Student continues groundbreaking work in hydrology

11/2/2010 - By: Krystal Pyatt

University of Nevada, Reno student Jazmin Aravena was awarded the Outstanding Student Paper Award at last year’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) for her groundbreaking work in hydrology. She will compete again at this year’s meeting, Dec. 13-17 in San Francisco, Calif., with another step in her innovative project.

In general, the project uses non-invasive radiography to directly quantify potential transport and storage of water, nutrients and contaminants in the soil surrounding the roots of plants.

“I'm excited about December,” said Aravena, a doctoral student in environmental engineering, “We have cool results from our research that we are going to present at the AGU conference this year.”

The AGU is the most prestigious and largest academic earth science professional society in the world. Out of a meeting of almost 15,000 researchers, University of Nevada students received national recognition recently announced in the society’s weekly science magazine, Eos, for 2009 and there are high hopes again for this year.

“We are trying to better identify the poorly understood physical processes that occur near the root,” Aravena said. “These processes will affect water and solute transport within this soil zone. A better understanding of those can have impacts in environmental sciences such as phytoremediation, carbon sequestration in soils, nutrient cycling and gas exchange between soil and atmosphere.”

Phytoremediation is a treatment of environmental problems through the use of plants that mitigate the environmental problem without the need to excavate the contaminant material and dispose of it elsewhere.

Working with Professor Scott Tyler in 2009, Aravena presented her work entitled “The effect of aggregate compaction in soil hydraulic properties,” and it received the Outstanding Student Paper Award from the Hydrology Section. Aravena’s work made use of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source to make, for the first time, ultra high resolution CT scans of actively growing roots.

This year, her work is entitled “Rhizosphere compaction: modeling a bed of multiple aggregates using x-ray micro-tomography information.” With December right around the corner, she still has to run simulations and analyze results.

“The weeks before the conference are going to be very busy,” Aravena said. “The AGU conference is great because I can talk with so many people in the field and from outside my comfort zone. We can share experiences and ideas. It is a very dynamic meeting that I look forward too, even with all the work.”

Aravena plans to graduate with a doctorate in environmental engineering in December 2011.

“Learning here is different from learning in Chile,” Aravena said. “I have had access to great equipment and techniques that are necessary for my research.”

Both of Aravena’s research projects were funded by NSF.

Ellen Webb, a third-year medical student at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, also received a 2009 award from the Nonlinear Geophysics Section of the AGU for her work entitled: “Tokunaga Trees: why do they emerge everywhere?”

The work was done as a part of Webb’s Honors Program undergraduate thesis completed with Professor Ilya Zaliapin in the University of Nevada’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics. The research focused on a special type of fractal branching structures, such as trees that have shown similar structures in botanical trees to river basins to blood systems to interaction of gas molecules.

Webb is currently enrolled in medical school and after graduation in spring 2012, she plans to move on to a residency program.

For more information about the AGU fall meeting, go to agu.org.


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