EMPOWER trainees leverage expertise to secure research grant

EMPOWER trainees Alex Johnson, Yige Yang, and David Zheng, were recently awarded $14,000 for their project “Evaluating the Water and Energy Performance of the Center of Excellence (CoE) Green Roof” through the “Campus as a Laboratory for Sustainability” (CALS) grant program. This grant program, funded through the Syracuse University Climate Action Plan, is designed to support research that promotes reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and/or increase awareness about climate disruption and environmental sustainability (http://sustainability.syr.edu/vision/campus-as-laboratory-for-sustainability/cals-funding-2017-18/).

Through their research, the EMPOWER team aims to increase awareness of how green roofs can help the university reduce energy and water consumption. Each contributor will draw on their own expertise in this project: Johnson studies dry deposition on green roofs; Yang is interested in how green roofs reduce stormwater runoff and affect heat flux; and Zheng has extensive experience with computational fluid dynamics. Johnson says this was an “opportunity to do interdisciplinary work with three core research ideas.”

The CALS proposals must also have a campus communications component, so the research team assembled an advisory committee to help formulate an outreach and communication plan. This committee is comprised of 8 professionals from across Syracuse University’s campus. The research advisors include Cliff Davidson and Ben Akih, from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Tarek Rakha, from the School of Architecture, and Ed Bogucz, from the CoE. The communication advisors are Deanna McCay, from EMPOWER, Don Torrance, from the Newhouse School, Sharon Dotger, from the School of Education, and Todd Moss, from the Whitman School of Management.

According to Johnson, “It was actually pretty easy to get people involved. We joke that we have a large “squad” of advisors.” Zheng agrees: “All in all, we made some efforts in communicating with them, and they showed us great examples of how to do research and public communication.” The team plans to create a website, a informational brochure, and present their findings at a national conference.

Zheng says “I am very thankful for the EMPOWER program, it builds a powerful bond between professionals and students. We have the same vision – to mitigate the water and energy issue, and our missions might be different due to our backgrounds. However, it is the various backgrounds that bring us together.”



This is the second EMPOWER-related proposal funded through CALS. Kristy Gutchess received an award earlier this year. For more information about Kristy’s award, please see read our news story here.

For more information about CALS, please go to their website.


Classes have ended and it’s time for field work!

Laura DeMott, PhD student in Earth Sciences and EMPOWER trainee, shares her experiences:

This week, I returned from spending two weeks conducting research at my field area in western Nevada (the Pyramid Lake and Winnemucca Dry Lake basins). I mapped, described, sampled, and photographed (sometimes with a drone!) large outcrops of rock called “tufa towers,” to investigate the formation processes of these unique lake deposits. My field assistant and I saw many amazing rock formations, and even got to see some baby desert animals!




The seating arrangement at EMPOWER’s end-of-the-year event said it all: EMPOWER trainees enjoy spending time together. Almost all of the graduate students sat together at a single long table for the reception.

“This is the end of EMPOWER’s first full year with trainees,” EMPOWER Program Director Laura Lautz told the group of about 40 people who filled the Member’s Lounge at Drumlin’s. The current EMPOWER graduate students, the leadership team, affiliated faculty, and PDSA faculty, were all on hand to celebrate the end of the semester. A slideshow cycling through the highlights of the year was projected in the front of the room.

While the reception was informal and only a few words were spoken by Lautz, she did take the opportunity to present the program’s first ever “Director’s Citation for Excellence” to two students: Kristy Gutchess and Sara Alesi. This award is given in recognition of exceptional academic performance and professional growth in the EMPOWER program.

“Kristy wants to be an academic – a professor. She has taken every opportunity to pursue this career with a passion, which is a key reason she received this citation,” said Lautz. “She has used her PDSA coursework to improve her writing for scientific publication, and her preparation for teaching at the college level.”

Like Kristy, “Sara stands out in her commitment to the EMPOWER program – she participated in virtually every professional development program we had to offer,” says Lautz.  “Sara was one of our first students to make a connection with Dan Olson-Bang, in Graduate Career Services, and use that connection to secure an internship with Plumley Engineering, a local environmental consulting firm, for her career pathways experience.”

According to Lautz, “both students represent what we hope students will achieve in EMPOWER – capitalizing on opportunities to enhance their professional growth to pursue the career of their dreams.”

In a fitting close to the year, the trainees lingered at the reception long after the awards were presented, the slideshow was turned off, and the faculty departed.

Something we always knew: EMPOWER trainees are winners!

