keep their businesses operating.

“This study underscores the importance of and the need for the work the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is doing to adopt a regulation to address heat illness,” stated Nancy Brune, Ph.D., study co-author and senior fellow at the Guinn Center.

“As temperatures continue to rise and heat-related illnesses and deaths continue to rise, the need for public policies to alleviate health and economic impacts is growing,” Bandala said.  “I hope to continue doing research on this problem so that we can have a better of understanding of the impacts of extreme heat and how to help the people who are most vulnerable.”

More information:

The full study, “Assessing the effect of extreme heat on workforce health in the southwestern USA,” is available from the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13762-022-04180-1

This project was funded by NOAA/IRAP (Grant no. NA18AR4310341) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (GM103440) from the National Institutes of Health. Study authors included Erick Bandala (DRI), Nancy Brune (Guinn Center for Policy Priorities), and Kebret Kebede (Nevada State College).

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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 www.dri.edu.

About Nevada State College

Nevada State College, a four-year public institution, is a member of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Nevada State places a special emphasis on the advancement of a diverse and largely under-served student population. Located on a developing 512-acre campus in the foothills of Henderson, Nevada, the college was established in 2002 as a new tier in the state system between the research universities and the two-year colleges and, as such, is Nevada’s only state college. Nevada State College is one of the fastest-growing colleges in the country and the fastest growing in Nevada. It currently has more than 7,000 students and more than 800 full- and part-time employees. For more information, visit http://nsc.edu

About the Guinn Center

The Guinn Center is a policy research center, affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno, with offices in both Las Vegas and Reno. The Guinn Center provides data-driven research and policy analysis. The Guinn Center seeks to identify and advance common-sense policy solutions through research , policy engagement, and strategic partnerships.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.

Meet Dennis Hallema, Ph.D.
MARCH 24, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.
Data Modeling
Hydrology
Wildfires
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.

Agencies collaborate to launch wastewater surveillance dashboard

Agencies collaborate to launch wastewater surveillance dashboard

water waste sampling collection
March 23, 2022
LAS VEGAS
Wastewater
COVID-19
Wastewater Surveillance
Above: Waste water samples were collected at the Waste Water Treatment Plant in Pahrump, Nevada.
Credit: Ali Swallow.
Agencies collaborate to launch wastewater surveillance dashboard 
New dashboard will include COVID-19 concentration data, information about variant testing and more. 
Las Vegas, Nev. (March 23, 2022)The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), Southern Nevada Health District, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and Desert Research Institute (DRI) are partnering to detect early increases of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) and emerging variants in Southern Nevada through wastewater surveillance. The data will be available on a new dashboard that will be updated weekly at http://empower.unlv.edu. 

The wastewater surveillance program monitors SARS-CoV-2 concentrations from people who contract COVID-19 (with or without symptoms) and shed genetic material in their stools. During the COVID-19 pandemic, wastewater surveillance has tracked, monitored and provided early awareness of increases in volume of the virus as well as changes to the types of variants of COVID-19. Because people who are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 can take several days before showing symptoms, the information provided through this surveillance program can assist with informing public health strategy and ongoing planning efforts.  

In addition to being an early indicator that cases of COVID-19 may be increasing in a community, wastewater surveillance can also indicate when cases are decreasing, and the surveillance program is not dependent on people seeking testing or health care when they are sick.  

“As we move into the next stage of our response to COVID-19, wastewater surveillance is going to be a powerful tool for detecting potential surges in new cases or the presence of new variants in our community. We will be able to alert the public in a timelier manner and support public health mitigation measures that can help slow the spread of the virus,” said Cassius Lockett, Director of Disease Surveillance and Control for the Health District.  

Currently, the SARS-CoV-2 concentration in the wastewater of participating community water systems across Southern Nevada is tested as part of this program. Nevada was one of the first states to initiate testing, and this surveillance project represents one of the largest projects of its kind in the U.S. 

“The collaboration between our community partners has enabled the collection of one of the largest and most diverse wastewater datasets in the country,” said Edwin Oh, professor and director of the Neurogenetics and Precision Medicine Lab at UNLV. The daily and weekly analyses of these samples will help keep us one step ahead of emerging pathogens and variants.” 

Duane Moser wastewater samples
DRI Associate Research Professor Duane Moser collects water waste samples in Pahrump to detect possible increases of SARS-CoV-2 and emerging variants in Southern Nevada. 
Credit: Ali Swallow.
“DRI is contributing to this collaborative effort by organizing sampling from ten wastewater systems across rural Clark and Nye Counties, substantially expanding the geographic reach of the project and providing time-sensitive epidemiological data that would otherwise be lost,” said DRI Associate Research Professor of Microbiology Duane Moser.  The addition of these outlying sites has a great deal to teach us about how quickly and effectively viruses spread from population centers to outlying areas with lower population densities.” 

While wastewater surveillance can provide early awareness of increases in cases and potential outbreaks, the data provided cannot directly indicate the number of people who are currently infected with COVID-19. The data collected are not intended to be used as the sole method of measuring the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. The information will be used along with other data by partner and responding agencies for planning purposes.  

More information about wastewater surveillance, and national wastewater surveillance data, is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at www.cdc.gov/healthywater/surveillance/wastewater-surveillance/wastewater-surveillance.html 

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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 www.dri.edu.

About Southern Nevada Health District 

The Southern Nevada Health District serves as the local public health authority for Clark County, Boulder City, Henderson, Las Vegas, Mesquite and North Las Vegas. The agency safeguards the public health of the community’s residents and visitors through innovative programs, regulations, and initiatives focused on protecting and promoting their health and well-being. More information about the Health District, its programs, services, and the regulatory oversight it provides is available at www.SNHD.info. Follow the Health District on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

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

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

Inspiring solutions: DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program tracks radioactivity in Nevada’s air and water
March 7, 2022
LAS VEGAS, NV
By Kelsey Fitzgerald
CEMP
Radiation Monitoring
Citizen Science

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

Credit: Tommy Gugino.
“Inspiring Solutions” is a six-part series exploring DRI projects that put data to work in creative ways to solve the problems that matter. Our first post in this series features the work of DRI’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP). The CEMP, which recently celebrated 40 years of radiation monitoring around the Nevada National Security Site, is one of the Institute’s longest-running programs – and its earliest citizen science success story.
Imagine this: You live in a Southern Nevada community located close to a historic nuclear testing site. You’ve heard stories from older relatives about watching mushroom clouds from atomic testing back in the 1950s and stories about “downwinders” in neighboring states who later developed cancer. Although nuclear testing stopped almost three decades ago, you can’t help but wonder about the unseen hazards that might be carried in the air on windy days. Or what might be slowly seeping into your drinking water.

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

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

Don Curry checks CEMP Station gages

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

Credit: Tommy Gugino.
The CEMP: a brief history

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

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

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

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

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

radioactive plume smoke
Troops of the Battalion Combat Team, U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division, watch a plume of radioactive smoke rise after the Dog Test at at Yucca Flats on the NNSS, Nov 1, 1951.
Credit: Corporal Alexander McCaughey, U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps. Public domain image. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exercise_Desert_Rock_I_(Buster-Jangle_Dog)_001.jpg.
A dedicated volunteer base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CEMP Station data collection

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

Credit: Tommy Gugino.
Lessons learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

Meet Charlotte van der Nagel, Graduate Researcher

DECEMBER 6, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

Geoscience
Ecohydrology
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: https://www.dri.edu/education/graduate-programs/.

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

New DRI Internship Program Focuses on Mentorship for Inclusion in STEM

Oct 26, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Internships
Career Development
STEM
Above: DRI Research Internship Immersion Program students Mary Andres (left) and John Cooper (right) work with faculty mentor Dr. Riccardo Panella in his laboratory on DRI’s Reno campus.
Credit: DRI.
Research immersion internships provide career-building opportunities for students from Nevada’s two-year colleges
From wildflower blooms to microplastics pollution, fourteen students from Nevada’s two-year colleges are spending this fall building career skills in exciting new directions.  The students are conducting hands-on research alongside DRI scientists in Reno and Las Vegas through DRI’s new Research Immersion Internship Program.

Although professional internship opportunities are fairly common in the sciences, many positions are aimed at students who are enrolled in four-year science degree programs. DRI’s new internship program takes a more inclusive approach, creating an opportunity specifically aimed at students from two-year colleges and welcoming those majoring in fields from outside of traditional scientific disciplines.

“Science and innovation thrive when people of diverse skillsets work together, because real-world problems are often very interdisciplinary,” said Internship Program Director Meghan Collins, M.S. “In addition to traditional scientific fields, drawing in students with interests in communications, business, public health, computing, and many other areas can bring new perspectives and new solutions to the table.”

Riccardo Panella and John Cooper in lab

DRI faculty mentor Riccardo Panella, Ph.D., (left) and student intern John Cooper (right) review calculations as part of an ongoing research project that tests a new therapeutic approach to treating metabolic disorders. Panella is an assistant research professor of cancer and genetics with the Center for Genomic Medicine at DRI; Cooper is a student at Truckee Meadows Community College. 

Credit: DRI.
DRI’s internship program began in September and runs for 16 weeks. Students have been placed in teams of two to four people, and are working under the direction of DRI faculty mentors from the Institute’s Reno and Las Vegas campuses on a variety of project themes.

One team of interns is working with Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor of environmental science from DRI’s Las Vegas campus, to investigate water security in Native American communities of the Southwestern U.S. His team consists of three students from Nevada State College – two environmental studies majors and one math major.

“Many people in Native American communities lack access to running water in their homes and experience problems with water quality as well,” Bandala said. “We are exploring data that was collected by Tribes and water treatment facilities to learn about the scale of the problem and how it can be improved. I love the challenge and hope that my team will come out with helpful information. Water security is a very complicated issue, but the students that I am working with are very enthusiastic, and I am happy to be interacting with them.”

Other project themes for the program’s inaugural semester include documentation and analysis of wildflower superblooms (above-average bursts of blooming wildflowers) in the Western U.S., an investigation into the effects of wildfire on water repellency of soils, a study on how microplastic particles can be transported through the air, and a study investigating the effects of obesity on health challenges in mice.

Student intern Mary Andres
Riccardo Panella and Mary Andres

Above, left: Student intern Mary Andres from Truckee Meadows Community College prepares reagents needed to analyze lipid profiles and hepatic enzymes in a study being conducted by DRI’s Center for Genomic Medicine. The results of these experiments will pave the way for a new generation of RNA-based therapies to treat metabolic disorders and prevent cancer progression.

Credit: DRI.

Above, right: DRI faculty mentor Riccardo Panella, Ph.D., (left) of the Center for Genomic Medicine and Truckee Meadows Community College student Mary Andres (right) use a bright light to view a sample in Panella’s laboratory in Reno. 

Credit: DRI.
This year’s cohort includes students from Nevada State College, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College, and the University of Nevada, Reno. Because many of the students are early in their college journeys, or come from fields outside of the sciences, the internship program provides stepping-stones to help them build the fundamental skills they need to succeed, including a month-long period of training prior to implementing their projects.

At the end of the semester, the student teams will deliver their project results and receive feedback from their faculty mentors. The end goal is to help foster the next generation of diverse scientists through mentorship, inclusion, and skill building.

“There are a lot of independent internships available to science majors, but not many  programs that prepare students to be successful working in the sciences in the real world – especially for students who are coming from two-year college programs or from outside of scientific disciplines,” Collins said. “This program aligns with some of DRI’s larger goals of improving diversity and inclusion at DRI and in the sciences as a whole, while also providing important stepping-stones for students to learn to navigate the culture of science.”

Student Intern John Cooper

Student Intern John Cooper from Truckee Meadows Community College prepares reagents in Riccardo Panella’s laboratory at DRI in Reno, as part of DRI’s new Research Internship Immersion Program.

Credit: DRI.

More Information:

For more information on DRI’s Research Immersion Internship Program, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/immersion/.

DRI faculty mentors for the Research Immersion Internship Program include Erick Bandala, Riccardo Panella, Eden Furtak-Cole, Markus Berli, Christine Albano, and Meghan Collins.

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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 www.dri.edu.

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

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

DRI’s Technical Employee of the Year Award

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

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

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

Q&A With Alison Swallow

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

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

DRI: What does your work involve? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2021 Award Winners

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

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

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

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

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


Division Awards

George Burke Maxey Fellowship – Marc Berghouse 

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

Jonathan O. Davis Scholarship – Erica Bradley and Hayden Kingrey 

General Frederick Lander Scholarship – Pearson Nguyen  

Colin Warden Memorial Endowment - Pramod Adhikari 

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


Years of Service Milestones

50 Years of Service

  • Jim Hudson

35 Years of Service

  • Judith Chow

30 Years of Service 

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

25 Years of Service

  • Steve Kohl
  • Gayle Valdez

20 Years of Service

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

15 Years of Service

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

10 Years of Service 

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

5 Years of Service 

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

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

Does Cold Wildfire Smoke Contribute to Water Repellent Soils in Burned Areas?

Does Cold Wildfire Smoke Contribute to Water Repellent Soils in Burned Areas?

Does Cold Wildfire Smoke Contribute to Water Repellent Soils in Burned Areas?

May 25, 2021
RENO, NEV.

By Kelsey Fitzgerald

Soil Science
Wildfires
Hydrology

Above: After a wildfire, soils in burned areas often become water repellent, leading to increased erosion and flooding after rainfall events. The hillside shown here burned in California’s Loyalton Fire during August 2020.

Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald/DRI.

A new DRI pilot study finds severe water repellency in sand samples after treatment with both hot and cold smoke.

After a wildfire, soils in burned areas often become water repellent, leading to increased erosion and flooding after rainfall events – a phenomenon that many scientists have attributed to smoke and heat-induced changes in soil chemistry. But this post-fire water repellency may also be caused by wildfire smoke in the absence of heat, according to a new paper from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada.

In this pilot study (exploratory research that takes place before a larger-scale study), an interdisciplinary team of scientists led by DRI Associate Research Professor of Atmospheric Science Vera Samburova, Ph.D., exposed samples of clean sand to smoke from burning Jeffrey pine needles and branches in DRI’s combustion chamber, then analyzed the time it took for water droplets placed on the sand surface to be absorbed – a measure of water repellency.

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

A new pilot study by an interdisciplinary team from DRI exposed samples of clean sand to smoke from burning Jeffrey pine needles and branches, then analyzed the time it took for water droplets placed on the sand surface to be absorbed — a measure of water repellency. After exposure to smoke, water droplets sometimes remained on the sand surface for more than 50 minutes without soaking in.

Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

The full text of the paper, Effect of Biomass-Burning Emissions on Soil Water Repellent: A Pilot Laboratory Study, is available from Fire: https://www.mdpi.com/2571-6255/4/2/24

The pilot study investigated the effects of smoke and heat on water repellency of the sand and was the first study to also incorporate an analysis of cold smoke. In the experiments, sand was used in place of soil because it could be cleaned thoroughly and analyzed accurately, and Jeffrey pine for a fuel source because it represents a common wildland fire fuel in the Western U.S.

Before exposure to Jeffrey pine smoke, water droplets placed on the surface of the sand samples were quickly absorbed. But after exposure to smoke, the sand samples showed severe-to-extreme water repellency, in some cases retaining water droplets on the sand surface for more than 50 minutes without soaking in. It made little difference whether or not samples had been exposed to heat and smoke, or just cold smoke.

“The classic explanation for fire-induced water repellency is that it is caused as smoke diffuses under rather hot conditions and settles down into the soils, but our work shows that the smoke does not have to be hot to turn the sand hydrophobic — simply the presence of the chemical substances in the smoke is enough,” Samburova said. “This is something we really need to look deeper into because soil water repellency leads to increases in flooding, erosion, and surface runoff.”

Above, left: Jeffrey pine needles and sticks were used as a fuel source in the new DRI study because Jeffrey pine represents a common wildland fire fuel in the Western U.S.

Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Above, right: Jeffrey pine needles and branches burn inside of the combustion chamber at DRI during a new study that investigated the effects of smoke and heat on water repellent of sand samples.

Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

This study built on previously published work by former DRI postdoctoral researcher Rose Shillito, Ph.D., (currently with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Markus Berli, Ph.D., of DRI, and Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D., of University of California, Merced, in which the researchers developed an analytical model for relating soil water repellency to infiltration of water.

“Our earlier paper focused on how fire changes the properties of soils, from a hydrology perspective,” Berli explained. “In our current study, we were interested in learning more about the chemistry behind the process of how soils come to be hydrophobic. We’re bringing together geochemistry and organic geochemistry with soil physics and hydrology to understand the impact of fire-induced water repellency on hydrology.”

The project team is now working on a larger proposal to further investigate questions touched on by this study about the roles of heat and smoke in fire-induced water repellency. Among other things, they would like to know how long soil water repellency lasts after a fire, and gain a better understanding of the detailed processes and mechanisms through which cold smoke affects the soil.

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

DRI’s combustion chamber, pictured here, is a specialized facility that has been designed and built for the open combustion of solid fuels under controlled conditions. In this experiment, it was used to expose samples of clean sand to Jeffrey pine smoke. 

Credit: Kelsey Fitzgerald/DRI.

Gaining a thorough understanding of the process that leads to fire-induced soil water repellency is important because land managers need this information in order to accurately predict where soils are likely to be hydrophobic after a fire, Berli explained.

