EMPOWER goes to Seattle

EMPOWER was well represented at the 129th Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA). The event was held in Seattle and featured technical sessions, short courses, a lively exhibit hall, and field trips. There were 14 different oral presentations and posters given by EMPOWER-affiliated faculty and students, including:

Emily Baker, “Methods for Correcting Ground-Based Time-Lapse Infrared Imagery;”

Samuel Caldwell, “Persistence and Heterogeneity: Exploring Stream Temperature Variability as Observed by UAV-Collected TIR Imagery;”

Amanda Campbell, “Temporal Variability of Naturally Occurring Methane in Shallow Groundwater Wells in the Marcellus Shale Region;”

Nathaniel Chien, “Linear Discriminant Analysis as a Regional Screening Tool to Fingerprint Sources of Chloride Contamination in Groundwater;”

Laura DeMott, “Growth History and Composition of a Lacustrine Tufa Dome from Winnemucca Dry Lake, NV, USA;”

Robin Glas, “Changing Streamflow Regimes in New York State: Trends, Patterns, and Attribution;”

Kristina Gutchess, “Long-Term Inca Simulations Favor Climatic Over Anthropogenic Impacts on a Reduction of Stream Water Salinity In New York State.”

In addition to sharing their research, students also had opportunities to participate in workshops, attend research talks, network, and share their experiences with prospective graduate students.

For more information about the GSA Annual Meeting, go to http://community.geosociety.org/gsa2017/home

External Advisory Committee Returns to Syracuse

On Thursday, October 5, EMPOWER hosted a day-long meeting with the External Advisory Committee (EAC) to discuss the program’s design and implementation. This is the second time they visited campus since the program’s inception.

EAC consists of some of the biggest names in energy, advocacy, government research, environmental consulting and STEM education. They are Kevin Bohacs, a senior research scientist at ExxonMobil; Gillian Dunlop, a risk assessor at Stantec; Steven Hamburg, a chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund; William Kappel, a hydrogeologist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey; and Aisha Morris, director of the Research Experiences in Solid Earth Science for Students, an internship program managed by UNAVCO, a nonprofit university-governed consortium.

The morning was filled with information and panel sessions, where the committee members had the opportunity to learn about EMPOWER’s accomplishments over the past two years. EMPOWER NRT PI Laura Lautz kicked off the morning with a discussion of the NSF’s Research Traineeship program and a detailed description of each of EMPOWER’s training elements.

After these introductory remarks, the EAC members were treated to a series of EMPOWER graduate student-led panels. Panels were focused on the various training elements of EMPOWER, including the courses that students have taken to cultivate transferrable skills, the professional development activities designed to enhance professional skills, the seed grants that students have pursued, and the career pathway experiences that students have completed.

In the afternoon, the committee members heard lightening research talks from Amanda Campbell, Darci Pauser, Alexa Stathis, and Yige Yang. The advisors were really interested in the range of research topics and had many questions for the panelists!

Despite a busy day, the EAC members spent a lot of the afternoon chatting with students in small groups about the range of career options that are available to research scientists. Many of the EMPOWER trainees came away with new ideas about careers to consider.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the meeting and made the day a success!

Strategies for Career Development in STEM

Story written by Breck Sullivan, Laura Markley, and Yige Yang

Graduate students spend hours studying for exams and collecting data for their research so they may one day achieve their dream job. Reaching the ideal scientific career requires skills that students hopefully gain while in academia. However, in their paper entitled Practical Science Communication Strategies for Graduate Students, Kuehne et al. (2014) describe that there is often a disconnect between graduate students and acquisition of employable skills, such as communication. Students in the EMPOWER seminar discussed the obstacles to gaining these skills and what experiences could help students acquire these skills.

EMPOWER Trainees were surveyed on what avenues of science communication they hoped to improve on the most.

A majority of students mentioned that they have taken presentation or communication classes. Students who have teaching assistantships commented that this opportunity helps them explain a concept to a large group of people and teach students through different learning methods. Time, anxiety, and funding, are just a few of the obstacles that prevent practicing scientific communication skills, but students understand the importance of it to help them advance to the next level.

Another aspect that may help graduate students to their dream job is networking. Syracuse University provides opportunities for students to expand their network through career fairs and conferences. For example, the Syracuse CoE Symposium will be held on October 4th, and can provide a chance to talk with researchers in the water and energy fields. For more help on this endeavor, consider the Syracuse University Career Services center (http://careerservices.syr.edu/). They offer drop-ins and provide assistance with interviews, resumes, and cover letters so that all students may be successful towards their career path.

