August 25, 2009

SIUC wins NSF grant to train watershed scientists

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Rivers and watersheds are some of the most complex systems in nature and have enormous impact on human life, for good and ill.

A team of researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will use a major grant from the National Science Foundation to train the next generation of watershed scientists using an intensive, interdisciplinary approach.

The NSF recently awarded SIUC a $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant. The highly competitive grant will fund a six-year effort aimed at educating up to 20 leading watershed scientists while they earn their doctorates at SIUC.

Nicholas Pinter, professor of geology and principal investigator on the project, said the Watershed Science and Policy program also involves SIUC researchers from educational psychology, forestry, agricultural economics, microbiology, and fisheries. The team will work together to provide the doctoral students with a varied and diverse background on solving watershed and river basin issues.

“We are looking at training 18 to 20 national-caliber scientists,” Pinter said. “This doctorate fellowship program will train students as cutting-edge watershed scientists at SIUC, which is shaping itself as a center of excellence in this area of study.

“SIUC has wanted one of these IGERT grants for a long time and watersheds are an area of strength here at the University,” Pinter said. “Our faculty have been doing national and international work in this area for years and we thought this was our chance to land the grant. It was the right combination of people and the right timing…a very good fit.”

Plans call for three groups of students working as a team and conducting research toward earning their doctorate. Each group will work in a target river basin of key interest, including the Cache River, Atchafalaya River, Middle Mississippi River and the Tisza River in Europe. In addition to classes and seminars, students also will perform internships with various government agencies and other organizations and all will take at least one extended, two-week tour of a foreign country to observe watershed management practices there, Pinter said.

Watershed science is at a crucial crossroads, Pinter said, which means the skills these students develop will be very much in demand.

“Right now we’re butting up against some limits in terms of water supply and management issues, such as flooding,” Pinter said. “We envision our students becoming educators, policy makers, scientists and researchers in government agencies. They’re going to operate on the big stage.”

Along with Pinter, SIUC faculty members who are co-investigators on the project include Lizette Chevalier, professor of civil and environmental engineering; Christopher Lant, professor of geography and environmental resources; Matt Whiles, professor of zoology; and Sara Baer, associate professor of plant biology.

The University is recruiting students for the program this fall and plans to start the first group of students in June 2010. By the time they are finished, the students will be leaders in the field, studying floodplains, water resources, ecosystems, economics, public use and best management practices to protect and utilize these natural resources.

SIUC’s IGERT grant was one of just 20 NSF funded this year from a pool of 412 applicants.

“It’s very competitive,” Pinter said.

While the project will turn out top researchers, Pinter said the grant also provides an opportunity to showcase SIUC’s leadership in the field.

“We can use this to get a large number of the most-qualified candidates to look at SIUC,” Pinter said. “We’re going to advertise our name and show we are absolutely at the forefront of research in this area and that we can compete with the very best universities out there. It’s a major tool for promoting our University.”

Pinter said the University also received an additional $200,000 in international supplemental funds, which will help pay the cost of oversea studies by the students. He also praised the Office of Research Development Administration and Vice Chancellor for Research John A. Koropchak, as well as the deans of the colleges of science, engineering and liberal arts, for providing additional funds for research assistantships and other expenses.

“We are all very happy about this,” Pinter said. “This is a great infusion of funding and talent, and our students are going to have an amazing experience. They’ll be trained by some of the best minds in the business.”