Dr. Kristin Doughty visits EMPOWER Water Energy Seminar

Written by: Jeffrey Wade, Yngrid Marques, Shaidu Shaban, and Dan Wang

On April 24th, 2020, EMPOWER had the distinct pleasure of hosting Dr. Kristin Doughty of the University of Rochester for an interactive seminar with trainees. As a distinguished scholar in the fields of Rwandan ethnography and post-genocide reconciliation, Dr. Doughty provided trainees with an opportunity to engage with the cultural background of the African nation in preparation for EMPOWER’s International Field Course. The seminar covered a broad scope of topics, ranging from the role of grassroots courts in facilitating reconstruction to Dr. Doughty’s extensive experience performing research in Rwanda. EMPOWER trainees were particularly interested in the interaction of the KivuWatt methane extraction facility and the attitudes of Rwandans directly impacted by its construction and operation.

EMPOWER and its trainees remain dedicated to pursuing interdisciplinary research topics at the nexus of water and energy. Dr. Doughty’s informative seminar represents a fulfillment of this mission, particularly through her insight into the relationship between energy generation and the interests of local Rwandan communities.

Dr. Diane McKnight visits EMPOWER Water Energy Seminar

Written by: Connor Olson, Nick LoRusso, Ruta Basijokaite and Shiru Wang

Empower trainees come from diverse academic backgrounds and are interested in careers ranging from academia to government to industry. Part of the EMPOWER program is to prepare students to navigate different career paths in which they may currently have little or no knowledge. To this end, EMPOWER seminars often focus on individuals who are not only exceptional in their field but who can also provide insight on their experiences in different career sectors.

In this respect, few can rival recent EMPOWER seminar speaker, Dr. Diane McKnight. Currently a professor of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural engineering at University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. McKnight has had a distinguished career which has included work on acid-mine drainage in the Rocky Mountains and biogeochemistry of lakes near Mt. St. Helens. Dr. McKnight has worked in academia, with USGS, on National Research Council Committees, and helped to found the McMurdo Dry Valley’s Long Term Ecological Research site, where she has conducted substantial work on Antarctic systems.

Dr. McKnight was invited to speak with EMPOWER trainees, instructors, and guests during a recent EMPOWER webinar. Dr. McKnight discussed her career and answered questions ranging in topic from organic matter analysis to her experience as a woman in engineering.

Trainees Explore Science Outreach

Written by: Eliza Hurst, Laura Streib, Sara Araldi-Brondolo and Nimisha Thakur

On Friday March 6th 2020, EMPOWER trainees visited the Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in downtown Syracuse. While there, trainees explored museum exhibits and learned about the effectiveness of different exhibit types on a range of audiences. In addition to touring the museum, students learned about how staff develop and execute the MOST’s mission from the Director of Programming & Education Dr. Emily Stewart. Students learned about the trials and joys making science education accessible to K-12  students throughout Onondaga County. Special attention is paid to the needs of underprivileged students and teachers. EMPOWER trainees were given a window into the MOST’s teaching strategies. Dr. Stewart explained how the museum distills complex scientific information for young audiences. Trainees also learned how the museum deals with controversial subjects like climate change and vaccination. Trainees will be able to use this knowledge when they plan their own outreach work. 

Politics & the Environment – Importance of Science as a basis for decision-making

Written by: Peter Brennan, McKenzie Brannon, Courtney Gammon and Nolan Kokkoris

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the role of science in policy-making, we examined some of the fundamental principles of federal law. We began by reviewing the basic structure of federal environmental laws, which can usually be broken down into four parts: the statutory trigger, definitions, requirements, and exceptions. We then transitioned the discussion to how federal statutes delegate rulemaking authority to administrative agencies such as the EPA, which need Congressional authority in order to make rules. After outlining the steps of the rulemaking process, we touched on some of the key issues that come up when a rule is challenged in court. Specifically, we noted that rules are often challenged on the basis of exceeding statutory authority, contravening the requirements of procedural due process, or as arbitrary and capricious exercises of agency discretion. With this foundation, we moved to discussing how the influence of politics on policy has increased in recent years.

To bring the topic into present-day relevance, Professor Wilcoxen and Professor Driscoll explained the role of Scientific Advisory Boards (SABs) in the EPA and discussed recent developments in the EPA surrounding rollbacks of environmental regulations by the Trump administration. This led us into a discussion of the interplay between politics and the environment with an emphasis on analyzing the increasing polarization of the two political parties in recent decades. Since the late 1980s, it seems that there has been an ever-widening gap between the two political parties when it comes to views surrounding climate change (Dunlap and McCright, 2008) specifically, and this polarization seems to have pervaded various other scientific topics of interest today.

After everyone presented their information about environmental law, the EPA, and related topics, we engaged the class by having them participate in an activity. The activity was a mock stakeholder forum in which we assigned various stakeholder titles to groups in the class. Their goal within their groups was to think about the Waters of the US rule that we had previously discussed from the view of their assigned stakeholder. We prompted them with questions like: Are there any amendments that you (the stakeholder) would like to make to the rule and why? The point of the activity was to get people thinking about some challenges of the challenges faced by environmental policymakers.