Spotlight on Alexa Stathis

Alexa Stathis, a Ph.D. student in Chemistry, is in the EMPOWER “spotlight” this month. Thanks for contributing, Alexa!

Alexa Stathis at the Environmental Consulting Career Panel in April 2017

Alexa, what inspired you to become a scientist?

I come from a family of mostly scientists and engineers. My dad is an aerospace engineer and my older brother is a robotics engineer. Many members of my extended family are also scientists or engineers. I knew from a fairly young age that I wanted to go into STEM. When I started taking chemistry classes in high school I felt like it was something that just came naturally to me when many of peers struggled with it. This led me to decide to major in chemistry in college. During my junior year of college, I went on a service trip that focused on sustainability and environmental issues which inspired me to learn more about environmental chemistry.


What skills and knowledge have been of key importance to your success in graduate school?

The most important skill you should learn in college is how to teach yourself. Everyone learns differently, and figuring out how you learn best can be hard but is incredibly important.

My undergraduate program required juniors and seniors to take a seminar class, where each semester the students would present a paper from a chemistry journal to the entire department. Even though I thought it was miserable at the time, I learned so many important things from this class: how to read scientific papers, how to craft presentations and communicate scientific information, and how to field questions. All of these things have helped me immensely in graduate school.


Do you have any mentors who have helped guide you? 

I would not be in graduate school if it was not for two of my undergraduate professors, Deno Del Sesto and Leon Tilley. They encouraged me to apply to graduate school even though I had little confidence that I could get in, never mind get a PhD. The EMPOWER program manager, Deanna, has been someone I can vent to and has given me a lot of valuable advice about navigating not just the EMPOWER program but graduate school itself. Finally, my advisor, Tara, has supported me since the very beginning.

What advice would you give new graduate students?

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of picking which lab to work in. Talk to the PI’s students and other students in the department. Think about whether it will teach you the skills needed for the career you want. Make sure the everyday work is something you wouldn’t mind doing for the next 4-6 years.
  • Do SOMETHING outside of work. Have a hobby. It will help keep you sane.
  • Take care of yourself- your physical, mental and emotional well-being comes first.


About Alexa:

Alexa graduated from Stonehill College with a B.S in Chemistry and a minor in Physics in May 2014. For her undergraduate research, she characterized thiol and thioether self-assembled monolayers on gold and graphene films using Scanning Tunneling Microscopy. Alexa came to Syracuse University as a chemistry PhD student in the Fall of 2014 when she joined Dr. Tara Kahan’s lab. Her research involves investigating the fate of pollutants in natural waters, snow and ice. She uses a variety of techniques to measure how fast certain pollutants break down in sunlight and what products they form when in water and on ice surfaces. In Spring 2016, she passed her candidacy exam. Alexa has been awarded the Syracuse University Water Fellowship and the EMPOWER NRT fellowship.

Students Awarded NSF Grants for Professional Internships

Nathan Chien participates in internship with The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming.

The EMPOWER NRT program recently received $100,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation’s INTERN program to support professional internships for students in our program.

The funding, awarded through a competitive grant program, provides stipend, tuition, and travel support for M.S. and Ph.D. students to intern with professional organizations. Internships are relatively rare for students in research-based STEM graduate degree programs, but a critical component of career preparation. We have three students who will be doing internships through this award:

  • Nathaniel Chien (M.S. student, Earth sciences) is interning with The Nature Conservancy of Wyoming, a not-for-profit environmental agency that works on land and water conservation.
  • Amanda Campbell (Ph.D. student, Earth sciences) is interning with the Upstate Freshwater Institute, a local not-for-profit research organization addressing water quality issues in the region.
  • JR Slosson (M.S. student, Earth sciences) is interning with the US Geological Survey, a government agency that leads research on water resources, among other topics in the geosciences.

This is the first year that INTERN awards have been made and EMPOWER is one of the first programs selected to receive these awards. Congratulations Nathan, Amanda, and JR!