EMPOWER trainees continue to earn recognition for their outstanding work. Here are some examples:

  1. Kristina Gutchess, who is a PhD student in Earth Sciences, received a Geological Society of America (GSA) Graduate Student Research Grant for work on her project entitled “Evaluating Hydrogeologic Controls on the Transport of Iodine in Headwater Catchments.”
  2. Amanda Schulz, a PhD student in Earth Sciences, earned a GSA Graduate Student Research Grant to support  research investigating temporal variability of methane in the Marcellus Shale Region of New York. 
  3. JR Slosson, an MS student in Earth Sciences, received the John T. and Carol G. McGill grant through the GSA. His proposal is entitled “Calculating Andean Reservoir Infill Rates in Argentina using Cosmogenic Radionuclides and Stream Gauge Data.”
  4. Yige Yang, a PhD student in Civil & Environmental Engineering, won the Student Poster Competition in the Non-Architecture Graduate Research Category at the New York State Green Buildings Conference.

Congratulations Kristy, Amanda, JR, and Yige!

Rethinking the engineering behind green roofs to improve urban sustainability

Story written by Alex Johnson, Yaskira Mota, Maggie Tadaro, and Yige Yang

With increasing urbanization, we are removing natural vegetation and replacing it with impervious surfaces such as streets, building roofs, parking lots, etc. This disrupts the natural hydrologic cycle by increasing stormwater runoff and decreasing the amount of water reentering aquifers.  In addition, this causes pollution of natural water bodies.  Furthermore, urban areas are built on materials that absorb energy instead of dissipating it into the atmosphere.  This increases temperatures in these areas.  According to the EPA, temperatures in urban areas are on average 12 degrees C warmer than surrounding rural areas.

Green roofs are one potential technology to help with these issues and many researchers are dedicated to understanding how these systems function. One researcher is Dr. Joel Burken from Missouri Science & Technology.  He conducts small-scale experiments of green roofs to further elucidate our understanding of green roof hydrologic and thermal performance.

It was a pleasure to invite Dr. Burken to Syracuse University on April 10th to present his findings.  In addition, he stressed the importance for engineers to be heavily involved in the design process as there is further room for improvement.  Most designers only consider if the green roof will be cost-effective, if the plants will grow, and if it looks pretty.  However, there are additional considerations that are not considered.  One example is whether the runoff from a green roof will potentially contaminate natural water bodies.  There are also no standards for green roof design.  Dr. Burken encouraged engineers to be involved with a wide variety of people including building managers to consider these factors and to bridge the divide between urban infrastructure and natural processes.

EMPOWER students learn about environmental consulting

Four environmental consultants, from four different companies, fielded questions from EMPOWER trainees for about 2 hours earlier this month. In addition to better understanding the types of projects that consultants might work on, students learned about billable hours, the technical skills they would need to work in consulting, work-life balance as a consultant, and opportunities for advancement within a company. As one trainee noted, “the panelists were great…[they] would make great contacts for people interested in the field.”

EMPOWER thanks the consultants for so generously spending their time with us!

Emily Bernzott, PE – Design Engineer, NTM Engineering
Timothy Daniluk, Project Scientist, ERM
Kenneth Hubbard, Buckeye Partners, LP (corporate environmental department)
Brian Solomon, Senior Scientist, Anchor QEA, LLC

Anxious about your career path? Simple strategies to prepare yourself

Story written by Sara Alesi, Megan Daley, Caitlin Eger, Geoff Millard, and David Zheng

For scientists and engineers interested in pursuing a career in industry or the private sector, Dr. Josh Henkin, founder of STEM Career Services, has a simple prescription. “Learn about yourself,” Henkin said during his visit at Syracuse University. “Figure out what company you might join, and then find opportunities to gain the skills to get there.”

On March 29th, Dr. Henkin spoke to STEM graduate students about strategic career planning and how it is never too early to start the process. He discussed strategies that are different from the traditional job seeking methods – like the importance of networking, preparing elevator pitches, and tailoring your resume to each job you apply for. He emphasized the importance of developing a good relationship with a career mentor who can offer advice, expand your network, and provide encouragement.

Dr. Henkin hosted a series of strategic career workshops and one-on-one counseling sessions during his time in Syracuse. In several of his workshops, Dr. Henkin stressed the importance of networking. “Over 70% of jobs are found through networking,” Dr. Henkin said. “LinkedIn is one of the most useful networking tools. I probably get job offers once a month just based on the strength of my LinkedIn profile.” In addition, Dr. Henkin suggests preparing an elevator pitch before you introduce yourself to potential employers during networking events.

When giving advice on resumes, Dr. Henkin highlighted the significance of presenting your technical skills – such as computer programming – and transferable skills – such as communication expertise – first on your resume. He noted that education is no longer the most important item on your resume, and should be moved to the lower half. “You need to impress me with the top half of your resume,” Dr. Henkin said. “If you don’t impress me as a recruiter, I won’t bother looking at the rest of your material, because I have 300 more resumes to evaluate.”

Dr. Henkin advises graduate students to avoid talking about salary right away.  “Do your research to make sure you are getting paid the fair market value for your skills,” Dr. Henkin said. “Graduate student pay is very low, but the money does not equal the total value.  Flexible hours, free classes, access to fitness centers – these could all be part of your current total pay, and talking about salary does not reflect these other benefits.”

