Seven Princeton Students Receive Hack Graduate Awards

Joanna M. Foster ’08 for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Seven graduate students were selected to receive this year’s Mary and Randall Hack ’69 Graduate Award in support of their innovative research on water and water-related topics with implications for the environment. The 2016 recipients are Jennifer Guyton from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cynthia Gerlein-Safdi from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Darcy McRose from the Department of Geosciences, Kathryn Maxson Jones from the Department of History of Science, Maya Buchanan from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Ching-Yao Lai and Yuyang Fan from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Each year the Hack Award provides research funding to support Princeton graduate students in research from a wide range of disciplines, including climate science, biology, engineering, and environmental policy. The unifying factor is that each project must be focused on the common link of water-related topics with environmental implications.

Below, the recipients describe their research and how they plan to use the funding from this award.

Jennifer Guyton

Jennifer GuytonJennifer Guyton’s research interests will take her to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where a rich ecosystem recently decimated by protracted civil war is beginning to rebound. At the heart of this ecosystem is a vital floodplain, which under pressure from drought and changing herbivore populations is struggling to again support the great diversity of life for which it was once famous.

With support from the Hack Award, Guyton will spend year four of her Ph.D. in Gorongosa National Park to undertake vegetation surveys and herbivore dietary studies.

“My research will focus on three major questions,” said Guyton. “Why is the floodplain newly dominated by unpalatable plants? What effect is this having on large mammal restoration? And how will more frequent drought further affect the floodplain plant community?”

According to Guyton, wetlands are disappearing globally at an alarming rate, with up to 90 percent declines in the past 300 years. With progressively fewer intact ecosystems to preserve, restoration of degraded ecosystems is becoming an increasingly important tool for conservation.

“In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park we have the opportunity to restore a critical wetland to its historic state,” said Guyton.

Cynthia Gerlein-Safdi

Cynthia Gerlein-SafdiDew – for most of us it is a foggy windshield or a damp lawn in the morning, but for Cynthia Gerlein-Safdi, it is a vital clue in understanding the future of the planet’s climate.

Tropical forests, some of the most important carbon sinks in the world, are getting drier. As this happens, photosynthesis and in turn, carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake, is slowing down as plants favor water conservation over growth. In especially dry years, even the Amazon basin has turned into a significant net source of CO2 emissions.

“While dew has long been recognized as an important but poorly understood water resource for plants, it has proven difficult to get a handle on because canopy dew evaporates quickly and is far from traditional rainwater collection stations on the forest floor,” said Gerlein-Safdi.

Using data collected by the SeaWinds scatterometer aboard NASA’s QuikSCAT satellite — originally designed to measure ocean winds from space — Gerlein-Safdi will develop an innovative model to understand how the backscattering signal is affected by the presence of water on leaves. She will then be able to use this model to quantify dew amounts in tropical canopies and look back at the data record to see how canopy dew has changed spatially and over time.

“Once refined, my models can be used in conjunction with a stream of newly available data from other remote sensors to get an increasingly nuanced picture of the crucial water budget of the planet’s tropical forests,” said Gerlein-Safdi.

Darcy McRose

Darcy McRoseIron is a trace metal that is essential to marine primary production, supporting the vast web of life in the world’s oceans. Marine pathogens, however, also rely on iron, and so the element shapes both the fertility and toxicity of marine systems.

Darcy McRose’s research seeks to better understand the iron-scavenging molecules known as siderophores, which are used by a wide variety of microorganisms to obtain iron and also appear to play a key role in infection and the ability of pathogens such as marineVibrios to counter the immune defenses of their hosts.

“Siderophores have been studied for years, but there are still basic questions about their function,’ said McRose. “Why do bacteria synthesize multiple siderophores? Do different siderophores have different functions? How are these roles regulated at the biological level? “

Funded by the Hack Award, McRose will use mass spectrometry-based methods to identify and characterize siderophores from a variety of different bacteria in the lab and from field samples. She will also explore how certain factors affect the relative production of different siderophores to further clarify their function.

“Marine microbial life holds both benefits and threats for human populations,” said McRose. “Highly productive coastal waters are sources of economic, cultural, and recreational wealth. But these zones can also be sources of disease. Advances in our knowledge of siderophores will be important in battling waterborne infections in humans and marine life, as well as broader efforts to maintain healthy coastal waters.”

Kathryn Maxson Jones

Kathryn Maxson JonesAt the heart of Kathryn Maxson Jones’ doctoral research is the sweeping question: How has the ocean affected the study of life?