Finding Your Strengths

Students reviewed the CliftonStrengths categories prior to completing a comprehensive strengths assessment which revealed their five “top” strengths. They were able to compare perceived strengths to how the survey ranked them. Led by EMPOWER PI Charley Driscoll and Grad Career Office Director, Dan Olson-Bang, this workshop focused on leadership styles, how to leverage one’s inherent abilities and how to develop highly productive teams. 

Trainees Attend Alan Alda Communicating Science Workshop

Twenty-two trainees spent Valentines Day 2020 working hard to develop and refine their science communication skills during our second visit from Alan Alda Communicating Science Workshops. We welcomed three trainers, Josh Rice, Carol Schindler and James Rea who ran the sessions at the University Sheraton for the day. Eight attendees were returning for a second year and an afternoon workshop was designed just for them to build on skills from last year. The Alan Alda Method includes a series of improvisation and communication exercises to test skills and provide new tools to improve how students convey their science to all types of audiences.

EMPOWER Trainee wins AGU awards at national conference

Julianne Sweeney recently won two prestigious awards from the American Geophysical Union for her presentation of hydrogeomorphic impacts of beaver dam analogues in the western US. Julianne’s visual storytelling earned her an award in the AGU Data Visualization Competition.  Her poster presentation of her novel findings was awarded a prestigious Outstanding Student Presentation Award, typically given to a very small percentage of students presenting in the Hydrologic Sciences Section.

Practicing Valuable Project Management Skills

Written by: Sarah Araldi-Brondolo, Ruta Basijokaite, Laura Streib, McKenzie Brannon, and Dan Wang

Project management is the practice of planning and tracking the execution of a project to ensure goals are met. It allows scientific research to stay on track, within budget, and meet a reasonable deadline. The four basic components of project management are: 1) set goals and chart progress, 2) break down tasks and set deadlines, 3) choose and implement specific strategies, and 4) monitor, adjust, and problem-solve.

EMPOWER trainees got to practice project management through planning a field course for undergraduate students. First, students completed a personality assessment and were grouped with colleagues that shared their project management styles. EMPOWER fellows were given a strict budget, but were given freedom to design the course however they chose. Students designed a variety of courses, some making the budget conscious choice to stay close to home and others going more far afield. So students could practice risk management, halfway through planning the course, each group was delivered a unique wild-card. Trainees had to deal with last minute mishaps like a  reduced budget, broken equipment, and bureaucratic hold ups.. EMPOWER trainees proposed their field courses in five minutes pitches, to a panel of judges with years of project management experience: Annie Pennella (PM), Dr. Christa Kelleher, and Dr. Charles Driscoll.

There were a range of field course project managed and proposed, including:

  • Studying the geology and ecology of national parks in the western U.S.
  • Testing the feasibility of new small scale water treatment technology in water-limited communities in northeast Africa.
  • Learning apiary science in the mid-west and investigating its connection to pesticide use in agricultural systems.
  • Studying the geology and history of Lake Ontario.

This activity introduced EMPOWER fellows to the basics of project management, gave them hands on experience, and gave them resources for project management tools they can use in the future.

Trainees Hone Science Communication Skills during Workshop

On November 15, EMPOWER seminar students honed their science communication skills in a workshop led by Kathy Lambert, a senior advisor with The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard C-CHANGE) and Co-founder of the Science Policy Exchange.  The three hour workshop led by Lambert engaged students in communicating their research to lay audiences using three different mechanisms.  In an elevator pitch-off, students rated each other’s responses to the age-old question – “what do you do?”  Four senior trainees also shared their research via five minute lightening presentations, and six senior trainees prepared scientific abstracts on their current research using plain language intended for a lay audience.  All participants provided feedback to one another and received input from Lambert.  We look forward to seeing them communicate their science outside of the academy!


The Value of Plain Language Summaries

Written by: Peter Brennan, Courtney Gammon, Eliza Hurst, Sara Schulkowski, Yngrid Marques and Nimisha Thakur

Though translating complicated science into layman’s terms can be a surprisingly laborious task, it’s beneficial to both the reader and the author to include plain language summaries (PLS) within research articles. PLS serve as a way to directly increase readership and make the scientific process more inclusive. As a large percentage of scientific research is funded with taxpayer dollars, scientists should strive to make our research more accessible and understandable to the average citizen. Thus, the PLS is an excellent way to bridge the communication gap between the scientific community and the people we are aiming to help with our research.

Communicating your science outside of academia can help to inform political or economic choices, inspire future scientists through outreach, or to share your findings with the community so they know what is happening in the natural world around them.

The language used in a PLS should be kept simple. Jargon or discipline-specific terms should be avoided.

Thinking of the PLS as an upside-down pyramid helps. The first sentence should introduce the key point readers must know about your research while the following sentences broaden this key point. The summary should end with the significance of the research. Another helpful tip for writing a PLS is to tell your science like a story. It should be short and focus only on the most important details; however, remember that the PLS may require more context than the abstract since the audience likely has less preliminary knowledge about the subject than the scientific community.