2012 Research Magazine

Three Promising Scholars Receive CAREER Awards

By John Gagnon

Every year, the National Science Foundation bestows Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards on junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of the two. Three assistant professors at Michigan Tech earned CAREER Awards this year.

Forcasting flood risk

It is the nature of rivers to on occasion overflow their banks. Veronica Griffis wants to determine the future likelihood of a flood. People have been trying to do it for ages, with limited success.

“We need to develop new methods to predict the magnitude of flows we expect to see in the future, so we can design our infrastructure accordingly,” she said.

Conventional procedures assume that the chances of a flood occurring in a given year are essentially unchanged over time. However, changes in the watershed from human activity or climate change complicate matters. Pavement, for example, translates to heavy runoff and higher flows in rivers. In contrast, forests and grasslands absorb water and decrease flows. The landscape, then, can be either a sluice or a sponge. Griffis, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, pores over maps that identify land use and compares the watershed from year to year to see how it changes.

She also looks at other factors that affect flood magnitude: precipitation, temperature, and global climate patterns, examining data collected by the US Geological Survey and NOAA, as well as academic researchers. Her goal is to develop a statistical framework that accounts for variations in climate and land use and ultimately to project flood risk twenty to fifty years or more into the future.

She focuses on the northeastern quadrant of the US, extending as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as Virginia. Going back sixty-five years and more, she is studying 450 sites that are considered unimpaired by human activities and regulation, and an additional 300 sites that are deemed impaired.

Griffis has always been interested in the influence of humans on hydrology, whether surface or groundwater. She expects to find that the more complicated the influences, the more telltale the results, and the more certain the predictions.

All of the data will be used to inform the design of infrastructure, such as bridges, dams, and culverts. Without the proper model, “The structures that we build today are not going to be adequate in the future,” she says. “This is rewarding work because it will ultimately make a difference.”

Those who can, teach

It is said we should “gladly learn and gladly teach.” Shari Stockero does both. “I’m not just doing my research,” she says. “I’m also teaching my students to be better teachers.”

Stockero, who holds a dual appointment in the Departments of Mathematical Sciences and Cognitive and Learning Sciences, combines her passions for mathematics and teaching to train novice math teachers. With students in Michigan Tech’s teacher education program, she is videotaping public school teachers in the classroom and analyzing their instruction. Her aim is to identify those teachable moments that might help her students become better math teachers themselves. In particular, they catch instructors in the act of being “grounded in student thinking”—whether that be responding to a salient question or seizing an opportunity to make an important point.

“In our teacher education program, our students won’t see every situation that will come up in the classroom, but hopefully this will help them recognize those key moments that they can later use,” Stockero says. “I wish there was a magical way to get people to go out and be accomplished teachers right away, but it’s a complicated learning process.”

Eventually, Stockero will also use those videos to help public school teachers refine their talents. And, she will follow her student teachers into the classroom to assess how much they learned from their work in her project.

“It’s exciting,” she adds. “I push them. There’s a lot to being an effective teacher. You not only have to know the math, you have to work with kids. You have to be able to figure out what they understand and don’t understand and how it all fits together. There are so many pieces to the puzzle.”

Omens of eruption

Greg Waite works in a world where the miniscule looms large.

Waite, an assistant professor of geological and mining engineering and sciences, monitors unusual movements of the earth associated with active volcanoes. These are not earth-shattering events where the ground heaves and cracks. Rather, they are centered in the conduit of a volcano and are what scientists refer to as volcanic earthquakes.

These tremors are not hazardous; the ones Waite measures cannot even be detected without sensitive instruments at close range. But these mini-movements can be harbingers of bigger eruptions to come. “They tell us about conditions in the conduit,” Waite says.

Besides using seismographs, Waite uses ultraviolet imaging and low-frequency sound (infrasound) to record how much and how fast gases are released into the atmosphere, as well as the tilting caused by gas or magma pressing against the walls of the conduit. Ultimately, he aims to better predict a major eruption that might threaten humankind. “For the first time, we are quantifying the relationship between these small earthquakes and gas emissions,” Waite says.

He is working on the Fuego (Fire) Volcano, in Guatemala, which has small eruptions every hour, spewing out magma and gas in stops and starts. “Gas gets blocked up, pressurizes, and inflates. The pressure reaches some threshold, and, boom! You have an explosion. What we’re seeing is that volcanoes start to inflate maybe five to ten minutes before each explosion. There are lulls, but the eruptions are fairly dependable. So we’re trying to use all these tools to study that phenomenon—what causes the explosion and how often these small earthquakes are associated with every explosion, even little puffs.”

He wants to thoroughly understand Fuego and then develop a computer model he can apply to other volcanoes. “Maybe we’ll be able to say, ‘There’s probably one coming.’ The better we understand those wiggles in the seismograph, the better we can make those kinds of predictions.”