For more information about the INTERN Supplemental Awards, please see the NSF’s Dear Colleague Letter. Trainees who are interested in submitting a proposal can read the attached document: Steps for Applying for an INTERN Supplement from NSF


On Scientific Integrity

Story written by Maggie Todaro, Alexa Stathis, and Lachlan Wright

For anyone who has spent time in academia, whether it be pursuing a degree or a career, scientific integrity is a subject you are sure to come face to face with. The suppression, censorship, distortion, and manipulation of scientific information is as commonplace as it is problematic. Using the 2016 article Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition by Edwards and Roy as an introduction to the issues, EMPOWER trainees engaged in a round table discussion about the systematic risks to scientific integrity. The dialogue emphasized quantitative metrics that measure success, hypercompetitive funding environments, and political pressure are a reality of modern day research. Through the completion of an anonymous survey that asked questions such as “Have you ever witnessed academic dishonesty?”, EMPOWER students were able to see through a more personal lens how much scientific integrity influences the academic experiences of themselves and their peers. More than half of survey participants answered “yes” to that question. Results can be seen in Figure 1.

From funding opportunities, through the peer-review process, to publication, opportunities for dishonesty are present at every step of the way. While the temptation to manipulate evidence for personal gain may be there, a legacy of unethical science will simply destroy public trust and support, stunting scientific progress. After exploring potential reforms to mitigate the effects of corruption, EMPOWER trainees affirm the importance of honesty and self-correction in academia as the primary approach for checks and balances.

EMPOWER trainee responses to survey on scientific integrity

EMPOWER Kicks Off Another Year!

Empower Orientation Event 2017

In its second academic year, EMPOWER has grown to a program of almost 30 M.S. and Ph.D. students who are interested in research and careers at the water-energy nexus. On Friday Sept. 1, EMPOWER welcomed the new group of trainees to the program. Drawing from the departments of Earth sciences, civil & environmental engineering, and political science, the ten new trainees gathered at orientation to learn more about EMPOWER and to meet all the other trainees.

The afternoon was filled with activities and information, including assignment of peer-mentor pairs, a discussion of the NSF’s Research Traineeship program, and a detailed description of each of EMPOWER’s training elements. Program Director Laura Lautz kicked off the orientation and current trainees contributed substantially by participating in panels focused on individual training elements.

Trainees David Zheng (mechanical & aerospace engineering) and Alex Johnson (civil & environmental engineering) gave an overview of EMPOWER’s science communication class. As David and Alex noted, the final project for the class was to create a multimedia website that featured stories, written and produced by students, about New York State’s ecological and environmental innovations. To see the class projects, go to http://www.scicom2017.org/.

EMPOWER trainees, Geoff Millard, Caitlin Eger, David Zheng, Emily Baker, and Alexa Stathis, participated in a panel to discuss the range of courses students might take to satisfy their Professional Development Specialization Area Requirement. Each panel participant had taken different classes based on their interests and goals, including sustainable enterprise, science teaching, data visualization and environmental economics. During the discussion, Alexa Stathis (Ph.D. student in chemistry) encouraged the trainees to “choose these classes intentionally: this is an opportunity to take classes that are going to help you prepare for your career.”

The last part of the orientation was a Career Pathway Experiences panel with Kristy Gutchess, Nathan Chien, J.R. Slosson, and Amanda (Schulz) Campbell. Each panelist described their internship experience, how they found their opportunity, and what was particularly valuable with their experience. Robin Glas, who interned with the USGS in Spring 2017, contributed to the panel remotely (thanks, Robin!). Additionally, Laura Lautz provided detailed information about funding opportunities that can help support students while completing internships.

The afternoon concluded with a well-attended reception with the trainees, EMPOWER’s Leadership Team, Affiliated Faculty, and staff.

Thanks to all who contributed their time and expertise to make the kick-off event a success!

Spotlight on Yige Yang

Yige Yang, a PhD student in Civil & Environmental Engineering, is in the “Spotlight” this month. Thanks to Yige for contributing to the second installment of this series!

PhD student Yige Yang with a Belfort Rain gauge.

Yige, what inspired you to become an engineer?

I am from an “engineering” family: my parents are electrical engineers, my uncle and aunt are civil engineers, and my grandparents are mechanical engineers. It is like a tradition in this kind of family to become an engineer. In addition, my hobby is doing DIY [do-it-yourself] and I make all kinds of interior decorations. I think the reason why I enjoy doing these projects is that I like to make my ideas become real. It is what engineers do! It is a fascinating process to sharpen your ideas, struggle with all kinds of challenges, and then see the final accomplishment. Last, but not least, I love Mother Earth, so I want to protect the environment. All of these reasons are why I became an environmental engineer.


What skills and knowledge have been of key importance to your success in graduate school?

Team work, planning ahead, and the ability to learn are keys to success in graduate school. Especially in an engineering major, we have all kinds of projects to finish each semester. It is very important to communicate with your team members efficiently to finish the project on time and get a high score.