All in all, Dr. Henkin encourages graduate students to remain positive. “Career development is an ongoing process,” Henkin said. “Don’t feel limited by your career options. Figure out what you’re passionate about, gain some skills, and build your resume. ”

The campus visit was supported by EMPOWER, SU Graduate Career Services, The Graduate School, and the College of Arts & Sciences.

EMPOWER trainees present their research at a conference

EMPOWER students have varied interests: MS student Sara Alesi studies chemical weathering in soils in the Catskills region and PhD student Geoff Millard is interested in biogeochemical cycling in the western Adirondacks. Both participated in the recent Northeastern Ecosystem Research Cooperative (NERC) Conference, which was held in Saratoga Springs in late March.

NERC is comprised of researchers, students, resource managers, and policy makers who study the health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. “I went to NERC because it is a great regional conference,” Millard says.  Millard’s research was well-aligned with the work of many other researchers at the conference and he was able to have in-depth conversations with experts who have interests similar to his own.

“At the NERC conference, I was able to meet with researchers who I’ve only cited in my work or have emailed with, so it was exciting to meet with them in person and receive additional feedback on my research,” Alesi says. “I was able to hear about the different analyses being done and made note of how I can implement some of them into my own research.”

In addition to attending sessions and meeting colleagues, Alesi and Millard presented their research at the conference. Alesi’s poster, “Estimating the Rate of Release of Base Cations via Chemical Weathering in Soils in the Catskills Region,” was co-authored by EMPOWER faculty member Chris Johnson. Millard had several collaborators on his poster, including EMPOWER faculty member Charles Driscoll, Mario Montesdeoca (from SU’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Department), and Doug Burns and Karen Riva-Murray (both from the U.S. Geological Survey). Alesi and Millard agreed that presenting their research in poster format offered opportunities for additional feedback, insights, and conversations with other ecosystem scientists.

Millard says “I enjoy this conference so much, I volunteered to be a member of the Steering Committee.”

For more information about the Northeastern Ecosystem Research Cooperative, please visit their website (http://www.nercscience.org).


Warmer Planet, Changing Soils

Written by Robin Glas, John Russell Slosson, and Alexa Stathis

Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide don’t just reside in our atmosphere; they are constantly moving through the soil as well.  Plants and microbes underground are undergoing respiration and other processes that can significantly affect the health of an environment, “breathing out” and producing these gases that are then released into the atmosphere.  Students in the EMPOWER Water-Energy Seminar recently discussed soil gas exchanges and how movement of certain gases through the soil could be affected by climate change.  The students learned about how to measure these gases in the soil at different scales: from small probes that can be inserted into the soil, to meter- scale chambers that capture gases moving in and out of the soil, to larger scale measurements that involve atmospheric circulation.  This was the students’ first glimpse into some of the methods they will be using this upcoming summer, when they will complete a field course in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, which is in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Students also read the article Climate Variation and Soil Carbon and Nitrogen Cycling Processes by Groffman et al. (2009), which used changes in elevation as a proxy for the climatological changes expected to occur with warming temperatures in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Students considered some of the challenges of using this model to simulate climate change in soil processes. Students also discussed the broader implications of the research, including possible increased susceptibility of soils to freezing in warmer temperatures due to the loss of insulating snowpack and lowered rates of nitrogen mineralization and nitrification.

Amanda Schulz Awarded AAPG Grant

Amanda Schulz teaches homeowners how to collect water samples for use in her study. Photo provided by Amanda Schulz.

Amanda Schulz, EMPOWER trainee and Earth Sciences Ph.D. student, has recently been selected as a grant recipient for the 2017 American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) Foundation Grants-in-Aid Program.

The award, from the Pittsburgh Association of Petroleum Geologists Named Grant scholarship fund, is designed to support a graduate student attending a university in the Appalachian Basin Area who is studying Appalachian basin geology. Schulz’s research is focused on characterizing temporal changes in naturally-occurring methane in shallow groundwater in the Marcellus Shale region of New York and understanding how these changes relate to variability in climate and water use. Proceeds from the $2750 award will be used to add two more domestic wells to Schulz’s sample that will fill a critical spatial gap in coverage of her study area. According to Schulz, “the data will provide information on temporal variability of methane, as well as spatial variability between wells, which will fill a data gap and can be used to inform policy regulations.”

Schulz’s project is an outgrowth of ongoing research through Project SWIFT at Syracuse University. Professors Laura Lautz, Greg Hoke, Zunli Lu, and Don Siegel (all from Earth Sciences) are involved in Project SWIFT.

For more information about Project SWIFT, please visit the Project SWIFT webpage.

For more information about the AAPG awards, please visit the AAPG Grants-in-Aid webpage.

New York State and the extent of the Marcellus Shale play with shallow groundwater wells for study marked. Map courtesy of Amanda Schulz.