“We still don’t really understand the processes that lead to this fire-induced soil water repellency,” Berli said. “Depending on what we find, the measures to predict fire-induced water repellency might be different, and this can have a significant impact on how we can predict and prevent flooding or debris flows that happen after a fire.”

“This study was one big step forward, but it highlights the importance of future research on how fires affect soil, because wildfires are affecting thousands and thousands of square kilometers of land each year in the Western U.S., ” Samburova added. “Some of our future goals are to find out how exactly this soil water repellent happens, where it happens and how long it lasts.”

Additional Information:

This study was made possible with support from DRI and the National Science Foundation. Study authors included Vera Samburova, Ph.D., Rose Shillito, Ph.D. (currently with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Markus Berli, Ph.D., Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., and Hans Moosmüller, Ph.D., all from DRI.

The full text of the paper, Effect of Biomass-Burning Emissions on Soil Water Repellency: A Pilot Laboratory Study, is available from Fire: https://www.mdpi.com/2571-6255/4/2/24

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About the 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. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu

New Study Investigates the Distribution of Deep Underground Microbial Life

New Study Investigates the Distribution of Deep Underground Microbial Life

Above: DeMMO field team from left to right: Lily Momper, Brittany Kruger, and Caitlin Casar sampling fracture fluids from a DeMMO borehole installation. Credit: Matt Kapust.


Las Vegas, Nev. – Below the Earth’s surface, a zone of life known as the continental deep subsurface is home to large populations of bacteria and archaea, but little is known about how these microbial populations are distributed. To learn whether they are spread evenly across rock surfaces or prefer to colonize specific minerals in the rocks, scientists from Northwestern University and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) went deep inside of a former gold mine in South Dakota and grew biofilms (collections of microorganisms) on rocks. Their results, which published in April in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, show that the microbes formed “hotspots” around certain minerals in the rocks. Brittany Kruger, Ph.D., Assistant Research Scientist in Biogeochemistry from DRI in Las Vegas, served as field lead for the Northwestern research team at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), where this study was conducted.

The full text of the paper Rock-Hosted Subsurface Biofilms: Mineral Selectivity Drives Hotspots for Intraterrestrial Life is available from Frontiers in the Environment: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2021.658988/full

The press release below was reposted with permission from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL:


Earth’s crust mineralogy drives hotspots for intraterrestrial life

Northwestern University – Evanston, IL

April 9, 2021 – Below the verdant surface and organic rich soil, life extends kilometers into Earth’s deep rocky crust. The continental deep subsurface is likely one of the largest reservoirs of bacteria and archaea on Earth, many forming biofilms – like a microbial coating of the rock surface. This microbial population survives without light or oxygen and with minimal organic carbon sources, and can get energy by eating or respiring minerals. Distributed throughout the deep subsurface, these biofilms could represent 20-80% of the total bacterial and archaeal biomass in the continental subsurface according to the most recent estimate. But are these microbial populations spread evenly on rock surfaces, or do they prefer to colonize specific minerals in the rocks?

To answer this question, researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, led a study to analyze the growth and distribution of microbial communities in deep continental subsurface settings. This work shows that the host rock mineral composition drives biofilm distribution, producing “hotspots” of microbial life. The study was published in Frontiers in Microbiology.

Hotspots of microbial life

To realize this study, the researchers went 1.5 kilometers below the surface in the Deep Mine Microbial Observatory (DeMMO), housed within a former gold mine now known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), located in Lead, South Dakota. There, below-ground, the researchers cultivated biofilms on native rocks rich in iron and sulfur-bearing minerals. After six months, the researchers analyzed the microbial composition and physical characteristics of newly grown biofilms, as well as its distributions using microscopy, spectroscopy and spatial modeling approaches.

The spatial analyses conducted by the researchers revealed hotspots where the biofilm was denser. These hotspots correlate with iron-rich mineral grains in the rocks, highlighting some mineral preferences for biofilm colonization. “Our results demonstrate the strong spatial dependence of biofilm colonization on minerals in rock surfaces. We think that this spatial dependence is due to microbes getting their energy from the minerals they colonize,” explains Caitlin Casar, first author of the study.

Future research

Altogether, these results demonstrate that host rock mineralogy is a key driver of biofilm distribution, which could help improve estimates of the microbial distribution of the Earth’s deep continental subsurface. But leading intraterrestrial studies could also inform other topics. “Our findings could inform the contribution of biofilms to global nutrient cycles, and also have astrobiological implications as these findings provide insight into biomass distributions in a Mars analog system” says Caitlin Casar.

Indeed, extraterrestrial life could exist in similar subsurface environments where the microorganisms are protected from both radiation and extreme temperatures. Mars, for example, has an iron and sulfur-rich composition similar to DeMMO’s rock formations, which we now know are capable of driving the formation of microbial hotspots below-ground.

 

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Graduate Researcher Natasha Sushenko

Meet Natasha Sushenko, Graduate Researcher

May 11, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

By Kaylynn Perez

Environmental Microbiology
Pathogenic Bacteria
Space

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: https://www.dri.edu/labs/environmental-microbiology/

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/education/graduate-programs/

 

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Graduate Researcher Dylan Person

Meet Dylan Person, Graduate Researcher

APRIL 19, 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

By Kaylynn Perez

Archaeology
Cultural Resource Management
Antrhopology

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: https://www.dri.edu/crm/

For more information on graduate programs at DRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/education/graduate-programs/

 

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

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

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

FEB 26, 2021
RENO & LAS VEGAS, NEV.

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

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

Erick Bandala and Monica Arienzo: Assessing environmental aging of microplastics

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

Closeup of microplastic fibers

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

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

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

A ski lift at Kirkwood ski resort during a warm storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRI scientist Lazaro Perez

DRI scientist Lazaro Perez.

What happens when rain falls on desert soils? An updated model provides answers

What happens when rain falls on desert soils? An updated model provides answers

What happens when rain falls on desert soils?

DEC. 14, 2020
LAS VEGAS, NEV.

Soils
Hydrology
Deserts

An updated model from DRI scientists in Las Vegas provides a new understanding of water movement in dry soils

Several years ago, while studying the environmental impacts of large-scale solar farms in the Nevada desert, Desert Research Institute (DRI) scientists Yuan Luo, Ph.D. and Markus Berli, Ph.D. became interested in one particular question: how does the presence of thousands of solar panels impact desert hydrology?

This question led to more questions. “How do solar panels change the way water hits the ground when it rains?” they asked. “Where does the water go? How much of the rain water  stays in the soil? How deep does it go into the soil?”

“To understand how solar panels impact desert hydrology, we basically needed a better understanding of how desert soils function hydraulically,” explained Luo, postdoctoral researcher with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences and lead author of a new study in Vadose Zone Journal.

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

DRI scientists Yuan Luo (left) and Markus Berli (right) conducting research at DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev. November 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

The full text of the paper “Modeling near-surface water redistribution in a desert soil”, is available from Vadose Zone Journal: https://acsess.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/vzj2.20081

In the study, Luo, Berli, and colleagues Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D. of the University of California, Merced, and Zhongbo Yu, Ph.D. of the University of Hohai, China, make important improvements to our understanding of how water moves through and gets stored in dry soils by refining an existing computer model.

The model, called HYDRUS-1D, simulates how water redistributes in a sandy desert soil based on precipitation and evaporation data. A first version of the model was developed by a previous DRI graduate student named Jelle Dijkema, but was not working well under conditions where soil moisture levels near the soil surface were very low.

To refine and expand the usefulness of Dijkema’s model, Luo analyzed data from DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility, located in Boulder City, Nev. Here, large, underground, soil-filled steel tanks have been installed over truck scales to allow researchers to study natural water gains and losses in a soil column under controlled conditions.

Above: Yuan Luo and Markus Berli of DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences used data from DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility (shown here) to refine an existing model called HYDRUS-1D, which simulates how water moves through dry soils.

Photographs by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Using data from the lysimeters, Luo explored the use of several hydraulic equations to refine Dijkema’s model. The end result, which is described in the new paper, was an improved understanding and model of how moisture moves through and is stored in the upper layers of dry desert soils.

“The first version of the model had some shortcomings,” Luo explained. “It wasn’t working well for very dry soils with volumetric water content lower than 10 percent. The SEPHAS lysimeters provided us with really good data to help understand the phenomenon of how water moves through dry soils as a result of rainfall and evaporation.” 

In desert environments, understanding the movement of water through soils is helpful for a variety of practical uses, including soil restoration, erosion and dust management, and flood risk mitigation. For example, this model will be useful for desert restoration projects, where project managers need to know how much water will be available in the soil  for plants after a desert rainstorm, Berli said. It is also a key piece of the puzzle needed to help answer their original question about how solar farms impact desert hydrology.

“The model is very technical, but all of this technical stuff is just a mathematical way to describe how rainwater moves in the soil once the water hits the soil,” Berli said. “In the bigger picture, this study was motivated by the very practical question of what happens to rainwater when falling on solar farms with thousands and thousands of solar panels in the desert – but to answer questions like that, sometimes you have to dig deep and answer more fundamental questions first.”

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

DRI scientist Yuan Luo standes near a weighing lysimeter at DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility in Boulder City, Nev. November 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

“In the bigger picture, this study was motivated by the very practical question of what happens to rainwater when falling on solar farms with thousands and thousands of solar panels in the desert – but to answer questions like that, sometimes you have to dig deep and answer more fundamental questions first.”

Additional Information:

This study was funded by the DRI Foundation Innovative Research Program, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rose Shillito, Ph.D. (DRI/ACOE) and Nicole Damon (DRI) also contributed to the success of this project.

The full text of the paper “Modeling near-surface water redistribution in a desert soil”, is available from Vadose Zone Journal: https://acsess.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/vzj2.20081  

To learn more about DRI’s SEPHAS Lysimeter facility, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/sephas/lysimeters/

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

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

DRI scientists Markus Berli and Yuan Luo. November 2020.

Photograph by Ali Swallow/DRI.

Local Scientists Tackle Timely Nevada Environmental and Climate Discoveries and Solutions During First “Conversations with DRI Innovators” Event

Local Scientists Tackle Timely Nevada Environmental and Climate Discoveries and Solutions During First “Conversations with DRI Innovators” Event

Researchers debriefed global participants on microplastics in the environment, a new online snow tracker tool for water resource management, and the role of dogs in body recovery.

Link to Event Video Presentation Available at – https://www.dri.edu/conversations-with-dri-innovators/.

Las Vegas, Nev. (Friday, Nov. 13, 2020) – Nevada-based scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) shared their most recent findings and potential solutions to environmental and climate change questions with a global audience this week during the first “Conversations with DRI Innovators” virtual event.

Tuesday’s 60-minute presentation featured research on microplastics in Lake Tahoe and the Las Vegas wash using a state-of-the-art instrument, a look at how dogs can help recover drowned victims in the deep waters of Lake Tahoe, and also as criminal trial evidence, the development of a real-time snow tracker online tool, and the chemistry of snowfall in the Sierras for water resource management and public safety.

“These findings have far-reaching impact beyond Nevada and our country as the work of DRI researchers can be found around the world,” said Tina Quigley, DRI Foundation Chair. “While this research was centered throughout Nevada, DRI scientists are working on finding real-life solutions to these real-world questions that will benefit all of us, our families, our earth.”

The DRI Foundation’s Innovation Research Program (IRP) awarded seed grants to kick-start the highlighted research and talented scientists. This early support has been leveraged into other awards such as from the National Science Foundation and National Weather Service to continue expanding their developing research.

“This is donor-driven research funding at its best, and I am proud to be part of the group cheering on some of the greatest minds of the scientific community from right here in Nevada,” added Quigley.

A video recording of the fast-paced, hour-long presentation from IRP grant recipients and DRI faculty along with additional information may be found online at – https://www.dri.edu/conversations-with-dri-innovators/.

The four speakers and the topics covered, in order of presentation along with approximate start times for each, are as follows:

  • :04 – DRI, IRP overview, and speaker introductions. – Tina Quigley, Moderator, Former CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada

Each presentation runs approximately 10 minutes.

  • 7:33 – Types of microplastics found at Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas Wash and how an easy to install mesh currently being tested on clothes dryer vents may be part of the solution. – Dr. Monica Arienzo, Assistant Research Professor, DRI Division of Hydrologic Sciences and National Science Foundation Grant Recipient.
  • 22:11 – A new online tool just developed will help track snow droughts in a warmer climate in order to help understand the need for changing water resource management strategies. – Dr. Daniel McEvoy, Assistant Research Professor of Climatology, DRI Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Researcher with the Western Regional Climate Center and National Weather Service Grant Recipient. 
  • 34:23 – Using the chemistry of atmospheric river snowfall to improve water resource management in the Western U.S. – Dr. Nathan Chellman, Postdoctoral Fellow, DRI Division of Hydrologic Sciences. 
  • 46:59 – Advancing the science of canine odor detection – from criminal trials to accidental drownings and how dogs and plants may help detect cadavers. – Dr. Mary E. Cablk, Associate Research Professor of Biology, DRI Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, University of Nevada, Reno Adjunct Professor in Forensic Anthropology
    and Auxiliary Deputy with several county Sheriff Offices in the State of Nevada.

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About the DRI Foundation Innovation Research Program (IRP): The DRI Foundation’s IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects. The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were selected through a competitive selection process. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission. For more information on this and other upcoming events please visit: https://www.dri.edu/foundation/.

About the Desert Research Institute (DRI): The 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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Media Contact

Justin Broglio
Communications Manager, Desert Research Institute
775-762-8320
Justin.Broglio@dri.edu
@DRIScience

DRI Archaeologists to document ancient rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett

DRI Archaeologists to document ancient rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett

Caption: Pictographs from a site at Fort Hunter Liggett, processed with D-stretch imagery. DRI Archaeologists will soon travel to Fort Hunter Liggett, in California, to document rock art in high resolution. Credit: Fort Hunter Liggett.


 

Las Vegas, Nev. (Nov. 10, 2020) – Long ago, before widespread European-American settlement, ancestors of the Salinan Tribe left rock art featuring colorful handprints and abstract symbols at various sites located along narrow valleys and rugged hills in southern Monterey County, Calif. This month, a group of Desert Research Institute (DRI) archaeologists will document several of these sites using high resolution photography, in partnership with the U.S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett Cultural Resources Management Program.

The project, which is co-led by DRI’s Greg Haynes, Ph.D. and Dave Page, M.A., with technical support from staff at Fort Hunter Liggett, will provide updated photographic documentation and a rock art management plan for pictographs (images painted on rock) and petroglyphs (images carved into rock) at eight different sites located on the grounds of Fort Hunter Liggett. One site, called La Cueva Pintada, or the Painted Cave, is estimated to have hundreds of pictographs and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Many of the pictographs are handprints, but kind of unusual – they look like they were made by people swiping their fingers across the rock face,” Haynes said. “There are also various abstract symbols. They’re multicolored – red, white, black, yellow, and possibly blue or green – so part of our work will be to determine what pigments were used and to advise the Army on how to best preserve them.”

The DRI project team includes Megan Stueve, M.A., who will provide expertise in rock art recording and in the photographic documentation of pictographs using D-stretch imagery, a computer program that helps bring out colors that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

“D-stretch, short for decorrelation stretching, is a type of image processing that essentially stretches or exaggerates the colors to make them easier to see,” Stueve explained. “Images that you can already see become very visible and that those are faint hopefully become more visible.”

Rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett

DRI Archaeologists will use D-Stretch imagery to document rock art at Fort Hunter Liggett in high resolution. The photographs on the left, showing pictographs from a site at Fort Hunter Liggett, have not been altered; The photographs on the right, processed with D-stretch imagery, show the pictographs in greater detail. Credit: Fort Hunter Liggett.

In addition to petroglyphs and pictographs, the Salinan people of this region left behind an abundance of bedrock mortars, circular depressions in rock outcrops that were likely used for grinding food items such as acorns, but may also have been used to grind the pigment to make the pictographs. The extensive use of the area might indicate it was used as a habitation locale or meeting area, or possibly for ceremonial purposes, Stueve said.

Although all of the sites that the DRI team will visit have been documented previously, some site records have not been updated in more than 30 years. As part of this project, they will provide Fort Hunter Liggett with up-to-date site records and photographs, and also make recommendations for future study and preservation of these pictographs and petroglyphs.

“The Army wants a management plan for the preservation of these historical resources,” Haynes said. “In addition to these pictographs, there are a few other important historic sites nearby. There’s a mission called Mission San Antonio de Padua that was founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra, and a hacienda that was built for William Randolph Hearst. It’s an important area with an interesting history.”

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

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) 

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

New study explores relationship between dust and Valley Fever

RENO, NEV.
AUG 31, 2020

Valley Fever
Dust
Atmospheric Science

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

Q & A with Vic Etymezian, Ph.D. 

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

DRI: What is Valley Fever?

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

Scientists inspect dust measurement device

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

Credit: George Nikolich/DRI.

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

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

Image of Valley Fever paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

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

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

DRI: What were some of your findings?

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

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

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

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

Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

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

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

Additional Information

The full text of the paper “Valley Fever: Environmental Risk Factors and Exposure Pathways Deduced from Field Measurements in California,” is available from the International Journal of Environmental Health and Public Research: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/15/5285

For more information on Vic Etyemezian and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/vicken-etyemezian/

For more information on the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab), please visit: https://www.dri.edu/project/pi-swerl/

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

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

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

RENO, NEV.
AUG 25, 2020

Anthropology
Meteorology
Climatology
Population Heath

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

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

 

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

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

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

An agricultural field in California’s Imperial Valley

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

Credit: Winthrop Brookhouse/Shutterstock.com

Assessing heat messaging: An interdisciplinary approach

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A map of summer maximum near-surface temperatures over the 30-year period from 1981–2010 shows that Imperial Valley (at the border between Mexico and the southeastern corner of California) is the hottest place in in North America, with an average maximum temperature from June to August of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). Data is from the North American Regional Reanalysis.

