Spring 2018 Highlights

Spring came and went in a blink of an eye… and I’m starting to think that maybe time just passes differently in academia. For example, part of me still feels like a “new” grad student, and yet here I am: getting ready to start the fourth year of my PhD. I remember when I met 4th year PhD students during my new grad student orientation in August 2015, all I could think was “wow, they’re almost done. That must be so exciting.” Now that I’m about to be in their shoes, all I can think is “wow, I have a lot of work to do still. Can time slow down a little bit?” Something tells me if anything, the next year or two will fly by just as fast – if not faster – than the last three have. So before getting whisked away into the frenzy of summer field season, I want to take a minute to reflect on some of the big highlights from this past semester.


For the last couple years, my main research focus has been using remote sensing and modeling to see if beavers that live in desert climates can buffer the effects of drought on nearby vegetation during seasonal and multi-year droughts. I submitted a paper on my results last semester, and today it was finally accepted for publication in the journal Ecohydrology! Publishing scientific research is a big part of being in academia, so getting my paper published is an exciting step in my career path. Watch out world – I have several more papers in the works right now, and I want to keep up the momentum!

Once I have a link to the published article online, I will update this post to include it.


I was the teaching assistant (TA) for an upper level geomorphology class this semester, and my main job was to teach the lab section for the class. I made it a personal goal to add at least one active learning element to each class (we met once a week, so it was about 12 activities total). The activities took between 5 and 20 minutes, so they didn’t hog up too much of the 3-hour lab period. Some of the activities I developed and incorporated in the class were:

  • Bar-Trivia Style Geomorphology Trivia – trivia questions relating to the homework assignments, recent labs, that day’s lab, and geomorphology as a broader field. Sometimes a couple silly questions snuck in to keep things fun. One of the goofier questions, for example, was: True or False: In Latin, geomorphology literally translates to “House of Pigeons.” The more serious questions were along the lines of “Name 3 radioactive isotopes used in geomorphology to date landforms. Bonus points if you can name their half-lives.” Trivia helped get students warmed up and excited about geomorphology before digging into that week’s main lab exercise.
  • Back-to-Back Science Communication Drawing Exercise (see the featured/header image on this post) – this exercise has students sit back to back so they cannot see one another. Each student is given two notecards: one with a simple drawing of a geomorphic feature or process, and one that is blank. The students must describe to their partner what feature or process is on their card and try to get their partner to recreate it on their blank card. This exercise helped students be articulate in their language and practice making observations.
  • Demos – I ran several smaller demos throughout the semester to help students conceptualize complex processes, but that wasn’t overly exciting. What was exciting was the two large hands-on demos that the whole class got to participate in. In the first demo, students worked in groups to make a glacier out of pudding and have it flow through a landscape picking up “sediment” and creating moraines as it goes. The sediment was just smashed up cookies and chocolate chips. Before the glacier flowed, during the flow, and after it stopped students were asked to sketch a topographic map of their glacier. This was designed to help build familiarity with how concave, convex, and mounded shapes would look on a topo map.

    Later in the semester, we used hairdryers, sandboxes, pieces of a pine branch I clipped from a tree on my walk into school, and some small stones from the landscaping outside the building to simulate the creation an evolution of sand dunes. Again, students worked in groups and made predictions about how the different landscape elements (stones, sticks, pine needs, etc.) would influence aeolian processes, then test their predictions. Students also made predictions about how grain sizes would be distributed in an open sandbox with a stationary hairdryer at one end. They noted how the wind speed decreases further away from the hairdryer, which made larger sand grains fall out of suspension first and smaller sand grains get carried all the way to the end of the box.
    Students blowing sand in a sandbox using a hairdryer to simulate dune formation

If you are interested in getting the lesson plans or activity descriptions for any of the activities I incorporated in this class, please do not hesitate to reach out to me either via my contact form on this website or via email.


It’s no secret that I like working with undergrads – I like teaching, I like mentoring, I like participating in panels about fellowships/GREs/grad school apps/etc. It’s a great feeling when the undergraduate students I work with find their niche in geoscience and really start getting excited about becoming a scientist. At the start of this semester, I had an idea for a relatively straightforward beaver dam hydrology project that would compliment the drought buffering project I’ve been working on. But I wasn’t sure that I would have time to do it on my own. So applied for and won some funding to hire an undergraduate research assistant to take on the project under my guidance and supervision. And wow – I hit the jackpot with the student I picked. He is smart, incredibly hard working, and genuinely excited about the research topic. In one short semester, he has already mapped the dams and ponds of over 700 beaver ponds in Wyoming using satellite imagery. He will be using that data along with some field data to be collected this summer to better understand how much water is actually being stored in beaver ponds in a heavily dammed watershed. He’s already made a scientific poster, and is starting the process of writing up his own paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I don’t know how much credit I can take for the fact that he is a rockstar researcher, but mentoring him and seeing how much progress he has made in the project was definitely one of my semester highlights.


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