A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Understanding Effective Data Visualization

Story written by Quercus Hamlin and Changcheng Pu

Scientists are always looking for ways to better express information to both the public and peers. In a world of “big data,” complex theories, and short attention spans, visualization is a key tool to understanding data and to expressing findings. However, not all figures are created equal. EMPOWER students sought to improve their understanding of data visualization through a student-led discussion and visit from Dr. Christa Kelleher. Dr. Kelleher presents ten guidelines to create effective, comprehensive data visualization in “Ten guidelines for effective visualization in scientific publications” (2010). These guidelines synthesize design elements that improve comprehension and tips to avoid misleading figures.

Before Dr. Kelleher’s visit, EMPOWER students participated in a student-led discussion analyzing different figures from peer reviewed papers. Students pointed out positive and negative design decisions in figures and discussed strategies for improvement. Analyzing and critiquing other figures can help scientists develop better understanding of what to do and what to avoid in their own figures.

For example, different color schemes facilitate different types of data. In her discussion with EMPOWER students, Dr. Kelleher pointed out that a rainbow color scheme creates false difference in perceived values and can be hard to interpret. Consider the two maps of population density in Syracuse, NY census tracks: most would find the grey scale map easier to find a pattern in.  The dark values are centered around the city center and densities become lower as they get farther away.  In the rainbow map, the values (lightness or darkness) of the colors do not gradually get darker, so it is harder to quickly interpret the middle values, specifically blue and green. While the rainbow and legend gives us the “order” to figure this out, it is generally less intuitive. Figures using various hues (the “color” of a color – green, red, blue) better represent qualitative or categorical data, like land use. Differences in lightness and darkness better represent changes in intensity of numerical quantities.

Overall, data visualization is a key part of a modern science: our design choices influence how others understand our science. Scientists must aim to understand design and utilize it to further both public and peer understanding – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words!

(images – data from US Census Bureau, maps prepared by Quercus Hamlin)


Trainees are featured guests on Orange STEM podcast

In the most recent episode of Syracuse University’s Daily Orange biweekly STEM podcast, EMPOWER trainees Geoff Millard and Changcheng Pu discuss their research and their perspectives on Syracuse area water concerns.

To hear the full podcast, please click here: Orange STEM podcast.

Nicely done, Geoff and Changcheng!

Going with the Flow: Water as a Critical Driver of Urbanization

Story written by Crystal Burgess, Lucie Worthen, and Joseph Wasswa

In light of the Syracuse Center of Excellence (CoE) Symposium on October 4th, EMPOWER trainees set the tone by discussing urban hydrology and related innovative research. Urbanization is not only growing worldwide, it is also adapting and changing to new environmental pressures as drinking water supplies and urban ecosystems are being affected. Students talked about the concept of urban evolution introduced in a review paper titled Urban Evolution: The Role of Water by Kaushal et al. The authors placed emphasis on how our relationships and interactions with water have changed, though water remains a foundation of civilization. Kaushal et al. created a model identifying the hydrological and social consequences over time from the industrial period to present day. With each period, we have adapted and redefined our relationship with water. The authors emphasize these responses are reflective of multiple perspectives. Biologist, geologists, engineers, government officials, business sectors, and the public all influence urban adaptations. Many EMPOWER trainees were curious about the interdisciplinary aspects of urban land management. Ph.D. student Darci Pauser stated that she was intrigued by how water acts as a constraint that can “shape urban development and all socio-economic development.”

Trainees also reviewed two case studies by Lauren McPhillips and Sarah Ledford. The two researchers presented their projects relating to water in urban environments at the CoE symposium. Sarah Ledford studies nitrogen cycling in Meadowbrook Creek in Syracuse. Nitrate is one of the main water pollutants sourced from fertilizers and wastewater systems. In her paper she recommends that stream managers take a mindful approach to removing nitrate as it relates to their restoration goals. Lauren McPhillips also focused on nutrient cycles across lawns and ditches within residential neighborhoods. During her presentation, McPhillips mentioned residents approached her in the field and was curious about her work. She went on to stress the importance of communication and community engagement. As urban environments continue to change our concerns for better water management calls everyone to the conversation.

To learn more about the Syracuse Center of Excellence (CoE) Symposium, please go to http://syracusecoe.syr.edu/2017-syracusecoe-symposium/

Challenges of Climate Change in National Parks

Story written by Riley Sessanna, Nick Zaremba, and Rose Louk

Climate change may result in broad effects to our most treasured scenic getaways, the National Parks. Initial reactions may be to consider how warmer temperatures will impact wildlife or other natural beauties such as glaciers. However, it is also important for park management to better understand how climate change will affect park attendance, so that resources can be focused in areas that will be impacted the most. Attendance is generally dependent on the mean monthly temperatures of a park; more people visit parks when temperatures are favorable. Parks such as Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, which has a pleasant temperature year-round, has consistent attendance throughout the year; while parks located in colder climates tend to have higher attendance in the warm summer months and few visitors in the winter. An interesting case study by Albano et al. (2013) examined climate change’s impact on attendance in three National Parks in Alaska. This study predicted an increase in park attendance in the coming years, based on a growing “peak season,” which follows a longer period of favorable climate.