Credit: Ben Hatchett/DRI

COVID-19 complications and next steps

 

Originally, VanderMolen was planning to travel to the US-Mexico border this summer to do one-on-one interviews with members of vulnerable populations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unforeseen complications.

Imperial County has been hit very hard by COVID-19, compounding the effects of extreme heat for the vulnerable populations that VanderMolen and her team hope to work with. The pandemic has also made it unfeasible to travel to the region to do face-to-face interviews, and has created challenges in coordinating with local agencies that are now overwhelmed in their efforts to address COVID-19.

“It’s a really interesting place and time to do this work because there are questions about what it means to be on stay-at-home orders and limited travel orders when it’s 114 degrees outside and you don’t have reliable air conditioning or its cost is prohibitive,” VanderMolen said. “At the same time, because they’re so overwhelmed right now with caseload, most folks in the area can’t really afford to address issues beyond COVID-19.”

As the research team works to navigate a path forward that is safe for both the interviewers and interviewees, they remain committed to developing information that will help vulnerable populations along the border.

“I hope that the information we provide is something decision-makers can use to make the right decision or create legislation that can help protect workers in the field, or at least call attention to the kind of inequalities and risk that the people there are being exposed to,” Bandala said. “Or, if we can produce information to change the mindset of the people to start thinking of themselves as a population at risk, and put more attention on the heat warnings, that will suffice for me to feel satisfied with the results of our research.”

The US-Mexico border is just one of many places around the globe where heat-related illness is a problem, added Hatchett – and many of those places happen to be where a lot of our food is grown or where important industries are located.

“I think this is a somewhat ubiquitous problem around the planet. We have these really important places that are susceptible to environmental extremes and these people that we rely on to have these regions be productive in terms of agriculture or industry. Unfortunately, those people are often the most susceptible and underserved populations to these compound environmental hazards,” Hatchett said. “It’s so easy to forget them, but one of the goals of this project is really to bring to light the importance of aiming much-needed resources at trying to help those populations and those places.”

Additional information

For more information on the members of this DRI research team, please visit: 

This research was supported by NOAA’s International Research and Applications Project (IRAP).

Engineered Processes for the Separation and Degradation of Microplastics in Freshwater

Engineered Processes for the Separation and Degradation of Microplastics in Freshwater

Photo: The sand band used to prepare hydrochar from microplastics. Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI.


 

By Nicole Damon, Nevada Water Resources Research Institute

Microplastics, plastic fragments that are smaller than 5 mm in any dimension, have been found in ecosystems worldwide. These emerging contaminants are even in environments that are supposed to be free from human contact, such as Antarctica and the deep ocean floor, and their toxic properties make them a significant environmental hazard.

“After the first acknowledgement of microplastics in the early 2000s, their presence in the environment has raised ever-increasing concerns because of their effects on organisms and ecosystems, and because approximately 1.5 million tons of microplastics are estimated to be released into aquatic environments every year,” explains Dr. Erick Bandala, the principal investigator of this project, which also includes Dr. Menake Piyasena from New Mexico Tech, graduate research assistants Adam Clurman and Ahdee Zeidman, and summer intern Yajahira Dircio. “Unfortunately, very little is known about the capability of engineered separation and/or degradation technologies to remove this highly ubiquitous contaminant.”

Commercial products that are manufactured to contain microplastics—such as personal care and pharmaceutical products, industrial abrasives, drilling fluids, and 3D printing products—are the primary sources of microplastics. However, the degradation of plastic debris can also generate microplastics.

“Wastewater treatment plant effluents are the main pathway for microplastics to be released into aquatic environments,” Bandala says. “Although the microplastic removal rate of a conventional wastewater treatment plant is reported to be in the range of 73 to 79 percent, the treated effluent can carry as much as 220,000 to 1.5 million microplastic particles per day.”

Yajahira Dircio, a student at Rancho High School and summer intern on the project, is preparing hydrochar from MPs using a sand band

Yajahira Dircio, a student at Rancho High School and summer intern on the project, is
preparing hydrochar from MPs using a sand band. Credit: Erick Bandala/DRI

In recent years, the effects microplastics have been found to have on aquatic species and their unknown effects on human health have increased concerns about their presence in water sources.

“Because conventional water treatment processes are unable to effectively eliminate microplastics in water, developing new technologies that can separate them from effluents and prevent their release into the environment is a high priority to protect water quality and water security,” Bandala says.

For this project, the researchers will use acoustic focusing and electrocoagulation to separate microplastics in freshwater effluents and determine the removal process mechanisms.

“Acoustic standing waves are a fast, noncontact, gentle particlemanipulation technique for microfluidic conditions that have emerged as a promising new technology for the purification, separation, and concentration of beads and biological cell samples,” Bandala explains.

The researchers will also assess the efficacy of using electrocoagulation to remove MPs from wastewater.

“Electrocoagulation has several significant advantages to conventional chemical coagulation, such as it increases treatment efficiency, generates less sludge, requires less space, and prevents chemical storage,” Bandala adds. “It has been proven to be highly efficient in removing contaminants. Our research group has used it for water defluoridation and to pretreat effluents that were heavily contaminated with petrochemicals.”

Because microplastics in freshwater are increasingly detected, it is even more important to find effective water treatment process that remove them.

“Although ultrafiltration, or microfiltration, have microplastic removal efficiencies as high as 99.4 percent, they also have high operational and maintenance costs and require skilled operators,” Bandala explains. “Finding efficient, costeffective methods to separate microplastics from freshwater effluents is critical to preventing population exposure.”

Adam Clurman, an undergraduate student at Nevada State College, is conducting the electrocoagulation experiments for the project.

Adam Clurman, an undergraduate student at Nevada State College, is conducting the
electrocoagulation experiments for the project. Credit: Erick Bandala

Another challenge that microplastics in freshwater present is how to dispose of them once they are removed from water. For this project, the researchers will use advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) as complementary processes to degrade the plastic waste after it has been separated from the wastewater. Advanced oxidation processes are an eco-friendly way to degrade organic compounds. In previous projects, the research group has tested the capability of these processes to degrade a wide variety of dissolved organic contaminants in water.

“Advanced oxidation processes have been used to degrade organics and have shown high cost-efficiency and short detention time compared with conventional water treatment processes,” Bandala explains. “Using AOPs to degrade microplastics will not only be an interesting challenge because of the complexity of their polymeric chains, but also because these contaminants are suspended in water and treating contaminants in a different phase in water using AOPs has not yet been reported.”

Maintaining the quality of water sources is an increasing issue, particularly in arid and semiarid regions with rapidly growing populations, such as Nevada.

“Desert Research Institute has reported the presence of MPs in places such as the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe, which are the origin of several drinking water supply systems in Nevada,” Bandala explains. “We live in a region with a moderate-high water stress and as Nevadans, we need to protect our water sources from contamination to ensure the sustainable development of our communities.”


This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) Summer 2020 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

For more information on the NWRRI, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/nwrri/ 

 

DRI’S WaterStart Program GOED Knowledge Fund Success Story

DRI’S WaterStart Program GOED Knowledge Fund Success Story

This story was reposted with permission from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

CARSON CITY, Nev. – After investments totaling $4.3 million through the Knowledge Fund administered by the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), the WaterStart program is spinning out of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) into a successful company that has already addressed $30 million in water technology challenges based in Nevada.

“The WaterStart spin out of DRI represents yet another success story of the Knowledge Fund,” said Michael Brown, GOED executive director. “GOED is looking forward to continuing to work with WaterStart providing technology solutions for Nevada’s water resource-based challenges as well as growing the water-tech sector in our state thereby creating high paying employment opportunities for Nevadans.”

With a growing membership, proven model, and diversified funding, WaterStart is ready to write its next chapter and operate as an independent entity. WaterStart was founded as a non-profit in 2013 in response to the impacts of the Great Recession and 20 years of continuous drought in Nevada. The public-private partnership was housed within DRI and funded by GOED. Dedicated to deploying new water technologies and making Nevada a hub for water innovation, WaterStart membership and sponsors are made up of the State’s largest water agencies, consumers and philanthropies including; the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Truckee Meadows Water Authority, MGM Resorts and NV Gold, the Wells Fargo Foundation and OneDrop.

“The WaterStart model has enabled DRI to build on our global leadership in water research to better understand the needs of the water industry and develop relationships with the private sector,” said Kumud Acharya, Interim President of DRI.

Funding to create WaterStart as well as continuous financial support since 2013 has come from the Knowledge Fund, which was established to foster the development of intellectual property and commercialization of new technologies at Nevada’s three research institutions in an effort to diversify and strengthen the state’s economy. Part of the Knowledge Fund’s mandate is to build research capacity for the development of technologies that can be commercialized as well as setting up centers to engage in research and development collaborations with the private sector.

Today, WaterStart’s membership has expanded into Australia and the United Kingdom. In May, WaterStart welcomed the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California as its newest member. Delivering water to a six-county service area with nearly 19 million people, Metropolitan is now WaterStart’s largest member and its first in California.

“The recent growth of our membership into Australia, the United Kingdom and now California speaks volumes about how far we’ve come and the impact we can make,” said Nathan Allen, WaterStart’s executive director. “We’re grateful for the support we’ve received from the Knowledge Fund and DRI. Our Nevada community has given us a solid foundation to scale-up and pursue our vision of deploying technologies that benefit 100 million people.”

WaterStart and its members will continue to address and solve challenges at the nexus of the economy and water. Based in Nevada, WaterStart will expand its positive impact in the State as it drives job creation, conservation, and water security by bringing in cutting edge, innovative companies to solve water issues in the driest state in the Union.

“This is an exciting time for WaterStart and its members,” said Dave Johnson, Chairman of the Board for WaterStart. “After years of hard work, the organization is ready to step out on its own. This change will allow WaterStart to broaden its impact as it works with members and partners around the world to solve our most pressing water technology needs.”

Additional documents:

Economic Impact of WaterStart on Clark County 2015-2018

Metropolitan Water District Partners with WaterStart to Continue Innovation

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About the Governor’s Office of Economic Development

Created during the 2011 session of the Nevada Legislature, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development is the result of a collaborative effort between the Nevada Legislature and the Governor’s Office to restructure economic development in the state. GOED’s role is to promote a robust, diversified and prosperous economy in Nevada, to stimulate business expansion and retention, encourage entrepreneurial enterprise, attract new businesses and facilitate community development. More information on the Governor’s Office of Economic Development can be viewed at diversifynevada.com.

About the 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 policymakers, 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. For more information, visit  www.dri.edu.

About WaterStart

WaterStart is a non-profit collective of globally recognized leaders who are adapting to change by scaling up new solutions to water challenges. Driven by the needs of water agencies and large consumers, we provide a channel for pooling resources to accelerate the development and adoption of innovative water technologies. Established in 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada, WaterStart’s globally recognized members, sponsors, and portfolio companies come from across the United States, expanding into Queensland, Australia in 2018 and into the United Kingdom in 2020. For more information, visit www.waterstart.com.

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.

The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.


Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials
Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov

Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers
Kristin VanderMolen 

Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling
Ming Liu

Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.

Researchers sample snow

Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S.
Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano

Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.

A cannabis growing facility

A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping
David Campbell

The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast,

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.

Modeling and Analysis of Fluid Flow Interactions with Porous/Permeable 3-Dimensional Forms
Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole

Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

Meet Tiffany Pereira, M.S.

7

MAY, 2020

Botany
Research
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.

Nevada Gold Mines donates $100,000 to DRI’s Nevada Robotics State-wide Teaching Training Program

Nevada Gold Mines donates $100,000 to DRI’s Nevada Robotics State-wide Teaching Training Program

Reno, Nev. (Feb. 27, 2020) – Robotics clubs and competitions have become popular in many Nevada middle and high schools in recent years, but opportunities for participation at the elementary school level have so far been limited. This is set to change, thanks to a new grant from Nevada Gold Mines to the Nevada Robotics program, led by the Desert Research Institute (DRI).

The $100,000 grant will support elementary school teacher participation in two upcoming sessions of the 2020 Summer Robotics Academy of Nevada, an annual 4-day training that is co-sponsored by Tesla.

“We’re thrilled to be able to expand our robotics programming to Nevada’s elementary school teachers this year, with this support from Nevada Gold Mines,” said A.J. Long, head of the Nevada Robotics program at DRI. “Introducing students to the fun and challenge of robotics at an early age will help us immensely in strengthening the STEM workforce pipeline across the state.”

The Nevada Robotics program, launched in 2019, introduces Nevada teachers to the engineering and robotics concepts needed to build and operate automated and remote-controlled robots with groups of students. Last summer, with support from Tesla’s K-12 Education Investment Fund, DRI partnered with the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) to offer free training courses in robotics to more than 200 middle and high school teachers from across the state. Four additional trainings in the fall brought the total number of trained teachers to just over 400.

teachers operate robots at 2019 Robotics Academy of Nevada

The Nevada Robotics program introduces Nevada teachers to the engineering and robotics concepts needed to build and operate automated and remote-controlled robots.

Following the robotics workshops, teachers are prepared to develop competitive robotics teams at their schools. In the past year, with support from Tesla and Nevada Gold Mines, the number of competitive robotics teams in Nevada has increased by 43 percent, now totaling 672 teams and reaching more than 6,000 students. This spring, for the first time, Vex IQ robotics teams from five schools in Las Vegas, Henderson, and Ely have qualified for the VEX IQ Challenge Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Robotics is an amazing way to spark a lifelong interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), teamwork, and creative problem solving for students of all ages,” said Long. “Since launching last year, we’ve seen a huge amount of interest in robotics from teachers, students, and schools across the state.”

The 2020 Summer Robotics Academy of Nevada, open to elementary, middle and high school teachers, will be held in Las Vegas on May 26-29, 2020  at Cimarron-Memorial High School, and in Reno on June 16-19, 2020 at Damonte Ranch High School. The first three days of each training are designed for teachers who are new to robotics; the fourth day will be open to participants of all coaching and teaching levels.

Nevada teachers can attend the Summer Robotics Academy at no cost. Rookie coaches are eligible for travel and accommodation stipends as well as and continuing education credits. Following completion of the training, teachers who agree to start a new robotics team at their school are eligible for a free robotics kit, thanks to program sponsors, Tesla and Nevada Gold Mines.

With this grant, Nevada Gold Mines joins Tesla as a founding partner in Nevada Robotics. Melissa Schultz from Nevada Gold Mines will serve on the program’s advisory council, along with representatives from UNR, the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), the REC Foundation, PBS Reno, Clark County Schools, UNLV, Washoe County School District, FIRST Nevada, and Tesla.

For more information about the Nevada Robotics program, please visit: http://nvrobotics.dri.edu/

For teachers who are interested in attending the summer Robotics Academy of Nevada Teacher Trainings, please visit: https://forms.gle/CcsRqHpGd6dDW11Z9. Registration opens March 2nd, 2020.

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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 is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Desert Research Institute to lead Nevada’s new Regional STEM Networks

Desert Research Institute to lead Nevada’s new Regional STEM Networks

Reno & Las Vegas, NV (Feb. 6, 2020): The Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the Nevada Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation, and Technology (OSIT) today announced the creation of three new Regional STEM Networks across the state.

With a growing need for a workforce skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) across Nevada and the nation, the state’s new Regional STEM Networks aim to increase student interest and achievement in STEM within the classroom and grow partnerships outside of the traditional classroom to support students.

Networks in Southern, Northwestern, and Rural Nevada will coordinate partners representing K-12 and Higher Education, business, industry, public libraries, after-school providers, non-profits, government, and philanthropy to identify and scale up STEM programs that will prepare students for Nevada’s 21st-century workforce.

“A high-quality STEM education helps students develop important skills like creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, and determination that will prepare them to succeed in their chosen career and as informed citizens.  I’m excited to partner with DRI to launch these three Regional STEM Networks in Nevada and increase our collaboration with local STEM partners,” said Brian Mitchell, Director of OSIT.

DRI was selected to coordinate the Networks in part due to the Institute’s record of success in delivering science solutions as well as informal education and outreach programs to Nevadans for more than 60 years.  Successful collaboration with regional partners has long contributed to the success of DRI’s Science Alive curriculum kits and teacher professional development courses, Citizen Science programs, STEM-based lecture series, workshops, and conferences for all ages.

“We are delighted to have the opportunity to enhance the STEM ecosystems in all three regions of our State,” said Craig Rosen, DRI Science Alive Administrator and Managing Director for Nevada’s Regional STEM Networks. “We look forward to bringing stakeholders together to identify gaps in STEM educational programming, scale-up quality STEM programs, and collaborate on new ideas and initiatives.”

The three regional STEM Networks will have five important tasks:

  1. Identify on-the-ground programmatic gaps or implementation challenges in need of a state-level solution.
  2. Grow interest, awareness, and achievement in STEM in the region.
  3. Carry out on-the-ground implementation of state-level programs/goals.
  4. Identify and build local programs and initiatives worthy of scaling statewide.
  5. Create and facilitate partnerships and the sharing of resources among K-12, higher education, and business/industry within the region.

