Preparing Students for Water-Energy Research

Earth Sciences

The Educational Model Program on Water-Energy Research serves as an interdisciplinary graduate-level training ground for scientists.

Collage of students and faculty conducting water-energy research

Robin Glas is a doctoral candidate in Earth sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences who conducts research in the glaciated Andes Mountains of Peru. She’s interested in what happens as the glaciers melt away due to climate change and how that affects the people who depend on the glacial melt water for municipal and agricultural use. Geoffrey Millard G’16 is a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science whose research includes examining the impact of acid and mercury deposition and climate change on aquatic ecosystems in the Adirondacks. Darci Pauser G’16 is a Ph.D. student in political science in the Maxwell School whose research focuses on countries along the Tigris-Euphrates and Jordan-Yarmouk river basins. She’s studying how policy makers in those countries negotiate and make decisions about managing the allocation and quality of water across transnational boundaries.

While their specific areas of study are diverse—as are the paths that led them to Syracuse University—they share a common status as graduate students who are invested in issues related to water and energy. All three are also participants in the Educational Model Program on Water-Energy Research (EMPOWER), an interdisciplinary professional development initiative for master’s and doctoral degree students focused on research at the interface of water and energy cycles. “EMPOWER is about integrating your research—the central component of your degree—with career preparedness and exploring an area of professional specialization that takes you beyond your field,” Glas says. “It gets you out of your department and out of your office and brings lots of other fascinating aspects of science to the forefront.”

EMPOWER trainees talking with professor Chris Scholz
EMPOWER trainees (from left) JR Slosson, Sam Caldwell, and Robin Glas with Earth sciences professor Chris Scholz. Photo by Steve Sartori.

The program’s purpose is to develop new approaches to graduate training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields that better prepare students for careers both within and outside higher education. “The goal is founded on the data that, most often, when people have a graduate degree in STEM, they don’t do research in an academic setting,” says EMPOWER director Laura Lautz G’05, Jessie Page Heroy Professor and Earth sciences department chair in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Even though, traditionally, when we are training Ph.D. students, we’re often thinking they’re going to become professors and do research, the reality is that most don’t end up in that kind of career. And so we are trying to augment these graduate programs to provide more training for the careers people actually do end up in: working in a research lab or doing research for a nonprofit, for example, or going into the energy industry, environmental consulting, or the government.”

Lautz offers several reasons for the program’s focus on the “water-energy nexus,” which describes the interrelationship between human needs for water and energy. “The water cycle and the energy cycle are explicitly intertwined, especially when it comes to fossil fuels,” she says, citing hydrofracking as one example of an energy production method that people have concerns about in terms of water quality and water management. “In that sense, it is a topic that requires people from different disciplines. And it is a natural field to bring students together from different programs who are addressing those issues from many perspectives.” Another reason Lautz notes is that issues related to water and energy are a national priority with broad implications for policy, health, and well-being. “It is also an area in which a lot of students are seeking graduate degrees,” she says, “but are planning to use those degrees to be competitive in sectors other than the professor path that might be more common in other disciplines.”

A Scientific Experiment

EMPOWER, which grew from the earlier work of the University’s Water Science and Engineering Initiative, got its official start in April 2015, when a team of SU faculty from several disciplines was awarded $3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant, part of the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program, provides EMPOWER fellows with a one-year, $32,000 stipend. It also underwrites such components of the NRT program as the development of field courses, a seed grant program, and an external advisory committee of nationally recognized professionals.

Laura Lautz speaks at a podium
Photo by Steve Sartori

One of only eight initial NRT programs in the country, EMPOWER is built around several core elements that combine broad training in management, policy, communication, and law with in-depth training in a self-designed focus area most applicable to students’ individual career objectives. Program offerings include a weekly Water-Energy Nexus Seminar and visiting lecture series, individually tailored career skills coursework at one or more of the University’s professional schools, science communication coursework at the Newhouse School, and an internship or other substantial career-related opportunity that allows students to integrate their research activities with a professional experience. “As an NSF-funded program, we’re essentially running our own kind of research experiment,” Lautz says. “The students are doing their research experiments, but in our experiment, the students are the subject. We’re figuring out how we can best meet their needs through testing new methods and assessing their impact on student outcomes. We’re trying things. We’re evaluating whether they’re successful. And then based on that experience, we know the best way to move forward.”

We are trying to augment these graduate programs to provide more training for the careers people actually do end up in: working in a research lab or doing research for a nonprofit, for example, or going into the energy industry, environmental consulting, or the government.

Laura Lautz G’05

For students like Glas, Millard, and Pauser, the experiment is yielding positive effects. They cite such benefits as improved technical and professional skills, increased awareness of the broader impacts of water-energy research, and a strong sense of community among their colleagues and faculty in the program. “It’s more than just a one-year fellowship—it’s being part of a community of people who are interested in the same issue area,” says Pauser, who holds a master’s degree in public administration with a specialization in environmental policy from the Maxwell School and is the first social scientist to participate in EMPOWER. “So I’m excited to see what the other fellows do with their research and in their lives and careers. It’s a research network, but also a social network. A job network, too. If we want to solve all these complex problems, forming these connections is incredibly important. We can all learn from each other.”