With climate change impacting the National Parks in a diverse number of ways, there will be a need for more research and employees in the parks. A survey of professionals and students found that experience, social connectivity, character, focused education, and having a foot in the door are essential for success in the career sector (Browning et al. 2017). There are also a number of funding opportunities for those interested in doing research in the parks. Grants are available through the National Park Foundation and internships are offered by the Geoscientists in the Park Program. Both opportunities can provide the experience and social connectivity necessary for a career in the National Parks. Water-Energy Seminar students had a roundtable discussion about the various impacts of climate change on parks, how our research can be applied to parks, and how to get an internship or job in the National Parks.

On November 9th, Ed Harvey spoke to EMPOWER students about water resource stewardship in the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). In this talk, he explained that National Parks are set aside for the enjoyment of the public and conserved with the goal of leaving them unimpaired for future generations. With this balance of conservation and enjoyment, there are “inherited” challenges of managing old infrastructure like dams and gas stations, mining operations that are contaminating the land, and people living in the parks (“inholdings”) who require a source of water in a place where the water is protected. There is also the issue of changing climate conditions bringing about disasters like floods and landslides that damage the parks and can endanger visitors. Furthermore, Ed Harvey explained that the allocation of the NPS budget and employee distribution is geared more towards public enjoyment of the parks than conservation. He closed with an explanation of how park decisions extend beyond science alone to include cultural resource considerations, socio-economic impacts, politics, and public opinion. Overall, stewardship must respond to dynamic changes in the environment while including the diverse interests of everyone involved.


Photographs from https://nature.nps.gov/geology/education/images.cfm

Spotlight on Kristy Gutchess

We are pleased to offer the next installment in our series that features the outstanding and interesting students in our program. This month, we feature Earth Sciences PhD student Kristina Gutchess. Thank you for contributing, Kristy!

EMPOWER trainee Kristy Gutchess at Pratt’s Falls.

What inspired you to become a geoscientist?

I have had an insatiable interest in the earth sciences since I was a young child. Every summer I would spend endless hours constructing makeshift dams and culverts with my brother in a small creek that ran through my childhood back yard. This early love for understanding the science of the earth – particularly water – has since propagated, and here I am today.


What skills and knowledge (either educational or technical training) have been of key importance to your success in graduate school

So much has contributed to my growth as a scientist! But if I had to pick the top three, I would say:

1) Learning programming early on

2) Taking advantage of a variety of courses (many outside of the earth sciences department)

3) Developing a strong interdisciplinary network.

Oh, and last but not least, communicating! Regularly presenting and meeting with peers and colleagues to discuss science, either formally or informally, has been of key importance in the development and advancement of my research.


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

Dr. Laura Lautz, EMPOWER Program Director and Earth Sciences Department Chair, has always been a role model of mine. As an undergraduate, I admired Dr. Lautz’s work with beaver dams and nutrient dynamics. I’ve had the privilege to interact with Laura regularly during my graduate studies and she still inspires me daily. Working closely with Dr. Laura Lautz has shown me the importance of perseverance, organization, and the benefits that a positive outlook even when faced with insurmountable challenges can have.

My advisor, Dr. Zunli Lu, has also been a strong driving force since I started considering graduate studies as an undergraduate. He even had a hand in recruiting me to apply to Syracuse. Since I’ve been here, Zunli has helped me realize what I’m capable of. He pushes the graduate students in our research group to go above and beyond – and we’re all incredibly grateful for that!

What advice would you give new graduate students

  • Embrace your inner “nerd.”…don’t be afraid to totally immerse yourself in the science. The rest will follow.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of skilled science communication – if only 1% of your audience can understand you, what’s the point?
  • Be yourself! Grad school isn’t just about finding the answers to complex scientific questions. It’s also an opportunity to explore your interests in depth– to really figure out the direction you want your career to take and to thoroughly evaluate all your options.


About Kristy:  Kristy graduated from State University of New York College at Cortland with a B.S. in Geology. She participated in several interdisciplinary research projects as an undergraduate, including characterizing contamination in urban catchments, assessing water quality on the college campus, and assessing the extent of nutrient pollution in Central New York tributaries.  Kristy’s research is aimed at broadening understanding of the controls on the flux of water and solutes through catchments. To answer these questions, she uses modeling approaches combined with field observations and analytical techniques. She also is interested in the impacts of climate disruption on headwater catchments and the societal and ecological ramifications of these changes. Kristy has extensive teaching experience, has earned awards for her research, and has numerous publications. She has been awarded Syracuse University Water Fellowship and the EMPOWER NRT fellowship.

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