DRI faculty and staff will host public STEM summits to allow stakeholders to communicate employment needs, highlight complementary informal STEM programs, and target areas for program growth and increased community support. Bringing together stakeholders from industry, the non-profit sector, education, and government, Rosen said he hopes, will lay the foundation for successful partnerships and program building throughout each region.

“We are particularly interested in creating opportunities that work for Nevada students and families from backgrounds underrepresented in the technical workforce,” Rosen explained.

“Through our Regional Network structure, we can address the unique challenges and opportunities of each region at the local level. Increasing student engagement in STEM has proven to translate directly into career success for students of all ages. In Nevada, our hope is that coordinating that engagement statewide will help our State build a robust, diverse workforce that can support the growing demand for STEM professionals throughout Nevada.”

DRI will officially launch the new Regional STEM Networks at public STEM summits in Spring 2020.

The Networks will be overseen by OSIT and the Nevada STEM Advisory Council.


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 policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The mission of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology (OSIT) is to coordinate, support, and align efforts by K-12 and higher education, workforce development and employers to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and STEM workforce development, so that Nevada’s workforce can meet the demands of its growing economy.

Using Machine Learning to Address Land Subsidence in Pahrump Valley

Using Machine Learning to Address Land Subsidence in Pahrump Valley

As populations in the southwestern United States continue to grow, the demand on water resources also increases. One region experiencing this stress on its groundwater resources is Pahrump Valley in southern Nye County, Nevada. Pahrump Valley is one of the fastest growing counties in Nevada, which has led to groundwater-related issues such as land subsidence. “Land subsidence has been reported in Pahrump Valley since the 1960s,” says Dr. Hai Pham the principal investigator (PI) of this project, which also includes co-PIs Karl Pohlmann, Susan Rybarski, and Kevin Heintz and research assistant Larry Piatt. “It has caused damage to building foundations and slabs, fissuring, shearing of well casings, and extensive damage to roadbeds.”

In their 2017 Water Resources Plan Update, the Nye County Water District determined that land subsidence is one of the key issues related to population growth in Nye County. However, the causes of land subsidence still haven’t been clearly identified. “Previous studies failed to precisely map spatiotemporal evolutions of subsidence, or adequately clarify the causes of subsidence,” Pham says. “These studies were limited by data quantity and quality. The goal of this project is to identify and prioritize predominant factors that cause subsidence and make predictions using machine learning algorithms and big data.”

A concrete well pad exposed by land subsidence around the well casing (right) observed during a field survey in May 2019 (photo by Karl Pohlmann).

Land subsidence is a complicated process that is driven by multivariate intercorrelated factors, such as groundwater decline, soil and sediment types, and tectonic and geologic settings. For example, excessive groundwater pumping results in soil compaction, which has been identified as a primary cause of land subsidence in Pahrump Valley. However, the magnitude of soil compaction depends on aquifer materials, and therefore understanding the geologic structure of Pahrump Valley is vital to evaluating future subsidence. The advantage of using machine learning to assess potential areas of land subsidence is that it can help illuminate complicated data relationships that may not be as obvious using traditional data analysis techniques.

In this project, the researchers will use machine learning algorithms and high-resolution data sets to identify the predominant factors causing land subsidence in Pahrump Valley. “In this study, we will derive spatiotemporal subsidence maps using recent high-quality satellite images and the Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar [InSAR] technique,” Pham says. “InSAR is a powerful technique that allows us to measure and map vertical changes on the earth’s surface as small as a few millimeters.”

The researchers will then build three-dimensional (3-D) computer models of the subsurface geological structures in Pahrump Valley at a very fine (one-foot) vertical resolution using data from 13,000 boreholes. “Compaction of aquifer materials can accompany excessive groundwater pumping and it is by far the single largest cause of subsidence, but the magnitude of soil compaction differs by soil type,” Pham explains. “Therefore, it is important that we account for these well log data to construct high resolution 3-D models of geologic structures.” The researchers will also develop groundwater drawdown maps by processing data from records of 130 groundwater observation wells that range from the 1940s to the present. “Incorporating these high-resolution datasets will help us identify and prioritize the causes of subsidence and make better predictions,” Pham adds.

The groundwater level has declined approximately 25 feet from December 1999 to December 2017 (photo taken in May 2019 by Karl Pohlmann).

Because of the limitations of existing field data, the researchers will generate high-resolution datasets to train and validate the machine learning algorithms. Advanced machine learning algorithms will then be run on supercomputers to analyze the data. By analyzing this data, the researchers hope to identify the factors that cause subsidence and ultimately predict possible subsidence in the future. “Once we have identified these factors, we can roughly predict areas that are prone to subsidence,” Pham explains. “This information can also be used to predict subsidence in other arid and semiarid regions.”

This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) October 2019 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

Dust Control at the Oceano Dunes

Dust Control at the Oceano Dunes

Last May, DRI scientist Jack Gillies, Ph.D. spent three weeks at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA), a 3,500-acre area of sandy beach and coastal dune habitat located within the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes complex on the central California coast. Unlike most visitors to this popular park, Gillies was not there to camp, or to ride OHVs over the miles and miles of beaches and dunes; he was there to measure the dust.

For more than 100 years, people have visited the Oceano Dunes region to drive on the beaches – beginning in the early 1900s with horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles, then later with ATVs, dune buggies, dirt bikes, trucks, RVs, and other types of vehicles. All of this activity, however, has not been without impact: Dust emitted by the dunes routinely blows toward the nearby Nipomo Mesa area, violating air quality standards for particulate matter and posing a public health threat to residents.

Last year, the Oceano Dunes SVRA was issued an Order of Abatement, which requires the development and implementation of a management plan to bring the park’s dust emissions back into compliance with State and Federal air quality standards within four years. Now, with new funding from the California State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Division, Gillies and several other DRI researchers – Vic Etyemezian, Ph.D., George Nikolich, and John Mejia, Ph.D.—are continuing a long-term effort to help park officials understand and manage dust emissions from the Oceano Dunes. But in order to stop the dust, it would help to know how it forms, and this is still a bit of a mystery.

Researchers measure dust emissions at Oceano Dunes.

The source of the problem

“Dunes are always sandy, but they aren’t normally dusty; at least not to this extent,” said Gillies, who has worked at the Oceano Dunes since 2010. “Part of our research is to actually come up with the scientific reasons why the dunes are so dusty.”

Neither the park nor the town has long-term air quality data to show what conditions were like prior to the presence of vehicles, says Gillies, but there is evidence that suggests that the presence of the vehicles exacerbates the problem. Gillies and Etyemezian hypothesize that the dust emitted under elevated wind speeds could be a result of the re-working of the dunes by the vehicles and re-shaping of the dunes by coastal winds.

Researchers do know that dust is released from the dunes through a natural process called saltation, in which wind-blown sand particles bounce along the surface of the dune, kicking up smaller particles of dust – and that holding the sand in place helps to prevent that dust from being released.

“When the wind blows the sand across the dune surface, it’s like all these little missiles of sand coming in,” Gillies explained. “That’s what kicks out the dust, and then the dust is dispersed by the wind.”

Tools of the trade

To help park officials identify major sources of dust, Gillies and his DRI colleagues are engaged in an effort to map out specific areas of the park where dust originates. This spring, they collected more than 500 dust emissions measurements in a grid pattern through the OHV recreation area using a tool called the PI-SWERL (Portable In-Situ Wind Erosion Lab).

“The last time we did such an extensive measurement of dust emissions at the Oceano Dunes was in 2013, so it was decided that we should go back this year to update the underlying emission grid and see if, or how much, it has changed,” Gillies said.

PI-SWERL at the Oceano Dunes

Pi-SWERL at the Oceano Dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.

PI-SWERL

The PI-SWERL at Oceano Dunes. A flat blade several cm above the surface in PI-SWERL rotates creating a shear stress like the wind created when it blows across a surface, causes the sand to saltate and the dust is emitted. The inset shows the sand surface after a test. PI-SWERL sits on the metal frame to provide a stable surface for testing. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.

The PI-SWERL, which was developed at DRI by Etyemezian and Nikolich, measures the potential for dust emissions from real-world surfaces. It acts as a miniature wind tunnel to simulate the high winds that produce dust storms. The dust emissions measurements are fed into a computer model, developed in part by DRI’s John Mejia, which simulates the action of coastal winds and the subsequent dispersal of dust. Using this model, the team can help park officials identify “hot-spot” areas where dust originates, and target those areas for remediation.

The team has also installed a network of air quality monitors throughout the park, which monitor wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity, and particulate matter. These data are adding to their overall understanding of the spatial variability and strength of the dust emissions at the dunes.

“These data will help us answer questions like whether dust emissions levels are different on weekdays versus weekends, when human activity in the park is higher,” Gillies explained. “It will also allow us to see how things are changing over time.”

Researchers gather dust emissions data at the Oceano Dunes SVRA using the PI-SWERL. May 2019. Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

Researchers gather dust emissions data at the Oceano Dunes SVRA using the PI-SWERL. May 2019. Credit: Vic Etyemezian/DRI.

Seeking new solutions

As the DRI team works to answer underlying scientific questions about the Park’s dust problem, they are also engaged in efforts to help develop and monitor solutions. They are working with Park officials on various dust control strategies, such as the use of temporary sand fencing, and revegetation with native plants to help hold sand in place and trap moving sand.

“Our aim is to stop the sand from moving, because when you stop the sand moving, you essentially stop the dust from being emitted,” Gillies said.

They are guiding the creation of “vegetation islands” of native plants, similar to that which are found in undisturbed dune areas to the north and south of the SVRA. OHVs are excluded from these areas, as well as from large sections of the park where endangered California least terns and threatened Western snowy plovers breed and nest during spring and summer.

As new dust control measures are added, the team monitors the remediation sites to see if dust emissions levels are reduced. The goal, Gillies says, is to help the park develop a management plan that will bring them into attainment with the Federal air quality standard for particulate matter within four years.

“The park has been ordered to find a solution to this problem, and it’s a problem that has raised a lot of contention among people of the region,” Gillies said. ”There are a lot of people who enjoy OHV recreation at the dunes and their visits contribute to the local economy, and another contingent of people who live downwind of the park and really want to breathe clean air. So, it is an interesting project to work on, both from a scientific perspective and as a project that deals with real-world problems.”

Vegetation islands at Oceano Dunes

At the Oceano Dunes SVRA, native “vegetation islands” are being restored to help reduce dust emissions from the dunes. Credit: Jack Gillies/DRI.


About Jack Gillies: Jack Gillies, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Geography with DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. Jack specializes in the physics of sediment transport by wind, and applies this knowledge to solve problems related to air quality. He grew up in Ontario, Canada, and holds bachelors, master’s and doctoral degrees in physical geography from the University of Guelph, Ontario. Jack began his career at DRI as a post-doctoral researcher in 1994, and has been a member of the DRI community for 25 years. To learn more about Gillies and his research, please visit: https://www.dri.edu/directory/5427-jack-gillies 

DRI Launches Two New Projects to Study Hydrology at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch

DRI Launches Two New Projects to Study Hydrology at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch

Scientists will investigate water quality and flow in critical desert wetland habitat

 

LAS VEGAS, NEV. (Sept. 30, 2019) —The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is pleased to announce the launch of two new research projects to study hydrology at The Nature Conservancy in Nevada’s 7J Ranch property near Beatty, Nevada. Work will begin in September on two complementary projects, funded by the Sulo and Aileen Maki Endowment, which will install meteorological stations and develop a watershed model to monitor how future restoration activities at the 7J Ranch will affect its water resources.

The 900-acre working ranch in Southern Nevada’s Oasis Valley is a unique place to study water, as it contains the headwaters of the Amargosa River, one of the world’s longest spring-fed river systems that runs mostly below the surface. The ranch’s unique geography and location where the Great Basin and Mojave deserts meet, and its habitat for many endemic and protected species, make it a globally important site for conserving biodiversity and give it strategic value for facilitating climate change adaptation for wildlife. The highly arid environment of southern Nevada and the Amargosa River’s status as an important source of groundwater discharge in the region also make its headwaters an important place to study hydrology.

The first project, led by Kevin Heintz, will install a hydrometeorological station to monitor the habitat at the 7J Ranch and study how surface water is affected by restoration activities and extreme weather conditions.  This study is significant to southern Nevada water issues because it will contribute to estimating the flow of water in a critical wetland habitat and it will continuously monitor for environmental stressors, both of which have implications for southern Nevada’s biodiversity and wetland health.

DRI’s second project, led by Gabrielle Boisramé, Ph.D., will study how the potential removal of ponds will impact downstream hydrology and habitat. This project will use a variety of environmental data to develop a water budget model that can describe the movement of water in and out of the restoration area under various scenarios.

DRI researcher Gabrielle Boisrame, Ph.D., inspects a floating evaporation pan at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch on September 18, 2019. Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

“Stream restoration in arid environments like the Mojave Desert has not been studied extensively,” explained Boisramé. “Our hope is that this new research will help guide other restoration work in similar spring-fed streams systems of southern Nevada.”

The Conservancy plans to encourage long-term research at the 7J Ranch, and this project will provide an important base of knowledge for future researchers to build upon.

“This research will provide critical information for needed restoration projects at 7J Ranch, and we are so grateful to the Desert Research Institute for their support,” said John Zablocki, Southern Nevada Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy.  “The insights gained from these projects, and the instruments installed, will help inform better water management decisions for southern Nevada, help predict hydrologic responses to climate change, and help improve modeling on how groundwater flows in the region.”

The Sulo and Aileen Maki Endowment was established by the Sulo and Aileen Maki Trust to be used by the DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences for research, instruction, and scholarships relevant to southern Nevada water issues. The endowment supports innovative, creative, and multidisciplinary research, as well as scholarly endeavors such as journal publications and presentations at scientific conferences, water resources course instruction and student scholarships, and community outreach and service. The overall goal of these efforts is to make the DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences and the name Maki stand for excellence in water resources research, education, and outreach.

Desert Research Institute scientist Gabrielle Boisrame, Ph.D., (left) and graduate research assistant Rose Shillito from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (right) prepare a pressure sensor for measuring water depth

Desert Research Institute scientist Gabrielle Boisrame, Ph.D., (left) and graduate research assistant Rose Shillito from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (right) prepare a pressure sensor for measuring water depth at The Nature Conservancy’s 7J Ranch on September 18, 2019. Credit: Ali Swallow/DRI.

For more information, please contact Sara Cobble, Marketing and Communications Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, at sara.cobble@tnc.org or Kelsey Fitzgerald, Science Writer for the Desert Research Institute Communications Office at kelsey.fitzgerald@dri.edu

To view a photo gallery of images from 7J Ranch, please visit: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmHaHULv

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About The Nature Conservancy

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. We’ve been working in Nevada for nearly 35 years. To learn more, please visit www.nature.org/nevada.

About the 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 policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

About the Nevada System of Higher Education The Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), comprised of two doctoral-granting universities, a state college, four comprehensive community colleges and one environmental research institute, serves the educational and job training needs of Nevada. NSHE provides educational opportunities to more than 100,000 students and is governed by the Board of Regents.

Evaluation of Antibiotic Resistance Genes (ARGs) in the Urban Wetland Ecosystem: Las Vegas Wash

Evaluation of Antibiotic Resistance Genes (ARGs) in the Urban Wetland Ecosystem: Las Vegas Wash

Photo: Duane Moser (left) and Xuelian Bai (right) collect filters from the sampling pump to take back to the lab for analysis.


Research on antibiotic resistance genes at DRI

 

Antibiotic resistance—the ability of bacteria to survive in the presence of antibiotics—is an increasing environmental and public health concern as more antibiotics enter urban waterways and treated wastewater is increasingly used to supplement limited water resources. Current wastewater treatment processes have difficulty removing antibiotics, which also encourages the growth of antibiotic resistance in urban watersheds, such as the Las Vegas Wash.

“Contaminants that are persistent in treated wastewaters that are discarded or reused may lead to health risks for humans,” explains Dr. Xuelian Bai, the principal investigator (PI) of this project that also includes co-PI Dr. Duane Moser and student researcher Rania Eddik-Zein. “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and numerous other global and national agencies recognize antibiotic resistance as a critical challenge.”

 

 

The Las Vegas Wash is a unique watershed that is highly affected by anthropogenic activities and flooding during wet seasons.

“A lot of research has been done to monitor chemical contaminants such as nutrients, heavy metals, and organic contaminants, as well as antibiotics in the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Mead,” Bai says. “However, there is still a lack of information on the presence of microbial contaminants and antibiotic resistance genes [ARGs] in the watershed.”

Understanding the presence and abundance of ARGs in this watershed will provide insight into possible antibiotic resistance developing in the wash.

For this project, the researchers will evaluate the occurrence and prevalence of ARGs in the Las Vegas Wash.

“Resistance to antibiotics is encoded in ARGs, which are segments of DNA that enable bacteria to fight antibiotics,” Bai explains. “The major concerns about antibiotic resistance are the tendency of bacteria to share ARGs through horizontal gene transfer and that efforts to kill resistant bacteria, such as UV or chlorine disinfection in wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities, may not remove ARGs.”

The researchers anticipate that the data from this study will provide insight into the prevalence of ARGs in the wash and provide valuable information that can be used to determine water quality and potential human health concerns in southern Nevada.

First, the researchers will take field samples of water and sediment from the Las Vegas Wash to assess the presence of ARGs in an urban wetland ecosystem.