In addition, having a planner is very helpful. I make a to-do list every morning during breakfast, listing items in order of importance. In graduate school, I take classes and do research. Sometimes I have five meetings a day and having a planner helps me schedule my time ahead and not miss any small things.

Furthermore, figure out the best way for you to learn. I learned R and MATLAB by myself. There are thousands of videos and resources online. When I realized I prefer to spend my time learning the software intensely rather than take a course in the whole semester, I did it online. Now they are crucial to making progress of my research.


Do you have any mentors who have helped guide you? What is some pivotal advice that they have given you?

Cliff Davidson is my mentor at Syracuse University. The field of sustainability captured my interest right after I took CIE 600 “Intro to Sustainability,” which was taught by him. After that class, I joined his research group. Cliff is not only my advisor of research, but also a mentor of communication. He is always very modest, even though he has so much knowledge. At conferences, he is always the most serious person, sitting in the front row and taking notes, even though he may be the wisest person in the room. He rarely gives me advice, but I learned so many life lessons from his actions.


What advice would you give new graduate students?

  • Figure out what your research interest is. It is very hard but the most important thing.
  • Always have your hobby other than research, so you can relax and enjoy life.
  • Speak out loud your own thoughts: never expect people know what you are thinking. Don’t bury all of your brilliant ideas!



About Yige:

Yige Yang graduated from Sun Yat-sen University, China, in 2013 with a major in environmental science and a minor in public relations. During her undergraduate studies, she participated in a variety of research experiences: she explored detoxification of metal ions by microbial siderophore, and assessed water quality of Loe Pool at Plymouth University, UK. Being the Vice President of Student Association, she organized and planned all variety of student events.

Yige enrolled in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University in Fall 2013 as a Master’s student. She continued to the PhD program after completion of her master’s degree. She is active in the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at SU, where she designs and manages light control for all CSSA-sponsored events.  She is also a member of orange pulse dance troupe. She has received the Water Fellowship and earned several other awards.

Her current research includes understanding the hydraulic and thermal performance of green roofs and the specific design of green roofs.


Answers, and more questions

EMPOWER’s mascot, Bolt, spends the day with the class

This past week was a busy one for students taking EMPOWER’s domestic field course. Most of the week was spent learning more about Green Lake, which is in Fayetteville, NY. Green Lake was formed by a glacial waterfall and is very deep (about 195 feet). What makes Green Lake unique is that it is meromictic, meaning that the layers of water do not mix. Its striking green color makes Green Lakes a popular destination for those in the Syracuse area and its unique biogeochemistry and geologic history make it of particular interest to researchers.

Students divided into teams based on their interests and backgrounds to address research questions at Green Lakes. After spending a full day at Green Lakes, students headed back to Heroy for two days of lab work and data analysis. Students found that the more they dug into the data, the more questions they had about the lake.

Their work culminated in an afternoon of presentations, where the students highlighted their major findings and proposed ideas for future study. Who knows, maybe one of the trainees will head back to Green Lakes sometime in the future to answer some of those questions!

Next up is a day trip to a quarry, a gas field, and Marcellus.

Updates from the field course

EMPOWER’s Water-Energy Field Course started just a few days ago and already the students have discussed articles, developed research questions, collected lake water samples and data, worked in the lab, and analyzed data. The graduate students enrolled in the class are from the chemistry, Earth sciences, and civil & environmental engineering departments. These ten students, with their varied backgrounds and expertise, are guided in the first portion of the field course by Drs. Laura Lautz and Chris Junium.

The first day of the field course was spent in the classroom, learning about the origin and chemistry of Green Lakes, discussing research articles and field techniques, and formulating research questions.

On the second day, the group travelled to Green Lakes to sample lake water and collect data. It was a long day, with students spending a lot of time on the lake collecting samples. Each student had the opportunity to try out the equipment on the lake. Samples were taken from many points to see how surface waters vary spatially across the lake. Students have found substantial differences in the chemistry at varying points throughout the lake. Water column data were also collected from three profiles that were over 45 m deep. One group of students is particularly interested in how isotopes vary at different depths. After the samples were collected, teams of students headed back to campus to process the samples in the lab. Some students stayed in the lab until 11 pm!

The third day has been spent analyzing the data and processing more samples. Students will be presenting their findings later this week and then heading out on Friday for a geology field trip.

The second week of the field course will be spent at Hubbard Brook Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in New Hampshire. Led by Drs. Charley Driscoll and Chris Johnson, EMPOWER trainees will have the opportunity to tour the forest, take samples and measurements on Mirror Lake, and conduct in-stream tracer addition experiments.