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.


Fall 2017 Highlights

The fall semester blew by so fast that part of me isn’t convinced it ever really happened. Seriously – where did the last three and a half months go? Despite time moving at nearly breakneck speed, I’m happy to say that I got a lot of work done and even hit a few big milestones. Some of the highlights of my semester are below:

Passed Comprehensive Exams! Hello, candidacy!

major highlight of the semester was passing my comprehensive exams (aka comps) and being admitted to candidacy. For my readers also in academia, you know how big of a moment this is. For my readers not in academia, comps are basically a big test halfway through your PhD to make sure you’re on track. If you convince your committee that you are smart and have a good, feasible plan forward to complete your degree – you pass! If not, you are either allowed to retake the exam or leave the program with a masters degree. What are the perks of being a PhD candidate instead of a PhD student? Well, I get to sign my emails “PhD candidate” now….

In all seriousness, being a candidate is recognition that my committee and I are in agreement that I am on track to complete my degree – and am expected to do so in the next couple of years. This signals to the rest of the world that I’ve completed a master’s degree worth of classes, have a solid research plan, and will be on the job market relatively soon.

Gave my first technical talk at a conference

I attended the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America (GSA) in October, and gave my first technical conference talk. I had presented posters before, but putting together a 12-minute talk on my research to present to an audience with a wide variety of backgrounds was something new and challenging. My usual strategy for presentations is to make very clear, easy to read notes that show up in presenter view with key points bolded – as long as I hit all the bold points I can move on to the next slide. I took this approach again, and as usual practiced the talk until I felt comfortable enough with the material that it felt more like a conversation than a script. I’m glad I didn’t skip the practicing step… imagine my face when I got up on stage to start my talk at GSA and saw that the powerpoint doesn’t show up in presenter mode – i.e. no notes! After that micro-heart-attack-moment, I continued on with my talk and honestly I think it was my best delivery to date. I’m looking forward to giving more conference talks next fall!

Targeted TA Training for Accessibility and Inclusion

As part of a geoscience education research project, Megan R.M. Brown (also a PhD candidate at CU Boulder) and I created and ran a training during the August “new TA orientation.” The purpose of the training was to provide guidance and resources for new TAs on issues regarding accessibility and inclusion in the classroom. The training consisted of a mini-lecture on some accessibility basics, then an hour or so of time for small groups to work through scenarios. For example, one of the scenarios described a situation where you are trying to teach a lab that involves taking measurements down in Boulder Creek. In the scenario, one of the students is making a lot of comments about being impaled by floating sticks, bitten by fish, etc and seems generally nervous. Some of the things groups thought about and discussed were: Why is the student so nervous? Can they swim? Are they afraid of water? Is it difficult for them to go in water because of an accessibility issue? How can you make sure the student still participates in the lab and learns while being sensitive to their apprehensions and ability level?

It was exciting to see how engaged all the new TAs were with the material, and I’m currently collecting data with Megan to determine how effective the training was. Did the TAs remember what they learned? Did the undergraduates notice a change in TA behavior or attitudes? Stay tuned to find out!

Wrote a choose-your-own-adventure short story for a final project….in a graduate level seminar on data assimilation

This accomplishment was certainly a fun one. After finishing comps, I still had a couple final projects to wrap up for my classes. One class, a grad seminar on the theory and application of data assimilation in terrestrial hydrology, had an open ended final project. We had to propose something earlier in the semester that we wanted to do, and I said “something along the lines of figuring out when and why you want to use data assimilation.” As I was working on the project before comps, I was doing a lot of literature review, making a lot of flow charts and bubble maps, and it was all useful but sort of dry. We had to present the project to the class and when I sat down after my comps was over to think about that presentation, the last thing I wanted was to stand up and give a boring, overly technical presentation about a flow chart. I was feeling happy, and creative, and maybe a little emboldened by passing comps – so instead of putting together a typical powerpoint presentation on my lit review, I turned my flowchart into a medieval fantasy choose-your-own-adventure story about Sir Dayta Simmilatio and his journey to conquer the wicked snow beast Swee.  My classmates and the professor (my advisor) seemed to really enjoy reading through it aloud in class. It got such a good reaction, that I decided to polish it, get it illustrated (by my super talented brother, Shepard Fairfax), and will be posting it on my website soon.

Click here for more information and a download link for The Tale of Sir Dayta Simmilatio!

Summer 2017 Highlights

It’s been a busy summer of research, outreach, and a whole lot of writing! Some of the highlights from the past few months are below:

Research mentoring two high schoolers through the CU Summer Science Discovery Program.

My two mentees spent the month of July shadowing me and working on both some of my research projects and a mini-project of their own. We used Google Earth to map beaver dams across the country in various arid regions, we went to field sites in Boulder County weekly to watch some beaver dams being rebuilt after blowing out in spring snowmelt, and the students did a whole lot of background reading on the basic hydrology of beaver dams. The program culminated in a scientific poster presentation. My students used Google Cardboard headsets and 360 degree photos they’d taken at the field sites to help connect their audience to the research they presented – show, don’t tell! The students in this program were some seriously smart kids.

NAGT Earth Educator Rendezvous in Albuquerque, NM

I attended my first geoscience education conference this summer – the Earth Educator Rendezvous, organized by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. Although I wasn’t presenting anything this year, it was an incredible learning experience. I participated in workshops on culture and place in geoscience, food and urban gardens, talking about controversial issues in a way that doesn’t just alienate people, and more. What stuck with me the most though, was how many other people there are out there who care so much about geoscience education.

Wrapping up the Nevada Beavers

For the first year of grad school, I spend a solid chunk of time figuring out what specific topic I actually wanted to study. I knew it would be ecohydrology, and I was 95% sure it would have to do with beavers, but beyond that there was a lot of trying out things and figuring out what did and didn’t work for me. During my second year, my advisor offered a class that opened my eyes to the capabilities of remote sensing on small spatial scales. It was like a switch flipped in my brain and I knew exactly what I would do my PhD work on – the water balance of beaver ponds. Particularly, evapotranspiration near the ponds. How were the ponds hydrologically linked to the surrounding riparian ecosystems? How did that relationship function in arid climates, during droughts, or when other water sources are scarce? I took off running head first into studying a network of beaver ponds in Nevada using remote sensing and modeling. And I’ve been working on it since! This summer, I finally got into the paper writing stage of the project – I have results, I’ve made conclusions, and I’m ready to share with the world. With any luck, the paper will be submitted for publication in the next month or so.


This is only a small sampling of the many cool things that were accomplished over the summer – if you want to know more feel free to drop me an email or shoot me a note via the contact page on this website!