“Municipal wastewater appears to be a significant reservoir of ARGs,” Bai says. “Many studies have detected ARGs at all stages of the municipal wastewater treatment processes.”

Urban water supplies are particularly susceptible to developing antibiotic resistance because of the concentrated quantities of antibiotics that are released when treated municipal wastewater is discharged into the environment.

“Microorganisms in wastewater discharge can transport ARGs to downstream surface waters used for recreation or sources of drinking water, which can lead to human exposure over local, or even global, scales,” Bai explains. “This is a concern in southern Nevada because five major wastewater treatment plants discharge into the Las Vegas Wash. The Las Vegas Wash then discharges into Lake Mead, which is the primary drinking water supply for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area.”

 

Researchers carry equipment toward a sampling site at the Las Vegas Wash.

The DRI research team including (from left) Duane Moser, David Basulto, Hai Pham, and Xuelian Bai carry equipment down to the bank of the Lake Mead, one of several sampling sites along the Las Vegas Wash.

 

Lake Mead supplies water to millions of residents in the southwestern United States, so identifying potential antibiotic resistance is increasingly important, especially with the drastic population growth in the region. Effluent discharged from wastewater treatment plants, urban runoff, and floodwaters during wet seasons carry sediment, nutrients, and other contaminants to Lake Mead. This generates several water-quality concerns, particularly about the effects of contaminants on aquatic habitats.

“The Las Vegas Wash provides the full continuum of major freshwater aquatic habitats, includingwetlands, flowing water, lake water, and sediment,” Bai explains. “Wetlands, flowing water, and lake water are defined by aerobic conditions and exposure to photosphere influence. However, sediments almost always go anoxic very quickly below the surface, usually within millimeters in eutrophic systems. The fate of antibiotics and the microbial genes that mediate changes in anaerobes have been relatively understudied.”

The researchers anticipate that the field sampling and the lab studies conducted for this project—which include microcosm and microbial community experiments, and DNA analysis—will allow them to specifically identify southern Nevada water issues.

“We will detect and quantify target ARGs in water samples collected upstream and downstream along the Las Vegas Wash, as well as target ARGs in sediment samples collected from the Las Vegas Wash wetlands,” Bai says. “We will also determine the fate and spread of ARGs in the aquatic ecosystems, and assess the effects of elevated antibiotic concentrations on the ecosystem.”

Because evaluating ARGs in surface water and sediment has not been fully studied locally or globally, this project will address local water issues in Nevada and provide useful antibiotic resistance data about urban watersheds that can be used worldwide.

This story was originally written for the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) July 2019 Newsletter. Success and the dedication to quality research have established DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) as the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute (NWRRI) under the Water Resources Research Act of 1984 (as amended). The work conducted through the NWRRI program is supported by the U.S. Geological Survey under Grant/Cooperative Agreement No. G16AP00069.

Researchers identify connection between more frequent, intense heat events and deaths in Las Vegas

Researchers identify connection between more frequent, intense heat events and deaths in Las Vegas

Photo: Hotter temperatures and longer, more frequent heat waves are linked to a rising number of deaths in the Las Vegas Valley over the last 10 years.


 

Las Vegas, Nev. (June 4, 2019) – Over the last several decades, extreme heat events around the world—particularly in the North American Southwest—have gotten hotter, occurred more frequently, and lasted longer. These trends pose significant health risks to the growing number of people making cities like Las Vegas home.

A new study by faculty and undergraduate students at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), Nevada State College, and Universidad de Las Americas Puebla traces the relationship between extreme heat and mortality rates, identifying a clear correlation between heat wave episodes and heat-related deaths in Las Vegas over the last ten years.

“Current climate change projections show an increased likelihood of extreme temperature events in the Las Vegas area over the next several years,” explained Erick Bandala, Ph.D., assistant research professor at DRI and lead author on the study. “Understanding recent extreme heat trends and their relationship to health hazards is essential to protecting vulnerable populations from risk in the future.”

Researchers analyze data on computer.

Erick Bandala, PhD (left), shows a graduate student the data he and his team analyzed for this study.

Urban areas of the Southwest are of particular concern because several factors compound the health-related risks of extreme heat events. The heat-absorbing properties of common materials like asphalt exacerbate already high temperatures in cities (called the urban heat island effect), particularly at night. What’s more, populations in cities like Las Vegas are growing rapidly, especially among those 55 and older, which means that more and more people are exposed to risk.

In this study, the research team analyzed two measures of extreme heat—heat index and excess heat factor—for the Las Vegas metropolitan area in the June, July, and August months from 2007 to 2016. Heat index (HI) accounts for how the human body reacts to surface temperature and relative humidity. Excess heat factor measures (EHF) heat wave intensity in relation to historic temperature trends to account for how acclimated the public is to a given temperature threshold. Because both HI and EHF incorporate the human body’s response to extreme heat, they are ideal metrics for assessing public health impacts, and both were shown to rise over the study period.

The annual average of severe heat events per year in Las Vegas also showed significant increases in this study, from an average of 3.3 events per year from 2007-2009 to 4.7 per year in the 2010-2016 period. These findings match historic trends, which show a steady increase in severity and frequency of excess heat in Las Vegas since 1980.

Strikingly, the number of heat-related deaths in Las Vegas map onto these trends: as heat wave intensity increases, the number of heat-related deaths does, too.

Graphs of heat index and excess heat factor.

Heat Index (HI) and Excess Heat Factor (EHF) are metrics that go beyond just temperature to also account for the human body’s response to heat. This study found that rising trends in these measures tracked closely with the number of heat-related deaths in Las Vegas.

“From 2007 to 2016, there have been 437 heat-related deaths in Las Vegas, with the greatest number of those deaths occurring in 2016,” explained Bandala. “Interestingly, 2016 also shows one of the highest heat index measures over the last 35 years. This shows a clear relationship between increasingly intense heat events in our area and public health effects.”

Bandala’s team found that the subpopulation particularly at risk of heat-related deaths is adults over 50 years old—76% of the heat-related deaths in the study period were individuals in this subpopulation. Of the deaths in this group, almost all individuals also showed evidence of pre-existing heart disease. Researchers note that these findings are highly significant given that the population of adults over 50 in Las Vegas is increasing, with more retirees choosing Clark County as a retirement destination.

Only 23% of heat related deaths occurred in the subpopulation of adults aged 20 to 50 years; interestingly, the most common pre-existing condition for this group was drug and alcohol use. More research is needed to understand how heat is impacting this segment of the population, Bandala noted, because though the number of deaths in this group is comparatively smaller, it is still nearly one quarter of heat-related deaths in the Las Vegas Valley. Additionally, this subpopulation includes economically active adults.

With more intense, more frequent, and longer lasting heat events projected in the coming years, the research team hopes that the trends identified in this study can assist local decision-makers in taking steps to protect the most vulnerable groups in Las Vegas.

“This research helps us better understand the connection between the climate changes we’ve experienced in Las Vegas and their impact to public health over the last 35 years,” Bandala said. “Ideally, this data analysis will help our community adapt to the changes yet to come.”

The full study, titled “Extreme heat and mortality rates in Las Vegas, Nevada: inter-annual variations and thresholds”, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. The study abstract and references are available here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13762-019-02357-9 

This study is based on work supported in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Desert Research Institute. Other members of the project team include Kebret Kebede, Nikole Jonsson, Rebecca Murray, and Destiny Green, all of Nevada State College; John Mejia of DRI; and Polioptro Martinez Austria of the Universidad de Las Americas Puebla. 

Population health study “Healthy Nevada Project” goes statewide, adding 25,000 participants

Las Vegas, Nev. (May 8, 2019) – The Healthy Nevada Project, a first-of-its-kind, community-based population health study combining genetic, clinical, environmental and social data, is expanding enrollment to Las Vegas. The Project aspires not only to offer genetic testing to every Nevadan interested in learning more about their health and genetic profile but ultimately, to develop and expand the Project for communities across the United States to drive positive health outcomes nationwide.

Adding 25,000 Study Volunteers in Southern Nevada

The Healthy Nevada Project is announcing a statewide expansion – opening 25,000 testing slots in Las Vegas in a collaboration with University Medical Center of Southern Nevada (UMC), which serves as the host-site for Las Vegas.

With UMC welcoming the study to southern Nevada, the Healthy Nevada Project will offer no-cost genetic testing through a simple spit sample to 25,000 study volunteers. Study volunteers will take Helix’s clinical-grade DNA saliva test and will receive their ancestry and traits, at no cost, through the My Healthy Nevada Traits app. Participants will then be given a chance to answer a follow-up health survey from Renown Institute for Health Innovation (Renown IHI), and upon survey completion, will be entered to win an iPhone.

In addition, study participants can agree to be notified about genetic test results that could impact their health, and which could be used to improve their medical care. This return of clinical results, plus genetic counseling and other genetic services as appropriate, will be provided by Genome Medical, the leading network of clinical genetics specialists.

“This is an incredible opportunity to learn more about our genetics and improve health throughout the Silver State,” said Mason VanHouweling, CEO of UMC. “In support of UMC’s commitment to promoting innovation in health care and building a better future for our home state, we embrace the opportunity to collaborate with Renown Health while hosting the Healthy Nevada Project in southern Nevada.”

Healthy Nevada Project’s Evolution & Ongoing Expansion

With more than 35,000 study participants enrolled in just over two years, the Healthy Nevada Project has become the fastest-enrolling genetic study in the country. The Project was created by Renown IHI – a collaboration between Reno, Nev.-based not-for-profit health network, Renown Health, and the world leader in environmental data, Desert Research Institute (DRI). Leveraging Renown’s forward-thinking approach to community health care and DRI’s data analytics and environmental expertise, Renown IHI has grown its capabilities to lead a larger, more complex research study of significance that will analyze and model public health risks in Nevada and serve as a national model for future population health studies working to improve overall health through clinical care integration.

During the Project’s pilot launch in September 2016, more than 10,000 community members signed up for DNA testing in just 48 hours. In March 2018, phase two offered full genomic sequencing through a simple spit test from partner, Helix, to northern Nevadans. In October 2018, the Project announced the return of clinical results for study participants, notifying them of their risk for CDC Tier 1 conditions including familial hypercholesterolemia, BRCA positive 1 and 2, and Lynch syndrome, a precursor to colon cancer.  These conditions affect more than one percent of the population and are inherited so they impact family members as well. Now, the Project announced its next phase – expanding enrollment to 25,000 people in southern Nevada through a collaboration with UMC.

Serving as a National Model

This expansion to Las Vegas truly makes this the “Healthy Nevada Project” with a statewide impact making Nevada the only state in the U.S. to offer such a program.

“Nevada was ripe to advance population health goals because, sadly, our state ranks near the bottom in health outcomes. The Healthy Nevada Project is working to change that,” said Anthony Slonim, M.D., DrPH, FACHE, president and CEO of Renown Health and president of Renown IHI. “Our researchers are working on a number of clinical programs and scientific studies to determine why in Washoe County, the county in which Renown Health is located, Nevada’s age-adjusted death rates for heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease are 33 percent higher than the national rate. Imagine if we can gather more data like this on a national scale and use it to change the future of health and health care? That is what the Healthy USA Project is looking to do in the years to come.”

“The Healthy Nevada Project is committed to providing study participants clinically actionable data that will help improve their health,” said Joseph Grzymski, Ph.D., associate research professor at DRI, principal investigator of the Healthy Nevada Project and chief scientific officer for Renown Health. “We are providing this information at the individual level so study volunteers can make lifesaving changes to reduce their risk. We’re also doing it on the community level to develop leading-edge research on health determinants for entire neighborhoods, states and eventually, the country.”

Expanding to Become the Healthy USA Project

The accelerated speed of the Project is made possible thanks to the ever-decreasing cost of sequencing. Today, Helix is able to sequence an entire exome – which allows reporting on most actionable genomic knowledge – for a fraction of what it would have cost just 10 years ago. Additionally, advances in digital health mean Helix and Project researchers can capture unprecedented amounts of health data digitally, making significant contributions to advancing precision health. The partnership has managed to remove the traditional barriers of population health studies, including the difficulty in recruiting participants, establishing quality high-throughput lab systems, and scaling interpretation and return of results. This development will be key as other health systems around the country join the Project.

“We are thrilled to see the constant, fast-paced evolution of this Project with Renown IHI,” said Justin Kao, Co-Founder of Helix. “In less than a year, we have sequenced the DNA of thousands of study participants and are now preparing to offer this incredible study in other states. Combining environmental, clinical, social and genetic data allows us to discover risk factors within communities and help people take action to live longer, healthier lives. That’s what makes the next step of the Healthy USA Project so exciting for all of us.”

Northern and southern Nevadans over age 18 who are interested in taking part are encouraged to learn more and sign up for the study at HealthyNV.org.

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About UMC

UMC offers the highest level of care in Nevada, providing a wide range of exclusive and specialized health care services to community members and visitors. UMC is home to Nevada’s only Level I Trauma Center, only Designated Pediatric Trauma Center, only Burn Care Center and only Center for Transplantation. Children’s Hospital of Nevada at UMC serves as the state’s only hospital to be recognized and accepted as an associate member of the Children’s Hospital Association. Offering highly skilled physicians, nurses and staff members supported by the latest, cutting-edge technology, UMC and Children’s Hospital of Nevada continue to build upon their shared reputation for providing Nevada’s highest level of care. In support of its mission to serve as the premier academic health center, UMC is the anchor partner for the UNLV School of Medicine. For more information, please visit www.umcsn.com and www.chnv.org.

Renown Institute for Health Innovation is a collaboration between Renown Health – a locally governed and locally owned, not-for-profit integrated healthcare network serving Nevada, Lake Tahoe and northeast California; and the Desert Research Institute – a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. Renown IHI research teams are focused on integrating personal healthcare and environmental data with socioeconomic determinants to help Nevada address some of its most complex environmental health problems; while simultaneously expanding the state’s access to leading-edge clinical trials and fostering new connections with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at https://healthynv.org/.

Helix is a genomics company with a simple but powerful mission: to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. Our affordable, turnkey population health solution enables institutions to quickly scale projects that engage communities and accelerate research and discovery, ultimately allowing every person to benefit from the power of genomics. We’ve also created the first marketplace for DNA-powered products where people can explore diverse and uniquely personalized products developed by high-quality partners, providing powerful tools to increase engagement and speed the pace of population-scale genomics. Helix is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, has an office in Denver, Colorado and operates a CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited next-generation sequencing lab in San Diego powered by Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) NGS technology. Helix was created in 2015. Learn more at www.helix.com.

Helix, the Helix logo and Exome+ are trademarks of Helix Opco, LLC. All other trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners.

Preserving Nevada’s Lost City using drones

Preserving Nevada’s Lost City using drones

Photo: Ruins of adobe houses, Lost City of Nevada. Credit: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.


 

Nevada’s “Lost City,” located northeast of Las Vegas on a terrace above the Muddy River, has been lost twice before – first abandoned by the native people who built it, then later flooded beneath the waters of Lake Mead – but a team of archaeologists from the Desert Research Institute’s Las Vegas campus hopes to ensure that it isn’t lost a third time.

This summer, DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Tatianna Menocal, and Megan Stueve plan to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone technology to create high-resolution 3-D maps of the Lost City archaeological site, which consists of about 46 adobe structures that date back more than 1,000 years. Working with representatives from the National Park Service, the team will then use these detailed maps of the structures and topography to devise best management practices for the continued preservation of the site.

“The structures are set on old river terraces and lake deposits that are really susceptible to erosion, and as the level of Lake Mead has dropped, the erosion seems to have accelerated quite a bit,” said Lancaster, Assistant Research Scientist of Archaeology at DRI. “Our goal with this project is to try to figure out where erosion is particularly bad and to try some different techniques to help control that erosion.”

Researchers holding drones.

During summer 2019, DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Megan Stueve and Tatianna Menocal plan to use unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone technology to create high-resolution 3-D maps of the Lost City archaeological site.

 

Lost in time

Lost City, also known as the Pueblo Grande de Nevada, was home to a small community of people of the Puebloan culture from about 800 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Here, they lived along the banks of the Muddy River, farming crops such as corn, squash, cotton and beans, and supplementing agriculture with wild and hunted foods.

No one knows exactly why Lost City was abandoned by its original inhabitants, but once the remains were discovered in the 1920s, they were mapped by archaeologists. After the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1935, the rising shoreline of Lake Mead became a threat the site.

“The area was inundated by the rising waters of Lake Mead after the construction of the Hoover Dam. Original researchers and the Civilian Conservation Corps were under a time crunch to get all the data they could while the Dam was being constructed, all the while knowing it would be lost after inundation,” said Stueve, Staff Research Scientist of Archaeology. “Fortunately, only half the site was inundated by high water levels and as the water receded from years of drought, the site was fully exposed once again and available to study.”

The ruins were studied again in more detail in 1979 through the 1990s, by which time extensive erosion had already damaged a number of the structures.

“One thing that has always been noted in the archaeological studies is the level of erosion in this area,” said Menocal, Assistant Research Scientist of Archaeology. “Entire landforms or portions of the landforms have been eroded away, so portions of the site are no longer there. In some places, entire houses are gone.”

Today, Lost City is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and managed by the National Park Service as part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Lancaster, Menocal, and Stueve approached NPS with an idea for a partnership to aid in preservation of the site. When an opportunity to fund the project through DRI’s Lander Endowment became available they realized the partnership was a possibility.

