Hot Planet Research

Nevada students play prominent role in the science of climate change

9/8/2009 - By: John Trent

Students in the lab

The equation is indisputable: climate change + global warming = increasing scarcity of water. And for an arid state like Nevada, the equation has taken on a warp-speed kind of significance, with researchers from the state’s institutions of higher education partnering throughout multiple scientific disciplines to find the best solutions to the problem of climate change.

University of Nevada, Reno civil engineering student Kerri Hickenbottom is just one example of how student researchers have also been mobilized through a ground-breaking statewide climate change initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) EPSCoR program.

Hickenbottom is one of 16 students from Nevada System of Higher Education institutions who were awarded scholarships this summer to conduct research as part of the State of Nevada’s EPSCoR Climate Change Program. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity solicitation targeted students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and journalism with a focus on teaching or communicating K-12 science or technology.

Of the 16 students selected, 11, like Hickenbottom, were students from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Hickenbottom, working with mentor Amy Childress, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has conducted a study of three different membrane bioreactor configurations. She says the membrane bioreactors (MBR’s) could prove to be a viable alternative to achieve sustainability in wastewater treatment.

“The research aims to investigate the performance differences of aerobic MBR’s, anaerobic MBC’s, and attached growth aerobic MBR’s under the same operating conditions,” says Hickenbottom, who plans to graduate in spring 2010 and then continue her studies as a graduate student in environmental engineering.

Here are brief sketches of the other research projects conducted by the University’s undergraduate students:

Lina Castano, biochemistry and molecular molecular biology: Castano and her mentor, John Cushman, professor of biochemistry, have studied desiccation tolerance, a rare adaptive response of plants that allows them to survive extreme drought conditions. “This kind of survival mechanism is present in ‘resurrection’ plants, and it can be better understood by studying it using several scientific approaches including genomics, metabolomics and proteomics,” she says.

David Culverson, environmental studies: Working with two mentors, Scott Mensing, professor of geography at the University and Bronwen Haugland, physical sciences professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, Culverson is updating data from four climatological divisions of Nevada, in an effort to make “Nevada’s Weather and Climate Handbook” more readily available to the public and other researchers.

Nichole Joslyn, biochemistry and molecular biology: Joslyn, working with mentor Sean Casey, associate professor of chemistry, is exploring the chemical control of organic/inorganic semiconductor interfaces. The results will address the role of the linking group on the overall molecular orientation and interface electronics. These are areas that are important for improvement of inorganic/organic hybrid semiconductor materials.

University studentsSamantha Kertson, chemical engineering: Working with Charles Coronella, associate professor of chemical and metallurgical engineering, Kertson’s research objective is to evaluate efficiency when extracting fatty acids from specific strains of algae located in neighboring areas. “Since fatty acids can be directly converted into renewable energy, it is expected that the outcome of this research will enable a more efficient means for the production of more carbon-neutral biofuels,” she says.

Kira Lay, electrical engineering: Lay’s proposal addresses the benefits and challenges of integrating renewable energy-based power generation into the Nevada power grid, emphasizing and demonstrating the need for in-depth analysis of the impacts of wind, solar and geothermal-based power generation on a sample system. Her mentor is Cansin Yaman Evrenosoglu, assistant professor of electrical and biomedical engineering.

Kimberly Rafter, civil engineering: Rafter’s proposed study investigates the possibility of using secondary-treated wastewater to culture algae for the development of a new renewable energy source. “There are numerous benefits of using algae, including its potential to produce high concentrations of biomass that can be used for biofuel,” says Rafter, whose mentor is Eric Marchand, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Sean Ross, chemistry: Ross, working with mentor Robert Sheridan, professor of chemistry, is looking at several internal and external effects related to fuel emissions. “We will study the reactivity of carbenes possibly formed upon combustion of hydrocarbons,” Ross says. Ross is also studying the reactivity of carbenes with oxygen to form carbonyl oxides, which are intermediate species of hydrocarbons with ozone, as well as the carbenes themselves.

John Stefka, biology and wildlife ecology: Stefka is using point count surveys from about 50 sites to gather information on the species of birds in the Truckee River vicinity. “After identifying which birds can adapt to novel habitats, an assessment of the relative abundance and species richness of the various avian species will be used as a measure of community response to habitat change,” says Stefka, who is working with mentor Scott Bassett, assistant professor of geography. By studying the adaptive responses of these birds to urbanization, the study will infer the possible adaptive response of the species to climate change.

Alicia Stillwell, mathematics: Stillwell, working with Mark Pinsky professor of mathematics and statistics, is focusing on the design and testing of alternative feedback controlled estimators and forecasters for some simplified models of meteorological systems. Stillwell says that complex systems arising in different application domains accumulate various uncertainties that decrease the accuracy of numerical forecast. “Consequently,” she says, “present meteorology research has adopted various approaches integrating observations and numerical simulations to enhance the precision of numerical simulations of partly uncertain systems.”

Robert Vaughn, environmental engineering: Vaughn’s research is focused on improving methods for water reuse. He says one of the most significant obstacles in water reuse is the presence of persistent organic contaminants. He is working to remove one class of contaminant, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCP’s). “We need to improve the degradation of PPCP’s in recycled water,” says Vaughn, whose mentor is Edward Kolodziej, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Using soil columns to simulate a recycled water system, PPCP’s will be injected into the soil columns and their levels will be measured as they travel through the columns.”


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