Undergraduate Research Assistants

My undergrad mentees are a integral part of my research. From small-scale projects that can be completed in a semester, to ongoing multi-year efforts – mentoring students both prepares the next generation of scientists for careers in an out of academia, as well as broadens the scope and impact of my own work. Below you can read a little about some of the projects my mentees work on.

Beaver Dam Catalogue

Beaver dams are pretty much everywhere in North America – from the northern edge of Mexico up to the Arctic Circle, from east coast to west coast, and everywhere in between. Many beavers dams are large enough to be identified in satellite and aerial imagery. An ongoing project that all of my undergraduate research assistants are involved in is mapping out all the beaver dams in various study areas across the United States using Google Earth. This project is a designed as an introduction to data collection, using Google Earth and Earth Engine for scientific research, basics of GIS, and dealing with uncertainty. To date, my undergraduates have mapped out over 1500 beaver dams in California, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada. We have additional field sites waiting to be mapped in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona.

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An example of a beaver-dammed creek in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest, Wyoming before and after mapping out the dams and ponds (outlined in red).

Surface Water Storage in Beaver Ponds

What’s the point in mapping all these beaver ponds out? There is a lot of valuable information that can be gleaned from the data, and one project that spun out of the dam catalogue work was whether or not the total surface water storage in beaver ponds could be estimated in a given landscape from just the remotely sensed data. Using the empirical equations developed by Karran et al (2017),  undergraduate Andrew Whittle and I evaluated exactly how much surface water beaver ponds are responsible for retaining in a semi-arid study area. The results of this work will be presented by Andy at the fall American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting, and has been submitted for publication in the Journal of Hydrology.

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Undergrad Andy Whittle taking stream flow and temperature measurements in Wyoming.

Beavers and Wildfire

Beavers are widely known as “nature’s engineers,” but recent news suggests they play another important role in land management: firefighting. Most fire models used in land management take a spatially gridded fuel file as one of their inputs, which are often derived from satellite-acquired land cover information. However, this landcover data rarely classifies beaver ponds as open water, and due to the relatively small, patchy nature of beaver-created wetlands the increased moisture content in soil and fuels nearby beaver ponds is also overlooked. Undergraduate mentee Andy Whittle and I are scraping the existing data – including beaver-occupancy records and models, historical fire perimeters, satellite images, and aerial photography – to model and quantify the impact that beaver damming has on wildfire spread via increased water storage in the root zone. We aim to have our preliminary results published in early 2019.

Beavers, Droughts, and Deserts

In my 2018 Ecohydrology paper, I showed that beaver damming had the ability to buffer riparian ecosystems against the effects of both short- and long-term droughts. That study only considered one area in Nevada: Susie and Maggie Creeks near Carlin, NV. The next step in that project is to repeat the study at several more study areas across the American west and to more explicitly consider the role of beaver-dug channels. Because the methods are already established, I plan to involve one or more undergraduates in this effort over the next few years. This project provides an opportunity for students to get experience with hydrologic modeling in R, ecologic landscape assessment using FRAGSTATS, data collection in Google Earth and Arc/QGIS, and data processing and visualization using Python.


Beaver dam in the Taylor Wetlands on the shore of Lake Tahoe, CA. Inconsequential landscape feature, or critical drought buffer in a warming climate? Only more research can answer that with confidence!


Summer REU Programs

RESESS (Research Experiences in Solid Earth Science for Students)

RESESS in an incredible summer internship program run by UNAVCO, and is designed to help increase the diversity of students entering the geosciences. At the end of the summer students present a scientific poster and give a 15 minute conference style talk. They also write a full research paper. I have been involved with the RESESS program for two summers now: first as a writing/communication mentor for one of the program participants, and then the following summer as the assistant to the director and general mentor for all eight participants. Many of my responsibilities were to help students navigate being a researcher for the first time. The students come from a huge range of backgrounds and academic preparations, so building strong professional skills early on was an absolute must. Some of the skills we worked included how to communicate with professors, proper email etiquette, basics of a literature review, using citation management software, meeting deadlines, time management, dealing with imposter syndrome, applying for jobs, applying for grad school, presenting yourself with confidence even when you are terrified. I am still in touch with many of the students even though the internship has ended. Being a mentor is more than just a short-term job to me, it is instead an integral part of who I am as a professional scientist.


Me (black shirt, open blue button down) and the 2018 RESESS cohort.

If you are attending AGU this December, visit the UNAVCO booth to meet some of these stellar students.


RECCS (Research Experience for Community College Students)

RECCS is another outstanding internship program that I was involved with for the first time this past summer. The RECCS program recruits students from community colleges all around Colorado and engages them in an authentic summer research experience. My student, Sean Will, jumped right in and focused his project on collecting soils in the field from beaver ponds and beaver dams and then testing their hydraulic conductivities in the lab using a constant head permeameter test. This is part of my larger ongoing project to model the flow paths of water in beaver ponds. The end goal is to develop a simple model can tell you how much water coming into the pond will be rerouted into the soil based on only a few readily measurable parameters.  After 10 weeks of lit review, (very muddy) field work, lab work, and data analysis Sean successfully produced a scientific poster and oral presentation.


Me and Sean in the field at a local beaver pond on Left Hand Creek, CO. Floppy hats for sun protection, life jackets so we don’t drown, and smiles because safety in the field is fun!



CU Summer Discovery

Engaging students in science starts early. I had the opportunity to mentor two high school interns in a 4-week summer research program in 2017. My two students, Sage and Connor, each mapped out hundreds of beaver dams on Google Earth, learned basics of data collection in the field at several local ponds, created Virtual Reality tours of “their” field site, and presented a scientific poster on a topic of their choosing that related to their field work. Connor focused on the role beaver play in reversing incision and restoring stream connection to the floodplain. Sage focused on the development of wetland ecosystems in and around beaver ponds. Both students accomplished an impressive amount of work in 4 short weeks, and have since stayed in touch about their college plans and continued interest in environmental research.

Check out the 360 of one of our field visits below – if you look carefully you can see one of my students in it!