“We were looking for ways that we could branch out and impact the local community and the local resources around us a bit more,” Lancaster said. “We have a lot of capabilities at DRI; it’s the type of place that has the infrastructure for us to do high quality and meaningful environmental science.”

Ruins of houses at Lost City, Nevada.

A photograph of an unidentified person sitting in a group of restored pueblo homes at Lost City located near Overton, Nevada, circa 1930s-40s. Photo from University of Nevada, Las Vegas Special Collections.

A plan for preservation

To help protect Lost City from further damage, the DRI team plans to use UAS technology to create high-resolution maps of the area, through a process called photogrammetry.

“The UAS will fly around and take a series of several hundred photos of the area of interest, and we’ll use that to essentially build a 3-D model of the surface,” Lancaster explained.

They will use the maps to identify areas where erosion has occurred in the past and present, as well as areas where they expect erosion to occur in the future. During the summer of 2020, before the monsoon season hits, the DRI team will work with representatives from NPS to design effective treatments for the erosion problem. They plan to monitor the results of their efforts using UAS photogrammetry as the monsoon season progresses.

“The erosion is focused in these deep gullies that have formed in soft sediments, and these gullies are causing damage to the site as they expand and run into each other,” Lancaster said. “So, we’re planning a paired study. We’ll install an erosion treatment in one gully, and the other gully in that pair will not get a treatment. We’re essentially testing the effectiveness of erosion treatments approved by NPS management.”

The team is still looking for funding for another component of the project, which would utilize a thermal sensor on the UAS to detect structures or stone objects that are buried beneath the land surface.

“Out at Lost City, there are probably still structures that are buried beneath sediments, that you can’t actually see,” Lancaster said. “If we could discover where they were, and discover where gullies or erosion might expose them and start to damage them in the future, we could actually prevent them from being damaged or exposed in the first place. That’s one really exciting aspect of the project that we’d love to have the opportunity to test.”

Researchers with drones

DRI researchers JD Lancaster, Tatianna Menocal and Megan Stueve work with drones at DRI’s Las Vegas Campus.

 


LEARN MORE

About Pueblo Grande De Nevada (Lost City), from Online Nevada: http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/pueblo-grande-de-nevada-lost-city

About Lost City Archaeology, from Online Nevada: http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/lost-city-archaeology

About Pueblo Grande De Nevada (Lost City) from the National Park Service: https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/6b5182e4-c08c-4a6f-a296-e94058ebd6e1

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.

Nevada Higher Education Institutions Partner with Tesla in New Robotics Academy For Teachers

Nevada Higher Education Institutions Partner with Tesla in New Robotics Academy For Teachers

Students assemble a basic electric motor at Gigafactory 1 with Tesla volunteers during Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2019. Credit: Tesla


New program to offer K-12 teacher trainings developed by DRI, UNR and UNLV

 

Reno, Nev. (April 16, 2019) –  The Desert Research Institute (DRI), University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) are partnering with Tesla to help Nevada’s teachers go from curious to confident in coaching robotics programs.

The Robotics Academy of Nevada – a new statewide professional development program funded by Tesla’s K-12 Education Investment Fund – will launch this summer, facilitated by DRI’s PreK-12 STEM education and outreach program, Science Alive, in partnership with the Colleges of Engineering at Nevada’s research universities.

The Academy is comprised of two week-long teacher trainings designed to help 200 middle and high school teachers to coach robotics programs at their schools, with mentor support throughout the year. Trainings will be held on the universities’ campuses and will be taught by university faculty from the Departments of Engineering and Education, with assistance from college students.

“We are very excited to be given the opportunity to help create this new Academy to directly support Nevada’s teachers,” said Amelia Gulling, Science Alive STEM Education Director at DRI. “The primary highlight of this statewide initiative has been the collaborative partnerships that have been developed with our fellow NSHE institutions, robotics competition programs, and school districts.”

The Academy will introduce engineering and robotics content into the existing curriculum across Nevada, including an introduction to engineering processes, careers and methodologies for integration. Additional content will specifically address the implementation of competitive robotics and computer programming and cyber-literacy. Teachers will be also introduced to other robotics coaches and a network of mentors and others, both inside and outside of the universities, who they can work with year-round.

DRI’s Science Alive program is working with FIRST Nevada and the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (REC Foundation) in a shared vision to help bring a quality robotics program to every school in Nevada over the next four years.

“The most widely-utilized system for encouraging students to participate in robotics-related activities are competition leagues, FIRST Robotics leagues for example,” said David Feil-Seifer, project lead for the University of Nevada, Reno and assistant professor of computer science and engineering. “We will organize a Northern Nevada Robotics Competition Workshop, which will be open to stakeholders of such a program, such as league administrators, school personnel, parents, University personnel and members of the private innovation community as a hands-on zero-to-competition experience.”

“Tesla and DRI understand that Nevada needs a highly skilled, STEM-ready workforce,” said Brendan O’Toole, chair of UNLV’s mechanical engineering department in the College of Engineering and UNLV lead on the project. “As a longtime FIRST Robotics mentor and coach, I’ve experienced first-hand how robotics programs prepare students to solve challenging problems and strengthen the school-to-STEM-career pipeline by inspiring students to explore science, engineering and technology options.”

The funding of the Robotics Academy of Nevada is part of Tesla’s $37.5 million investment in K-12 education in Nevada aimed at programs that encourage students of all backgrounds to consider a career in STEM or sustainability. Tesla began rolling out the education investment in 2018 and will carry it out over five years.

Trainings will be completely free to educators, and all educators will receive a stipend and continuing education credits. Participants who are non-local will also have accommodations covered.

Trainings will be hosted in both Las Vegas and Reno early this summer:

Las Vegas: May 28-June 1 at UNLV

Reno: June 17-21 at UNR

Recruiting for participation in the Robotics Academy of Nevada is open now, and interested teachers can apply at https://sciencealive.dri.edu/robotics

###

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 is one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a doctoral-degree-granting institution of more than 30,000 students and 3,500 faculty and staff that is recognized among the top three percent of the nation’s research institutions – those with “very high research activity” – by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. UNLV offers a broad range of respected academic programs and is committed to recruiting and retaining top students and faculty, educating the region’s diversifying population and workforce, driving economic activity, and creating an academic health center for Southern Nevada. Learn more at unlv.edu.

The University of Nevada, Reno is a public research university committed to the promise of a future powered by knowledge. Founded in 1874 as Nevada’s land-grant university, the University serves nearly 22,000 students. The University is a comprehensive doctoral university, classified as an R1 institution with very high research activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. More than $800 million has been invested campus-wide in advanced laboratories, residence halls and facilities since 2009. It is home to the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and Wolf Pack Athletics, as well as statewide outreach programs including University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, Small Business Development Center and Nevada Seismological Laboratory. The University is part of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Through a commitment to student success, world-improving research and outreach benefiting Nevada’s communities and businesses, the University has impact across the state and around the world. For more information, visit www.unr.edu.

Media Contacts:

Justin Broglio
Desert Research Institute
justin.broglio@dri.edu
(775) 673-7610

Mike Wolterbeek
Communications Officer
University of Nevada, Reno
mwolterbeek@unr.edu
(775) 784-4547

Tony Allen
Director of Media Relations
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
tony.allen@unlv.edu
(702) 895-3102

DRI researchers successfully remove harmful hormones from Las Vegas wastewater using green algae

DRI researchers successfully remove harmful hormones from Las Vegas wastewater using green algae

Xuelian Bai, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Environmental Sciences, works with an algae sample in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Credit: Sachiko Sueki.


 

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (April 8, 2019) – A common species of freshwater green algae is capable of removing certain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from wastewater, according to new research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas.

EDCs are natural hormones and can also be found in many plastics and pharmaceuticals. They are known to be harmful to wildlife, and to humans in large concentrations, resulting in negative health effects such as lowered fertility and increased incidence of certain cancers. They have been found in trace amounts (parts per trillion to parts per billion) in treated wastewater, and also have been detected in water samples collected from Lake Mead.

In a new study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, DRI researchers Xuelian Bai, Ph.D., and Kumud Acharya, Ph.D., explore the potential for use of a species of freshwater green algae called Nannochloris to remove EDCs from treated wastewater.

“This type of algae is very commonly found in any freshwater ecosystem around the world, but its potential for use in wastewater treatment hadn’t been studied extensively,” explained Bai, lead author and Assistant Research Professor of environmental sciences with the Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI. “We wanted to explore whether this species might be a good candidate for use in an algal pond or constructed wetland to help remove wastewater contaminants.”

Samples of Nannochloris grow in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at DRI. This species of green algae was found to be capable of removing certain types of endocrine disrupting chemicals from treated wastewater. Credit: Xuelian Bai/DRI.

Samples of Nannochloris grow in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at DRI. This species of green algae was found to be capable of removing certain types of endocrine disrupting chemicals from treated wastewater. Credit: Xuelian Bai/DRI.

During a seven-day laboratory experiment, the researchers grew Nannochloris algal cultures in two types of treated wastewater effluents collected from the Clark County Water Reclamation District in Las Vegas, and measured changes in the concentration of seven common EDCs.

In wastewater samples that had been treated using an ultrafiltration technique, the researchers found that the algae grew rapidly and significantly improved the removal rate of three EDCs (17β-estradiol, 17α-ethinylestradiol and salicylic acid), with approximately 60 percent of each contaminant removed over the course of seven days. In wastewater that had been treated using ozonation, the algae did not grow as well and had no significant impact on EDC concentrations.

One of the EDCs examined in the study, triclosan, disappeared completely from the ultrafiltration water after seven days, and only 38 percent remained in the ozonation water after seven days – but this happened regardless of the presence of algae, and was attributed to breakdown by photolysis (exposure to light).

“Use of algae for removing heavy metals and other inorganic contaminants have been extensively studied in the past, but for removing organic pollutants has just started,” said Acharya, Interim Vice President for Research and Executive Director of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI. “Our research shows both some of the potential and also some of the limitations for using Nannochloris to remove EDCs from wastewater.”

Although these tests took place under laboratory conditions, a previous study by Bai and Acharya that published in November 2018 in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research examined the impacts of these same seven EDCs on quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis) collected from Lake Mead. Their results showed that several of the EDCs (testosterone, bisphenol A, triclosan, and salicylic acid) were accumulating in the body tissues of the mussels.

Researcher examines a sample of quagga mussels collected from Lake Mead. A recent study by Bai and Acharya found that endocrine disrupting chemicals are accumulating in the body tissues of these mussels. Credit: Xuelian Bai.

Researcher examines a sample of quagga mussels collected from Lake Mead. A recent study by Bai and Acharya found that endocrine disrupting chemicals are accumulating in the body tissues of these mussels. Credit: Xuelian Bai.

“Algae sit at the base of the food web, thereby providing food for organisms in higher trophic levels such as quagga mussels and other zooplantkons,” Bai said. “Our study clearly shows that there is potential for these contaminants to biomagnify, or build up at higher levels of the food chain in the aquatic ecosystem.”

Bai is now working on a new study looking for antibiotic resistance in genes collected from the Las Vegas Wash, as well as a study of microplastics in the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Mead. Although Las Vegas’s treated wastewater meets Clean Water Act standards, Bai hopes that her research will draw public attention to the fact that treated wastewater is not 100 percent clean, and will also be helpful to utility managers as they develop new ways to remove untreated contaminants from wastewater prior to release.

“Most wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove these unregulated contaminants in lower concentrations, but we know they may cause health effects to aquatic species and even humans, in large concentrations,” Bai said. “This is concerning in places where wastewater is recycled for use in agriculture or released back into drinking water sources.”

Bai’s research was funded by the Desert Research Institute Maki Endowment, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute. The studies mentioned in this release are available from Environmental Pollution and Environmental Science and Pollution Research journals:

Bai, X. and Kumud Acharya. 2019. Removal of seven endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from municipal wastewater effluents by a freshwater green alga. Environmental Pollution. 247: 534-540. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749118347894

Bai, X. and Kumud Acharya. 2018. Uptake of endocrine-disrupting chemicals by quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis) in an urban-impacted aquatic ecosystem. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 26: 250-258. Available: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-018-3320-4

###

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 one of eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

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: https://www.dri.edu/directory/5205-erick-bandala

12 Days of DRI: 2018 in Review

12 Days of DRI: 2018 in Review

It’s safe to say that 2018 has been a great year for DRI. From launching new programs to engage community members in science and technology to making new strides in our core research areas, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, and we’re looking forward to all that next year may hold. For our final blog post of the year, we review twelve (but by no means all) of our 2018 highlights, originally posted as a series on our Instagram, @DRIscience.


Sonora Pass, Oct 2018.

Day 1: In early 2018, DRI researchers Ben Hatchett, Ph.D., and Dan McEvoy, Ph.D., published research investigating snow droughts, which have become increasingly common in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in recent years, as warming temperatures push snow lines higher up mountainsides and cause more precipitation to fall as rain. Their findings traced how snow droughts evolve over a winter season and impact local watersheds and economies.

Now, McEvoy, Hatchett, and collaborator Justin Chambers are working to develop this research further by creating tools that can help scientists track snow droughts and share that information with resource managers.

Read more about snow droughts.


Solar Roller Teacher Training, December 2018. Day 2: In February, the DRI Science Alive Program, the PreK-12 education and outreach arm of DRI, collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art to host the first annual Nevada Steam Conference, which brought together nearly 200 educators, administrators, and presenters from across the state to discuss best practices and new approaches to education in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math).

In 2019, the Nevada STEAM Conference will happen on Saturday, February 2nd.

Learn more and register.


Day 3: This spring, viewers around the world fell in love with the great horned owl family that nested on an office building at our Reno campus. Their nesting situation was unusual, never before recorded by scientists: a trio of owls, two female and one male, tending two nests side by side. In coordination with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, DRI installed a nest camera and live-streamed the video to YouTube so that anyone could observe this rare nesting situation. The feed quickly went viral and became a news sensation, attracting viewers from around the world and coverage by outlets such as National Geographic and the Audubon. By the time the two owlets successfully fledged in May and the live stream was turned off, the video logged over 20 million hours of viewing.


Dr. Monica Arienzo works on a 30,000 year old ice core in the ice lab at Desert Research Institute, in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada MomentumDay 4: This spring, the researchers in DRI’s ultra-trace ice core laboratory published remarkable new findings, tracing the rise and fall of the Roman economy through lead deposits in Greenland ice cores. The team of scientists, archaeologists, and economists from DRI, the University of Oxford, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and the University of Copenhagen used ice samples from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (NGRIP) to measure, date, and analyze European lead emissions that were captured in Greenland ice between 1100 BC and AD 800.

Their results provided new insight for historians about how European civilizations and their economies fared over time, and the research captured the attention of media outlets around the world, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist. Just this month, the team’s research was listed as one 2018’s top science stories in Discover Magazine.

Read the press release and full article.


A general view of activities at the annual open house at the Desert Research Institute Wednesday, May 4, 2017 in Las Vegas. (Photo by David Becker)Day 5: In May, DRI hosted the third annual May Science Be with You open house as part of the Las Vegas Science and Technology Festival. Nearly 3,000 community members visited DRI’s Las Vegas campus for lab tours, hands-on activities, special presentations, and Star Wars themed fun.

Stay tuned for more details on the 2019 May Science Be with You open house—rumor has it there may one more than one open house, and one in Reno, too!

View the photo gallery from the 2018 event.


Brittany Kruger works at Desert Research Institute on May 3, 2018 in Las Vegas. Photo by David Becker/Nevada MomentumDay 6: This June, DRI published its first ever Research Highlights magazine, a revisioning of our Annual Report to showcase engaging stories about research projects and programs at DRI. This fall, the magazine was recognized with awards by Public Relations Society of America chapters in Reno and Las Vegas!

Read the magazine.

 


Markus Berli works with soil sample.Day 7: This summer, DRI researchers Markus Berli, PhD, and Rose Shillito published research with colleagues from UC Merced about how soils respond to low-severity fires like prescribed burns. Their findings indicate that prescribed burns may do more damage to soils than previously believed, sometimes resulting in long-term damage to soil structure and increasing its susceptibility to erosion. It’s not yet clear whether the negative impacts on soil associated with these low-severity fires outweigh the positives (like recycling nutrients back into the soil and getting rid of overgrown vegetation), but the research team hopes that their work will help inform land managers as they manage wildfires and plan prescribed burns.

Read the press release and access the research papers.


DRI tent at the Tahoe Summit, Lake Tahoe, August 2018.Day 8: In August, DRI participated in the 22nd Annual Tahoe Summit, a yearly gathering of federal, state, and local leaders dedicated to the goal of restoring and sustaining Lake Tahoe as one of our most precious environmental treasures. DRI showcased a variety of research projects impacting the Lake Tahoe Basin, including research using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to monitor wildfires and stormwater management.

Check out a round-up of DRI projects related to Lake Tahoe.


Interns participate in the first ever DRI Cybersecurity Internship Program. Fall 2018.Day 9: This fall, sixteen interns began the first ever DRI Cybersecurity Internship Program, a semester-long program that provides training, certification, and hands-on experience for individuals interested in obtaining marketable job skills related to cybersecurity in collaboration with the SANS Institute, a world-renowned internet security research and education organization. All semester long, the interns have been working with DRI’s Chief Information Security Officer, Brandon Peterson, to gain hands-on experience building cyber-infrastructure using best practices from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Learn more about the program and meet the interns.


