May 19, 2010

Program to train watershed scientists set to begin

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- The first students who will take part in a prestigious new doctoral program that will train up-and-coming watershed scientists at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are a diverse group with strong academic backgrounds and professional experience, organizers say.

The team of incoming students will work together beginning this summer within the University’s $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant, funded by the National Science Foundation. 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.

The IGERT program at SIUC -- one of just 20 funded by NSF last year from a pool of more than 400 applicants -- will reach across disciplines to give students a variety of experiences and opportunities. The program potentially will involve researchers from geology, engineering, educational psychology, forestry, agricultural economics, microbiology, and fisheries, among others.

Lizette R. Chevalier, professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the first group of students will bring an exciting mix of abilities and backgrounds to their initial task, which involves studying the Cache River basin.

“We wanted to see that the students of this first cadre were strong academically but also wanted diversity in the disciplines. That was really important,” Chevalier said. “We are bringing this group together and allowing them to be very creative to be very independent.”

In exploring the Cache River basin, the students will work with various stakeholders including researchers, state employees and policy makers. They likely will culminate this first project by planning a symposium on the river and their work there.

“Our goal is that by exploring and meeting with the wide diversity of people and organizations that are committed to understanding this unique watershed, they will also come to understand the river,” Chevalier said.

Chevalier said the IGERT approach to doctoral students, while demanding and anchored in scientific rigor, is more flexible than the traditional approach. The students, immersed in a multi-disciplined team, will be able to define their research projects and collaborations in a real-world environment.

“Students like these should be capable of sitting down and getting to know the folks and issues and see how that ties into their long-term academic goals,” she said. “We’re hoping they are flexible in understanding all the possibilities for the doctorate-level research because of this interdisciplinary team. It’s not business as usual.”

The students are the first of three six-member teams who will use the SIUC IGERT fellowship. Each cadre of students will study watersheds in the United States as well as internationally, in Panama and Europe, as they work toward their doctoral degrees. They also will focus a large amount of attention on the Middle Mississippi River watershed.

The students will largely guide the research.

“I want to see how these kids do, where they take it,” Chevalier said. “We’re training researchers.”

Each student is required to take three courses: one in watershed policy, one in watershed science and a colloquium. The rest of the time students will focus on completing their doctorates in specific fields chosen by them.

The first cadre of students includes:

• Nicolas E. Sarkany

Sarkany earned his Bachelor of Science degree in civil and environmental engineering at SIUC, focusing on environmental engineering, and is completing his Master of Science degree here as well. As an IGERT fellow, he hopes to study water quality, containment transport and complex systems. His goal is to become an environmental consultant helping protect the environment.

“He’s already done some pretty amazing stuff and sees this as an opportunity to interact with a truly diverse group,” Chevalier said.

•Alicia Claire Lloyd

Lloyd is interested in local watershed policy, green growth and development and the economic efficiencies of alternative energy sources. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science at Illinois State University and a Master of Arts in political science at SIUC. She would like to work in the field of policy compliance and has helped develop green policy by conducting research of a local planning and development office.

“She is looking to put policy and science together and it’s just amazing what she’s done so far while completing her degree here,” Chevalier said.

•Timothy Stoebner

Stoebner is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the geography department at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where he is finishing his Master of Arts in geography. He earned his Bachelor or Arts in geography at South Dakota State University. His interests include geographic information systems and remote sensing for wetlands and watershed research and land use as it pertains to water resources. He also has private sector experience, working for Garman International.

“He is what we call a GIS jockey,” Chevalier joked. “He is getting his master’s in geography and has won many awards. He’s bringing a lot to the table.”

• Amanda Nelson

Nelson is a research assistant at North Carolina State University who earned her Master of Science degree in water science at Murray State University after earning a Bachelor of Arts in environmental science at Tusculum College in Greenville, Tenn. She worked for a county conservation district in Illinois and for the state of Kentucky’s Division of Water. She has two years of doctorate-level work in entomology. She hopes to combine GIS and bioassessment data to improve watershed management planning.

“She’s coming with this broad, interesting background, probably more on the biology side but wanting to move into the policy and science side,” Chevalier said. “Very highly talented.”

• Kristen Pitts

Pitts earned her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, conducting independent research during that time. She earned her Master of Science in biology at Kansas State University, working with GIS-based landscape-scale threat assessment for fish in the lower Colorado River Basin. She later worked for American Rivers, a non-profit organization researching climate change adaptation strategies of various communities. She is currently a GIS specialist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

“Kristen is just impressive, with lot of professional experience, GIS, science, fisheries and biology,” Chevalier said. “She’s coming in really strong.”

• Kim Erndt

Erndt is a doctoral student at SIUC with research interests in aquatic ecology and how land-use and management practices affect it. She earned her Master of Science degree in aquatic toxicology at the University of Missouri Central. She worked six years as an aquatic ecologist for Prairie Rivers Network, a non-profit organization, where she served as watershed organizer doing community outreach, education and planning. She also served as interim executive director and as a river restoration and habitat conservation specialist for the organization.

“Kim is one of our students, a homegrown with excellent credentials in terms of what she’s worked on,” Chevalier said. “We’re doing well to recruit someone like her.”

Chevalier, one of the co-investigators on the grant who is temporarily filling in for geology Professor Nicholas Pinter, the principal investigator, said the IGERT will open up many doors for the students while also raising SIUC’s profile.

“There are so many career paths involved with watershed and policy research,” she said. “An IGERT is recognized nationally as a mark of excellence in grad education. Having this fellowship means we have the potential of drawing in students who want to be part of something bigger.”