Presidential Doctoral Fellows Explore Water Issues, 3D Technologies

Tyler King Utah State University

Tyler King

It’s mid-summer in the North Slope of Alaska. The sun hangs low on the horizon, seemingly always shining, but never beating down enough to melt they permafrost and frozen bed of the Kuparuk River. This is where Presidential Doctorate Research Fellow Tyler King makes his home in the summer, studying the dynamics of the energy balance between river temperature, its surroundings and climate change.

“There’s no down time,” King said. “In the field you are working 6 days a week, twelve to eighteen hours a day. It’s nonstop. Because the sun doesn’t don’t feel tired so you keep on working.”

Now back analyzing data at the USU Water Research Laboratory, downstream from the first dam of the Logan River, King says that there is even more to do in analyzing his data. He and the team he is working with are thoroughly engrossed in questions about water temperature: What are the pathways of energy entering and leaving the river? How does the river gain heat from the air and sunlight? How much heat does it in turn transfer to the surrounding environment?

“We’re there in the field every day measuring water discharge, temperature and depth,” King said. “The ultimate goal is to be able to predict river temperature in the future given different climate conditions.”

King said the Alaskan river environment is unique because even through out the summer, the riverbed itself is frozen, so a lot of heat is lost from the water into the ground. He said with changing climates that frozen ground may not be there in the future. This has implications for aquatic habitats, fish migration pattern, carbon cycling and more.

King understands, though, that while the river is intricate part of landscape, temperature is just one aspect.

“The river itself is not only a transport mechanism, but a laboratory of reactions. The conditions in that laboratory dictate what happen, and river temperature is one of the conditions within that laboratory. We collaborate with many other researchers to help understand the entirety of this critical piece of our environment.”

King said the through the PDRF program, professors and mentors have given him tremendous opportunities and trust to explore and conduct research. He said he feels fortunate to have been involved in a well-defined project that hasn’t overwhelmed him, but given him freedom.

“Once you meet the objectives of the original research project, the world is your oyster,” King said. “There’s no limit to what you can learn and research.”

Ryan Cain

Walking into Ryan Cain’s workspace at the Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences department, you may feel like you’ve wandered onto the Island of Misfit Toys: mini robots with swinging arms, etched with an Aggie “A.” A monster, sewn with stainless steel wire that sings when you squeeze it. Baseball caps embedded with Christmas lights that use GPS to light up uniquely based on location.

What may seem like mere entertainment may actually be a key to engaging elementary students in engineering, science and math, Cain says.
Cain is a PDRF and graduate student teacher researching how to support teachers by integrating 3D printing into the classroom as a teaching tool. Though a relatively new technology, Cain says 3D printing helps students gain hands-on experience with design by developing spatial skills that they might not have otherwise.

“If we can help students learn to go back and forth from the virtual space to the actual 3D space, we can really help them learn critical problem-solving skills,” Cain said. “My goal isn’t to have every kid come up with this invention and become a millionaire. They just need to know what’s possible, that this is a tool they can be creative with, that they can experience success with.”

The several MakerBot printers that Cain owns heat thin plastic until they melt and can “draw” objects layer by layer. Open sources designs and free design software allow anyone with access to a computer to create a variety of objects such as puzzles, protective cases, replacement pieces for appliances, and more.

A former elementary school teacher in New York, Cain used the printers in his classroom to enhance geography lessons. Finding that his students weren’t particularly interested in learning about how erosion affects the environment, he had them design mini houses that would be placed in sand on an erosion table while water was run through it.

“They didn’t really care at first; there was no interest for them,” Cain said. “But once they had their houses—that they had designed—they were invested because they didn’t want to see them washed down the river.”

It’s this type of engagement that gets Cain the most excited about the possibilities of utilizing this technology in the classroom.

“It’s that sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to say, ‘I had this idea, and then I made it,’” Cain said. “They need to learn how to have fun with these concepts in school so they can have an idea of where a career could take them, so they will stick out that hard math class.”

Ryan Caine Utah State University
Beth Ogata Utah State University

Beth Ogata

Biology and ecology PDRF Beth Ogata said she was initially drawn to USU to work with faculty adviser Michelle Baker, because of the exciting opportunity to be part of an interdisciplinary group of researchers focused on water sources.

Specifically, Ogata’s research involves studying stream nutrient dynamics along an urbanization gradient. Ogata tests whether nitrogen and phosphorous limit algal growth, as well as if urbanization alleviates nutrient limitation of stream biofilms.

“I am interested in algal nutrient uptake response to elevated nutrient concentrations, and would like to assess how nutrient saturation points may differ between mountain and urban biofilms,” she said.

Currently, her work is focused on the Logan River and involves deploying nutrient diffusing substrates in the river to assess the nutrient limitation status of biofilms in mountain and urban environments. She is also working on a stream mesocosm experiment this summer.

Originally a native of Winnetka, Illinois, Ogata completed her undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Despite experiencing a “climate shock” upon first coming out west to Utah, she immediately fell in love with the mountains and surrounding areas.

“I knew I wanted to spend my time here,” she said. “I really like the desert in southern Utah and contrasting mountains here. I like biking and just going on dirt roads and exploring, so it’s a good fit for me.”

Through the PDRF program, Ogata has been able to collaborate with many people within her field of discipline.

“I have really enjoyed meeting and working with other researchers who are also interested and passionate about water and nutrients,” Ogata said.

Her fieldwork has allowed her to travel throughout Utah on an array of projects, and has been one of the best parts about her research, she said. Ogata has waded in streams and explored the different areas rivers flow through, canoed the Jordan River with a lab mate, worked with iUtah (a NSF EPSCOoR project), conducted research in Moab, collected nutrient samples on the Great Salt Lake and even participated in a banding project with some feisty pelicans.

Ogata said she hopes the research she’s involved with will eventually make an impact on others in the future.

“Water is such an important resource,” she said. “I hope that the good scientific knowledge we learn can help resource managers better improve the water sustainability and make informed scientific decisions through water quality.”