Science Distilled, January 2018.Day 10: Fall of 2018 marked the close of the third season of Science Distilled, events presented by DRI and the Discovery Museum that make cutting-edge science approachable through presentations on current and curious topics held at hip locations in a social atmosphere. Topics this year ranged from genetics and heart health to cybersecurity and resilience, and each of the six talks attracted dozens of science enthusiasts around the Reno area.

Stay tuned for news on the 2019 season! There’ll be six fascinating talks, plus surprise science content coming soon.


Fire and smoke plume.Day 11: We at DRI are especially proud of how our researchers work to bring scientific knowledge to the forefront of society by engaging with reporters, policymakers, and community members. For example, Tim Brown, Ph.D., Director of the Western Regional Climate Center at DRI, recently worked with SciLine—a service that connects reporters to academic and industry experts—to produce an in-depth catalogue of information on wildfire science for journalists. Free and open to the public, this scientific information can help provide the expertise and context needed to make sense of scientific topics in the headlines.

Check out the summary of wildfire information and a recorded media briefing by Brown and other wildfire experts.


Images from a Desert Research Institute open house on May 3, 2018 in Las Vegas. Photo by David Becker/Nevada MomentumDay 12: As we conclude our twelve days of reflection on the incredible year we’ve had, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge one of the key things that’s made it great: YOU! Whether through citizen science projects, community outreach events, collaborations on research projects, or just following along with us online and on social media, you are such an important part of the DRI team. Thank you for being here for science, today and every day.

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: https://www.unlv.edu/news/article/trickle-down-effect.)

DRI: What are you most looking forward to at AGU this year? What do you hope to learn, or who do you hope to connect with? 

RS: At AGU, I like to get an overview of research in my specific topic, but also get a general overview of research directions and methods in my field (hydrology). I get a chance to connect with colleagues and make new connections with other researchers.

DRI: The theme of this year’s meeting is “What Science Stands For.” From your perspective, what does science stand for? 

RS: Currently, to me, science is about answering questions.

Meet Rose at her AGU poster session, “Effective Infiltration Measurements for Fire-Affected Water-Repellent Soils,” happening Tuesday, December 11th during the afternoon session. (Session H23L-2548 in the program.)

This Q&A is part of a series of profiles of DRI scientists who will be participating in the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting, to be held in Washington DC during the week of December 10th. Learn more about this annual meeting of 24,000 scientists from a wide range of disciplines here: https://fallmeeting.agu.org/2018/.

DRI and Collaborators Awarded $6 Million Grant for Innovative Genetic Research

DRI and Collaborators Awarded $6 Million Grant for Innovative Genetic Research

Las Vegas, NV (November 1, 2018):  The Desert Research Institute, in partnership with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and University of New Hampshire, announced receipt of a $6 million National Science Foundation grant today that will fund the development of new genetic research technologies and build economic capacity in Nevada, Maine, and New Hampshire.

The multifaceted effort, which the researchers will launch next week at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., aims to unlock the genomic data of microscopic organisms that  help to degrade environmental contaminants and drive major biogeochemical cycles that shape global climate.

“There has been an explosion of genomics data over the last two decades, and the next step is connecting that data to what’s actually happening in the environment,” said Ramunas Stepanauskas, Ph.D., director of the Single Cell Genomics Center at Bigelow Laboratory and principal investigator on the project. “We need new infrastructure and approaches to harness the power of genomic technologies, which will help solve some of the great biological mysteries of our planet.”

Single-celled organisms make up the vast majority of biological diversity on our planet, but many are found in hard-to-access places such as the Earth’s subsurface or deep ocean environments, can’t be seen with the naked eye, and can’t yet be grown in lab cultures. As a result, much about these organisms – including their potential for production of natural products for bioenergy, pharmaceuticals, bioremediation, and water treatment – remains unknown.

Bigelow Laboratory scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas collects a water sample on the institute’s dock.

Bigelow Laboratory scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas collects a water sample on the institute’s dock. He is the principle investigator on a new $6 million project that will connect the genetic makeup of individual microbes to their environmental roles and build economic capacity in Maine, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Credit: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

This four-year project will develop and apply new tools and techniques in genetic analysis to learn about links between the genomes (DNA, or genetic material) and phenomes (observable characteristics) expressed by single-celled organisms in diverse marine and continental environments. The main technical innovation of this project is that information is gained at the level of the individual cell sampled directly from the environment in near-real-time.

To achieve their objectives, the team will gather microbes from coastal ocean habitat in the Gulf of Maine, deep ocean and marine subsurface habitat along the Juan de Fuca Ridge of the northwestern Pacific Ocean, and terrestrial deep subsurface habitat in boreholes that intersect geological fault zones associated with Death Valley, Calif.

Duane Moser, Ph.D., head of DRI’s Environmental Microbiology and Astrobiology Labs in Las Vegas, will lead portions of the project related to the continental subsurface. Moser specializes in microbial and molecular ecology, and has studied microbes of deep underground environments in locations ranging from mines of South Africa, Canada, and the U.S., to caves, especially at Lava Beds National Monument of northern California, to deeply sourced springs from around the Great Basin.

DRI scientist Duane Moser collecting dissolved gas samples from the main project borehole near Death Valley, CA.

DRI scientist Duane Moser collecting dissolved gas samples from the main project borehole near Death Valley, CA. Credit: Duane Moser/DRI.

The deep subsurface appears to serve as a unique repository for microbial diversity, preserving an evolutionary legacy that may range back to the early stages of cellular evolution, says Moser.

“Evidence continues to mount that the deep subsurface can be regarded as its own distinct biome, yet we lack the tools to determine how rock-hosted life persists in isolation over geologic timescales,” Moser said. “This project promises to not only teach us about the identities of to-date mysterious groups of microorganisms, but literally allows us to eavesdrop on the activities of individual cells in mixed communities from deep underground. That is truly unprecedented.”

Moser is also leading a task aimed at adapting the new technologies for the applied science of environmental bioremediation, using polyacrylamide as a test case. Polyacrylamide is a ubiquitous substance found in consumer products and used for drinking water treatment, amendment for agricultural soils, well drilling and fracking, and as a sealant for unlined irrigation canals. While generally considered non-toxic, commercial polyacrylamide preparations contain residues of acrylamide monomer, which do possess toxic properties.

“Microorganisms have a role in the degradation of most manmade contaminants, yet our mechanistic understanding of these essential transformations is largely limited to laboratory studies of a handful of easily cultured bacteria,” Moser said. “These new tools will enable us, for the first time, to identify and track the activities of the real actors behind the environmental degradation of contaminants.”

Image taken from within a naturally flowing artesian borehole in Death Valley, Calif..

Image taken from within a naturally flowing artesian borehole in Death Valley, Calif., which will be utilized for the testing of experimental equipment prior to undersea deployment at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Michael King, Hydrodynamics Group, LL.

The project funds come from the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which aims to strengthen the research and technology capacity of states that have historically received low federal research funding. The project leverages Bigelow Laboratory’s state-of-the-art capacity in single cell genomics and flow cytometry, University of New Hampshire‘s expertise in polymer chemistry and synthesis of fluorescently labeled tracer molecules, and the Desert Research Institute’s experience and infrastructure for studying subsurface environments and contaminants of emerging concern.

“Combing single-cell genomics with measurements of microbial metabolism will help us better understand the role of microbes in cycling biologically important compounds,” said Kai Ziervogel, Ph.D., the microbial biogeochemist leading project efforts at University of New Hampshire. “I am excited that this project will provide undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary research that will contribute to environmental science in a unique way.”

In addition to creating new research infrastructure, the project will spur economic growth through skilled workforce training opportunities and several new jobs – including a new postdoctoral scientist at the Desert Research Institute, new senior research scientist and postdoctoral positions at Bigelow Laboratory, as well as a faculty member at University of New Hampshire. The research team will also provide professional development opportunities, including the training of graduate students and bioinformatics workshops in Maine, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

“As we improve our understanding of the critical functions of life, we can also improve our three collaborating states,” Stepanauskas said. “By enabling novel research, educational programs and workforce development, this work will have broad impact on the research community and beyond.”

Rachel Kaplan and Steven Profaizer from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences contributed to this release.

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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. Learn more at dri.edu, and connect with us on social media on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is an independent, nonprofit research institute on the coast of Maine. Its research ranges from the microscopic life at the bottom of marine food webs to large-scale ocean processes that affect the entire planet. Recognized as a leader in Maine’s emerging innovation economy, the Laboratory’s research, education, and technology transfer programs are contributing to significant economic growth. Learn more at bigelow.org, and join the conversation on Facebook,Instagram, and Twitter.

The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is a public research university in the University System of New Hampshire. With over 15,000 students between its Durham, Manchester, and Concord campuses, UNH is the largest university in the state. The School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, the heart of UNH’s oceanographic research, is the university’s first ‘interdisciplinary school’, designed to address today’s highly complex ocean and coastal challenges through integrated graduate education, research and engagement. As such, it serves as an interdisciplinary nexus for marine science and ocean engineering teaching and research across the University. Learn more at www.marine.unh.edu

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: https://www.dri.edu/directory/4764-henry-sun

Low-severity wildfires impact soils more than previously believed

Low-severity wildfires impact soils more than previously believed

Above: In semi-arid ecosystems such as the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas, which burned as part of the Carpenter 1 fire during July and August 2013, fuel is limited and fires tend to be short lived and low in peak temperature. New research shows that these fires are more harmful to soils than they initially appear. This photo was taken on January 6, 2015 – approximately 18 months after the wildfire. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.


New research shows negative effects of fire on soil structure and organic matter

Las Vegas, NV (August 28, 2018): Low-severity wildland fires and prescribed burns have long been presumed by scientists and resource managers to be harmless to soils, but this may not be the case, new research shows.

According to two new studies by a team from the University of California, Merced (UCM) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI), low-severity burns – in which fire moves quickly and soil temperature does not exceed 250oC (482oF) – cause damage to soil structure and organic matter in ways that are not immediately apparent after a fire.

“When you have a high-severity fire, you burn off the organic matter from the soil and the impact is immediate,” said Teamrat Ghezzehei, Ph.D., principal investigator of the two studies and Associate Professor of Environmental Soil Physics at UCM. “In a low-severity fire, the organic matter doesn’t burn off, and there is no visible destruction right away. But the burning weakens the soil structure, and unless you come back at a later time and carefully look at the soil, you wouldn’t notice the damage.”

DRI researcher Markus Berli, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor of Environmental Science, became interested in studying this phenomenon while visiting a burned area near Ely, Nev. in 2009, where he made the unexpected observation that a prescribed, low-severity fire had resulted in soil structure damage in the burned area. He and several colleagues from DRI conducted a follow-up study on another controlled burn in the area, and found that soil structure that appeared to be fine immediately after a fire but deteriorated over the weeks and months that followed. Berli then teamed up with Ghezzehei and a team from UCM that included graduate student Mathew Jian, and Associate Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Ph.D., to further investigate.

Researcher examines soils in a burned area near Las Vegas.

Researcher Markus Berli from the Desert Research Institute examines the soils at a burned area in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas on January 6, 2015, approximately 18 months after the area burned in the Carpenter 1 fire of 2013. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.

Soil consists of large and small mineral particles (gravel, sand, silt, and clay) which are bound together by organic matter, water and other materials to form aggregates. When soil aggregates are exposed to severe fires, the organic matter burns, altering the physical structure of the soil and increasing the risk of erosion in burned areas. In low-severity burn areas where organic matter doesn’t experience significant losses, the team wondered if the soil structure was being degraded by another process, such as by the boiling of water held within soil aggregates?

In a study published in AGU Geophysical Research Letters in May 2018, the UCM-DRI team investigated this question, using soil samples from an unburned forest area in Mariposa County, Calif. and from unburned shrubland in Clark County, Nev. to analyze the impacts of low-severity fires on soil structure. They heated soil aggregates to temperatures that simulated the conditions of a low-severity fire (175oC/347oF) over a 15-minute period, then looked for changes in the soil’s internal pore pressure and tensile strength (the force required to pull the aggregate apart).

During the experiment, they observed that pore pressure within the soil aggregates rose to a peak as water boiled and vaporized, then dropped as the bonds in the soil aggregates broke and vapor escaped. Tensile strength measurements showed that the wetter soil aggregates had been weakened more than drier soil samples during this process.

“Our results show that the heat produced by low-severity fires is actually enough to do damage to soil structure, and that the damage is worse if the soils are wet,” Berli explained. “This is important information for resource managers because it implies that prescribed burns and other fires that occur during wetter times of year may be more harmful to soils than fires that occur during dry times.”Next, the research team wondered what the impact of this structural degradation was on the organic matter that the soil structure normally protects. Soil organic matter consists primarily of microbes and decomposing plant tissue, and contributes to the overall stability and water-holding capacity of soils.

In a second study that was published in Frontiers in Environmental Science in late July, the UCM-DRI research team conducted simulated burn experiments to weaken the structure of the soil aggregates, and tested the soils for changes in quality and quantity of several types of organic matter over a 70-day period.

They found that heating of soils led to the release of organic carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 during the weeks and months after the fire, and again found that the highest levels of degradation occurred in soils that were moist. This loss of organic carbon is important for several reasons, Ghezzehei explained.

“The loss of organic matter from soil to the atmosphere directly contributes to climate change, because that carbon is released as CO2,” Ghezzehei said. “Organic matter that is lost due to fires is also the most important reserve of nutrients for soil micro-organisms, and it is the glue that holds soil aggregates together. Once you lose the structure, there are a lot of other things that happen. For example, infiltration becomes slower, you get more runoff, you have erosion.”

Researcher collects soil samples in burned area near Las Vegas.

Researcher Rose Shillito from DRI collects soil samples in a burned area in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near Las Vegas on January 6, 2015, approximately 18 months after the area burned in the Carpenter 1 fire of 2013. Credit: Teamrat Ghezzehei, UCM.

Although the research team’s findings showed several detrimental effects of fire on soils, low-severity wildfires and prescribed burns are known to benefit ecosystems in other ways — recycling nutrients back into the soil and getting rid of overgrown vegetation, for example. It is not yet clear whether the negative impacts on soil associated with these low-severity fires outweigh the positives, Berli says, but the team hopes that their research results will help to inform land managers as they manage wildfires and plan prescribed burns.

“There is very little fuel in arid and semi-arid areas, and thus fires tend to be short lived and relatively low in peak temperature,” Ghezzehei said. “In contrast to the hot fires and that burn for days and weeks that we see in the news, these seem to be benign and we usually treat them as such. Our work shows that low-severity fires are not as harmless as they may appear.”

The study, “Soil Structural Degradation During Low‐Severity Burns,” was published on May 31, 2018 in the journal AGU Geophysical Research Letters and is available here: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GL078053.

The study, “Vulnerability of Physically Protected Soil Organic Carbon to Loss Under Low Severity Fires,” was published July 19, 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, and is available here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2018.00066/full.

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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. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Tesla selects DRI’s Science Alive program to develop statewide teacher training infrastructure focused on robotics and STEM

Reno, NV (July 19, 2018): The Desert Research Institute is proud to announce that the DRI Science Alive K-12 Outreach Program has been selected as one of several recipients of the first round of funding through Tesla’s new Nevada K-12 Education Investment Fund. This funding is an initial disbursement, part of a multi-year proposed plan Tesla has developed in partnership with DRI to invest in Nevada’s education system.

Because of the proven success and expertise of DRI’s Science Alive K-12 Outreach Program in engaging students in STEM and training Nevada educators, Tesla has looked to DRI to help develop and implement a statewide professional development infrastructure for educators that will give Nevada students the chance to get excited about STEM early on in their education and give them the skills needed to success in a STEM career.

“On behalf of everyone at the Desert Research Institute, we are honored to be a part of this important moment for Nevada students and we are tremendously proud that Tesla has looked to DRI to help develop and implement Nevada’s teacher training infrastructure,” said DRI President Kristen Averyt, Ph.D.

With an initial investment from Tesla of $263,924, the DRI Science Alive program staff will develop a statewide teacher professional development curriculum and onboarding process for new robotics programs in partnership with FIRST, the REC Foundation (VEX), Solar Roller, and the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In addition to coordinating teacher trainings, DRI will also be evaluating the effectiveness of robotics programs in student achievement and attitudes toward STEM.

“Our hope is that after implementing and evaluating this model of encouraging STEM engagement through robotics, we can improve upon current methods and ultimately develop best practices for all schools,” said Amelia Gulling, DRI’s K-12 STEM Education Manager. “If we find that this model is successful in Nevada, where we have some of the worst education rankings in the country, then it’s the model that we need to use across the country.”


Official Nevada Department of Education release:
TESLA ANNOUNCES INITIAL $1.5M IN K-12 EDUCATION GRANTS

CARSON CITY, Nev. – As part of its commitment to contribute $37.5 million over five years to K-12 education in Nevada, Tesla announced an initial $1.5 million in funding grants at today’s Nevada Board of Education meeting. The goal of the investment is to encourage students of all backgrounds to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or sustainability, and to develop the next generation of engineers in Nevada.

“An integral part of our vision for the new Nevada economy is developing an educated workforce that meets the demands of the industries coming into our state,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval. “With this initial investment, even more students in Nevada will be exposed to STEM education and we are grateful to Tesla for their commitment to education in Nevada.”