“Especially since the late-nineteenth century, biologists have spent quite a lot of time at the beach,” said Maxson Jones. “But it hasn’t just been for the view. Much of the history of biology, the study of life, is deeply tied to the sea.”

The first real institution of American biology, for instance, was the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, founded near Cape Cod in 1888. And just as Darwin’s theory of evolution was giving the ocean even deeper significance, the laboratory techniques in vogue at the time were often ideally suited for studying the unusual fauna of the coastline and sea.

Maxson Jones will focus on a handful of biologists, mostly from Britain and the United States, whose work spanned the twentieth century and, along with their prized sea creatures, made invaluable contributions to the modern field of neurobiology. She will also investigate the sea as a study site and document the new research directions initiated by WWII and the environmental movement.

With funding from the Hack Award, Maxson Jones will travel to the MIT Institute archives and the Special Collections of the University of California at San Diego, which house the archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She will study the abundance of unpublished papers held in these collections, including those of Francis Otto Schmitt, who founded the Neurosciences Research Program at MIT.

Maya Buchanan

Maya BuchananFuture sea level rise is a serious threat of uncertain magnitude, increasing over time. But despite all the unknowns, communities around the world are daily making decisions to respond to this very real, but complex and changing threat.

Wilson School Ph.D. candidate Maya Buchanan is going beyond a traditional engineering cost-benefit analysis to predict how communities will respond to this threat. Rather than assuming that residents are economically rational beings, Buchanan will work to create an agent-based model, which recognizes residents as dynamic agents whose decisions can interact with those of the government, the environment, and each other.

“This project investigates how different scenarios of sea level rise induced flooding and alternative adaptation strategies may affect households’ adaptation decisions — for example to relocate or rebuild after flood events — in Jamaica Bay, New York,” said Buchanan.

With the support of the Hack Award, Buchanan will conduct household interviews to gather data about the degree to which perception of climate change, flood risk tolerance, peer pressure, sense of place and community, and perceived effectiveness of a given strategy influence households’ relocation decisions.

“In addition to fieldwork support, I will use the Hack Award to participate in an agent-based modeling conference, and present my results at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting,” said Buchanan.

Ching-Yao Lai

Ching-Yao LaiUsing a block of gelatin that mimics the elastic and brittle properties of rock, Ching-Yao Lai will simulate hydraulic fracturing in the lab to explore strategies to reduce water use and contamination.

While hydraulic fracturing has dramatically changed the energy game by making available previously inaccessible fossil fuels, several environmental risks have arisen including stress on water supplies, contamination of drinking water due to the leakage of fracturing fluid inside underground reservoirs, and induced earthquakes from deep-well injection.

“I will be conducting experimental studies of an innovative waterless technique, foamed fracturing, which reduces the immense water usage and environmental harm of the injection process,” said Lai.

Lai will also study the flowback of wastewater to the surface and the physical mechanisms that trap fracturing fluid in underground reservoirs leading to contamination.

The Hack Award will support this research by funding the purchase of critical lab supplies and allowing Lai to travel to an international conference.

“The advantage of using the gelatin model in these experiments is that the transparency permits us to visualize the crack dynamics, allowing us to measure the proppants distribution, quantify the arrested fluid in the matrix, and observe a foamed fracture, none of which can be easily achieved with real shale,” said Lai.

Yuyang Fan

Yuyang FanYuyang Fan wants to change how researchers collect crucial data about water velocity and temperature in ecologically significant estuaries, rivers, and oceans around the world.

According to Fan, the current usefulness of available water velocity measurement methods such as location-transmitting floats or acoustic Doppler current profilers, is limited by their expense and inability to capture small-scale flow motion.

Fan will work on developing a nano-scale sensor for real-time water velocity and temperature monitoring that is highly scalable, with low energy consumption.

“The sensing element is a free-standing nano-scale platinum ribbon that is designed to passively deflect and deform in water flow,” said Fan. “Based on recent theories of the relation between flow velocity and the change in nano-scale ribbon resistance, the device will be able to accurately measure water velocity while limiting energy consumption, increasing the lifetime of the power source.”

The sensor will enable high-density deployment and data collection for water-based and marine research, as well as environmental monitoring for threats such as thermal pollution.

With the support of the Hack Award, Fan will optimize the design of the sensor and conduct both laboratory and field tests.

The funds will also enable Fan to present the sensor design, manufacturing techniques, and experimental results at conferences such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems and the American Physical Society Annual Meeting of the Division of Fluid Dynamics.