Tesla announced the following education grants today:

  • $315,550 to FIRST Nevada and $127,100 to Robotics Education and Competition Foundation (VEX) as part of a multi-year investment for the establishment of a quality robotics program at every school in Nevada.
  • $263,924 to the Desert Research Institute for the initial development of a statewide teacher training infrastructure focusing on robotics and STEM, with future collaboration in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
  • $262,700 to The Envirolution, Inc. for the Project ReCharge initiative, a STEM-based program which collaborates with community partners, school districts, teachers and students, to deliver hands-on education related to energy, sustainability, and project-based learning opportunities that empower students to make local schools and businesses more energy efficient.
  • $200,000 to Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (JAG Nevada) to deliver mentoring, employability skills development, career association, job development, and job placement services to students across the state.  JAG Nevada will be developing a new Education to Employment pathway across Nevada industries, and expanding access to 20 percent more students with this first investment.
  • $154,083 to Sierra Nevada Journeys (SNJ) to foster students’ STEM passion and achievement at an early age.  SNJ will provide 250 scholarships for students in underserved communities to attend the Overnight Outdoor Learning program at Grizzly Creek Ranch, increase access to SNJ STEM programs to 900 additional students, and kickstart a new Girls in Engineering camp in partnership with Tesla team members.
  • $76,643 to Energetics Education, Inc. to pilot the Solar Rollers program in Washoe County. This initiative challenges high school teams to design, build, test and race sophisticated solar-powered radio-controlled cars while learning the fundamental concepts of a complete energy system.
  • $50,000 each to the Clark County and Washoe County School Districts as part of the establishment of multi-year special assignment roles in career technical education (CTE) offices to train and implement programming from within, while also supporting neighboring districts.

“The demand for STEM jobs in Nevada will continue to grow dramatically over the next few years,” said JB Straubel, Tesla’s Chief Technology Officer. “That is why we’re investing in initiatives that inspire students to choose a career in STEM and sustainability and give them a foundation for success.”

Tesla selected these entities in collaboration with an advisory group comprised of Nevada education leaders, business leaders, non-profits and government officials.

“Tesla’s commitment supports our vision of becoming the fastest improving state in the nation in education,” said Steve Canavero, Ph.D., Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Lofty goals such as these don’t materialize in a vacuum. In addition to the partners we have in our school districts and charter schools, we have also sought out partners in industry.  Tesla has been incredibly collaborative and thoughtful in providing us data and evidence based material that will help inform our decisions and their investment in the new Nevada economy.”

Tesla will be making continuing investments in existing initiatives, and regularly announcing new entities receiving funding on a quarterly basis, pending investment reviews. In addition to this K-12 investment, Tesla currently has a high school graduate apprenticeship, the Manufacturing Development Program, encouraging Nevadans to learn about manufacturing fundamentals in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and regularly hosts students and teachers at Gigafactory 1 near Sparks, Nev. Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Tesla builds not only all-electric vehicles but also infinitely scalable clean energy generation and storage products. Entities interested in learning more about this investment and opportunities to partner with Tesla can reach out to educationprograms@tesla.com.

Ancient ‘quids’ reveal genetic information, clues into migration patterns of early Great Basin inhabitants

Ancient ‘quids’ reveal genetic information, clues into migration patterns of early Great Basin inhabitants

Above: Cave opening at the Mule Springs Rockshelter in southern Nevada’s Spring Mountain Range. Credit: Jeffrey Wedding, DRI.


 

Las Vegas, NV (April 24, 2018): If you want to know about your ancestors today, you can send a little saliva to a company where – for a fee – they will analyze your DNA and tell you where you come from. For scientists trying to find out about ancient peoples, however, the challenge is more complex.

Research published in the journal PLOS ONE by a team of archaeologists and microbiologists from Nevada’s Desert Research Institute (DRI) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU) showcases the use of modern research methods to uncover clues about the genetic ancestry of Native Americans who inhabited the Desert Southwest during the last thousand years.

“We were surprised by the consistency with which we were able to recover intact human DNA from a common type of plant-based artifact,” explained co-principal investigator Duane Moser, Ph.D., an associate research professor of microbiology at DRI and director of DRI’s Environmental Microbiology Laboratory.

During the Late Holocene Epoch, which began 12,000 to 11,500 years ago and continues through the present, occupants of the Mule Spring Rockshelter in the foothills of the Spring Mountains of southern Nevada commonly gathered agave and yucca plants for food. The artichoke-like hearts and inner leaves of the plants were roasted then chewed to consume the sweet fleshy pulp. This left wads of stringy fibers called ‘quids,’ which were spit out and left behind.

In the late 1960s, researchers from DRI and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) led by Richard Brooks, recovered thousands of quids at the rockshelter. Put into storage for half a century without any consideration for DNA preservation, a DRI-led research team decided to re-examine the quid specimens as possible repositories for ancient DNA.

“The quid’s coarse texture is excellent for capturing skin cells from the mouth, making them the equivalent of the modern-day cheek swab,” explained Susan Edwards, an associate research archaeologist at DRI and co-principal investigator who first thought of applying DNA extraction techniques to the quid samples.

A wad of stringy agave plant fibers commonly called ‘quids’.

A wad of stringy agave plant fibers commonly called ‘quids’. Credit: DRI

The research team used laboratory and computational resources at DRI’s Southern Nevada Science Center in Las Vegas, and later at SIU, to identify changes in the mitochondrial DNA sequences that are maintained in ancestrally related populations called haplogroups. These haplogroups can then be compared to Native American tribes and other ancient DNA lineages.

The study showed that the Mule Spring Rockshelter quid specimens ranged in age from about 350 to 980 years old. Because Mule Spring Rockshelter sits at a crossroads between the southern Great Basin, the Mojave Desert, and the Southwest Puebloan cultures, these results may provide a better timeline for an important but contentiously debated event in human history known as the Numic Spread.

Today’s Numic people contend they have always been here, a position some scientists readily support. However, some evidence suggests that Numic-speaking ancestors of contemporary native peoples spread from southern California throughout the Great Basin about 500 to 700 years ago; a date range which overlaps with the current study. Other studies suggest a much earlier arrival.

This research marks only the second time that scientists have been able to sequence human DNA from plant-based artifacts, expanding upon an approach utilized by Steven LeBlanc of Harvard University.

“Since these materials were also radiocarbon dated, in essence they provide a time-resolved hotel registry for this unique site over a period of hundreds of years,” added Moser.

As an added benefit of utilizing DNA from quid samples (rather than from more traditional sources such as bones or teeth), the research team found that they were able to obtain the information they needed while being respectful of cultural sensitivities.

“The distinct advantage of this genetic technique, is that it does not require the sampling of human remains” said Scott Hamilton-Brehm, lead author on the study and assistant professor of microbiology at SIU who completed his postdoctoral research at DRI.

In the future, the team hopes to continue this work by targeting additional quids from the Mule Spring Rockshelter collection, with the possibility of corroborating evidence of older dates for habitation of the site suggested by prior studies of more traditional cultural artifacts. Plans are in the works to perform similar studies on quids from other Great Basin sites to glean additional information about the movements of ancient peoples and utilize more powerful analytical approaches to obtain greater DNA sequence coverage than was obtained by this pilot study.

“We look forward to learning more about Native American presence in the Great Basin and Southwest area, and how the data compares over time,” added Lidia Hristova, a graduate of the UNLV Anthropology Program who conducted much of the hands-on DNA extraction from the samples while working as an undergraduate research assistant at DRI and studying at UNLV.

The full study, “Ancient human mitochondrial DNA and radiocarbon analysis of archived quids from the Mule Spring Rockshelter, Nevada, USA,” is available online from  PLOS ONE: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0194223 

Mule Spring Rockshelter is a protected cultural resource located on BLM-managed lands. DRI access to the Mule Spring collection was granted under permit and loan agreement. 

Tim Crosby, Communications and Marketing Strategist at SIU Carbondale contributed to this press release. 

Additional photos available upon request.  

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. For more than 50 years DRI research faculty, students, and staff have applied scientific understanding to support the effective management of natural resources while meeting Nevada’s needs for economic diversification and science-based educational opportunities. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

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.

 

New research improves prospects for imperiled Devils Hole Pupfish in captivity

New research improves prospects for imperiled Devils Hole Pupfish in captivity

Above: Researchers Joshua Sackett (left) and Duane Moser (right) of DRI help National Park Service officials move scaffolding infrastructure during a routine sampling visit to Devils Hole on December 13, 2014. Credit: Jonathan Eisen.


DRI study finds key differences between artificial habitat and the real Devils Hole

Las Vegas, NV (Tuesday, March 20, 2018): In a first-of-its kind study of comparing the microbiology of Devils Hole with that of a constructed scale replica at the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility (AMFCF), a team of scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Las Vegas discovered key differences in nutrient levels and species composition that may be impacting the ability of the highly endangered Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) to survive in captivity.

“We were interested in taking a closer look at the chemical and biological factors that control productivity at both sites,” said Duane Moser, Ph.D., an associate research professor of microbiology at DRI who has been involved with research at Devils Hole since 2008. “In studying both, we could gain some insights into how well the artificial refuge actually replicates Devils Hole, and in turn, offer recommendations for ways to make the refuge a better habitat for the pupfish.”

Devils Hole Pupfish (population 115 in autumn 2017) are an iridescent blue, one-inch-long pupfish. They are native only to Devils Hole, an isolated water-filled cavern of unknown depth located in a detached unit of Death Valley National Park within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Amargosa Valley, Nevada. Devils Hole is an extreme environment, with water temperatures and dissolved oxygen concentrations near their lethal limits for most fishes.

Since 2013, scientists have been trying to establish a backup population of these endangered fish in a constructed tank at the AMFCF, which is located a short distance west of Devils Hole. Although the facility was designed to match the climate, water chemistry and physical dimensions of an area of shallow shelf habitat in Devils Hole, the pupfish have had only limited success reproducing and surviving in this artificial environment.

In 2015, Moser and a team of researchers from DRI set out to learn if there were other factors that might be impacting the success of these fish. Their new study, published in the March edition of PLOS One, characterizes and compares water chemistry and microbial communities between Devils Hole and the AMFCF.

Although water temperature and dissolved oxygen at the AMFCF are intentionally maintained at values that are slightly lower and higher, respectively, from those of Devils Hole, this work shows that the nutrient balance between the two sites is also very different, with AMFCF being strongly nitrogen limited – about five times lower than that of Devils Hole.

In the microbial communities, which contribute to the distribution and availability of dissolved nutrients in the water and are also a food source for the pupfish, the research team discovered more than 2,000 microbial species from 44 distinct phyla present in the water at Devils Hole. They detected similar levels of species diversity at AMFCF, but found that different bacterial phyla were dominant at each site. These differences may relate to the observed differences in nitrogen concentrations.

“Nitrogen levels have an effect on the types of organisms that you’ll find, and the types of metabolisms that they have,” said Joshua Sackett, a graduate research assistant with the Desert Research Institute and doctoral student in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “We found a lot fewer of at least one major category of primary producers – the cyanobacteria – in the AMFCF compared to Devils Hole, and we think that’s due to differences in nutrient concentration.”

One of the strengths of the comparative power of this study is that the data from each site were gathered on the same day. This study highlights the potential importance of considering water chemistry and microbiology when constructing artificial fish habitats – and the team hopes that the information will provide a valuable contribution to the continued survival of the Devils Hole Pupfish in captivity.

“This work revealed very different microbial populations, which we infer might correspond to large differences in nutrient dynamics between the sites – especially in terms of nitrogen,” Moser said. “Consequently, some relatively modest tweaks in how the refuge is operated could potentially improve the prospects for continued survival of one of Earth’s most imperiled fishes.”

The full version of the study – A comparative study of prokaryotic diversity and physicochemical characteristics of Devils Hole and the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility, a constructed analog – is available online: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0194404

For more information about DRI, visit www.dri.edu

Photo caption: Researchers Joshua Sackett (left) and Duane Moser (right) of DRI help National Park Service officials move scaffolding infrastructure during a routine sampling visit to Devils Hole on December 13, 2014. Credit: Jonathan Eisen.

Additional photos are available upon request.

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. For more than 50 years DRI research faculty, students, and staff have applied scientific understanding to support the effective management of natural resources while meeting Nevada’s needs for economic diversification and science-based educational opportunities. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.

Saving the Desert’s Upper Crust

To a casual observer, desert lands may appear a barren vista of sand and soil, sparsely dotted with shrubbery and cacti but, in reality, they are lush with microscopic plants: lichens, mosses, and cyanobacteria. There isn’t an inch of soil that is without these organisms.

“These organisms are a critical component of the desert ecosystem: they stabilize soils against erosion and provide essential nutrients to plants,” says NEXUS scientist Dr. Henry Sun, a research microbiologist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI).

These coverings-known as cryptogamic crusts-while providing essential ecosystem services, are also very fragile. Both the installation of solar farms and regular maintenance activities can disturb and remove this biological layer. “Such activities can destroy the crusts and result in increased dust emission,” Sun says. “And, once destroyed, they take decades to recover.”

Consequently, Sun and his graduate student, Lynda Burns, are trying to understand the impacts that large scale solar farms will have on this component of desert ecosystems and how to develop mitigation strategies to help prevent, or remediate any damage. “The goal of our research is to know the vulnerabilities of the organisms that build these protective crusts and to use the information to guide future restoration mitigation efforts in the context of solar plant impacts,” Sun says.

Banking Biology

The presence of these non-flowering plants is a key indicator of a healthy desert ecosystem. As well as forming a protective soil crust, and a barrier to erosion, they also provide nutrients to plants, mediate the transfer of water and provide a base for seed germination and plant growth.  In addition, the cyanobacteria can convert the nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds that act as fertilizers for other plants, via a process called nitrogen fixation. “So you fix nitrogen using solar energy into a form that is available to plants,” Sun says.

Recognizing the importance of these crusts, and also their vulnerabilities, scientists have been investigating how to protect them. One suggested approach has been to harvest the crusts prior to a disturbance such as the installation of a solar farm, and save them. Once the construction is complete, the researchers’ suggestion is then to use the preserved crusts to inoculate the soil and aid in restoring the new crust.

The desert can prove a harsh environment for plants with temperatures and rainfall fluctuating between extremes. Also, a process called photochemical oxidation, facilitated by the sun’s ultraviolet rays can result in reactive oxygen species that are extremely damaging to life. “For this strategy to be effective, we need to know if the organisms lose vitality during storage, how long they would survive, and how to help them survive and thrive once they’ve been re-introduced to the desert habitat,” Sun says.

The scientific community does not yet know the answers to such questions and it was a knowledge gap that the NEXUS team set out to close. They began by collecting and saving the organisms in the soil crust and set about trying to understand how long those samples could survive and whether they could be successfully reintroduced to the desert environment. “There were two questions we’re trying to answer,” Sun says. “One, whether you can store the organisms and, two, when you reintroduce them what can we do to help them re-establish?”

Putting Crusts to the Test

In the lab, the scientists started their investigations by storing lichen samples from the Mojave Desert for different periods of time. In their natural habitat the lichens in the crusts alternate between drying out and hydration. During the desiccation process, they suffer from cellular damage but once they are hydrated repair and growth is possible. In their experiments, the researchers watered the stored samples and then monitored their recovery. “Healthy specimens become active within a minute of watering and compromised lichens go through a period of repair before they become productive,” Sun says. The researchers assumed that those lichens that showed no activity after 8 hours were dead.

Using this methodology, the scientists found that lichens can be stored dry at room temperature in ambient air for up to a year without any significant decline in vitality.  One-year old samples showed similar behavior to fresh samples: once they were given water they were ready to use light energy and photosynthesize.  Three and even ten-year-old samples were weaker and it would take them between 25 and 200 minutes to restore photosynthesis after the addition of water.

The scientists then attempted to determine how ultraviolet (UV) rays would impact the lichens when they were reintroduced back into the desert. The crust lichens protect themselves from UV light by synthesizing compounds that create a screen that blocks the harsh rays.  Even when the researchers put intense UV source as close as 25 centimeters away for one week the lichens suffered only minor damage. “It was well within their ability to repair,” Sun says. “This level of ionizing radiation resistance is unparalleled in the microbial world.”

The scientists did find, however, that the lichens were vulnerable to high concentrations of ozone. Fumigation in ozone for long periods caused photochemical oxidation, killing Collema, a cyanobacterial lichen, and severely damaging Placidium, a green algal lichen. Previous studies on the stress tolerance of crust-forming organisms considered only the impacts of UV radiation and desiccation. “Our work showed that photochemical oxidation presents a more severe stress than UV and desiccation,” Sun says. “And this has implications for crust storage and restoration.”

Given the evidence that the crust lichens are primarily vulnerable to oxidation, Sun recommends that the samples be stored in a non-oxidizing gas, such as nitrogen, instead of ambient atmosphere, to minimize oxidative stress.  In the field, amending the soil with antioxidants could protect the newly restored “seed” organisms from oxidation and thereby help them grow faster.  Both the ability of the organisms to be stored and their ability to survive typical desert conditions bodes well for the future, Sun says. “The research suggests that crust restoration is feasible and should be considered by land managers and solar companies,” Sun says.


This story was written by Jane Palmer and was originally published by the Solar-Energy-Water-Environment Nexus Project. For more information about the Nexus Project, visit: https://solarnexus.epscorspo.nevada.edu/

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. For more than 50 years DRI research faculty, students, and staff have applied scientific understanding to support the effective management of natural resources while meeting Nevada’s needs for economic diversification and science-based educational opportunities. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, visit www.dri.edu.