The program is also widening students’ perspectives of career opportunities. For Glas, completing a six-month internship with the U.S. Geological Survey—a federal agency whose scientists study the country’s landscape, natural resources, and natural hazards—offered a glimpse of a professional world that was completely new to her. “That was amazing,” says Glas, a former middle and high school Earth sciences teacher. “I actually got to see how a federal office works—what’s the pay scale like and how do you get in and what’s the dynamic between the scientists and the technical people? So I learned all those ins and outs of the workings of a government office.”

Millard echoes her appreciation for the broader possibilities made evident through EMPOWER. “When I started, I very much felt like I wanted to work at a smaller, liberal arts university as a professor, and I do still think that I would be good at that job and enjoy it,” says Millard, who holds a master’s degree in environmental engineering science from the College of Engineering and Computer Science (E&CS) and a certificate of advanced study in sustainable enterprise from the Whitman School of Management. “But now I know that I would also be good at a variety of other things that would provide a continual challenge and help me grow professionally. I’ve learned a lot about what some of the other options are after I have a Ph.D. and I’m looking for work. Previous to going through the EMPOWER program, I don’t know if I would have the skill set, the confidence, or the knowledge of all the University resources that are available.”

Positioned for Success

EMPOWER’s first group of trainees began in fall 2016, followed by a second in fall 2017. To date, the program has served 30 students—three who graduated last year and 27 current participants—among them students pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees in chemistry, Earth sciences, civil and environmental engineering, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and political science.

The program’s leadership team is equally diverse. In addition to Lautz, faculty leaders include Charles Driscoll, University Professor of Environmental Systems and a Distinguished Professor in E&CS; civil and environmental engineering professor Chris Johnson; Earth sciences professors Christopher Junium and Christopher Scholz; chemistry professor Tara Kahan; Newhouse professors Donald Torrance and Erica Goode; Peter Wilcoxen, public administration and international affairs professor in the Maxwell School; and Donald Siegel, Earth sciences professor emeritus.

Students in life jackets and hard hats looking over the side of a boat on Lake Kivu
This summer, EMPOWER students have the opportunity to participate in a field course at Lake Kivu in Rwanda, site of the only gas/water extraction project operating in the world. Photo courtesy of EMPOWER.

According to Driscoll, who is a leading advocate of scientific and technological literacy, the interdisciplinary training students gain through EMPOWER will position them for success in multiple fields and allow them to better analyze, interpret, and present their research findings in a context that will be useful to energy and water managers and the environmental community. The program’s commitment to an interdisciplinary approach also enhances the University’s capacity to become a national leader in graduate-level STEM education, he says. And in terms of the immediate benefits for graduate students, he already sees the program as a successful one. “Students have gotten together and worked closely with one another,” Driscoll says. “There’s a lot of interaction among different departments that I think students really like. And they’ve got a lot of new colleagues and friends and are learning from those interactions as well.”

Kristina Gutchess takes a water sample from a stream
Photo courtesy of EMPOWER

Wilcoxen also points to EMPOWER’s strength as an interdisciplinary training ground for scientists. “One of the reasons I feel strongly about why this work is important is that in my career I’ve spent a lot of time working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And the EPA is a place where this tension between what can be done in the policy world and what the scientific evidence shows is really acute,” says Wilcoxen, also director of the Maxwell School’s Center for Environmental Policy and Administration. “The EPA is mandated to be driven by science, but it is constrained very tightly by what can actually be accomplished legally, under the rules it has to obey, and what can be done economically. And so there is a huge need for people who can cross that divide.”

Earth sciences Ph.D. candidate Kristina Gutchess, who was drawn to EMPOWER for the opportunity to take greater ownership of her graduate training, speaks to the merits of the program’s cross-disciplinary nature from a student’s perspective. “EMPOWER has introduced me to an array of different individuals I can collaborate with outside of the Earth sciences department,” says Gutchess, whose research explores how water and pollutants move through the environment and the ways that process affects the quality of drinking water. “I regularly interact with students from chemistry, from civil and environmental engineering, as well as faculty and staff from other departments. That’s really nice—to meet other people and talk to them about their perspectives. It also gives me exposure to seminars and conferences that students in other departments are going to that may interest me. And it has helped diversify my research interests and increased my professional network.”

Stepping Forward Together

One key way EMPOWER trainees come together is the Water-Energy Nexus Seminar, a one-credit foundational seminar offered every semester. Held weekly in the EMPOWER Collaborative Suite in the Heroy Geology Building, the seminar regularly features guest speakers who are scientists working in fields outside of academia. Those visits become part of the foundation from which students design the specifics of their individual pathway through the program. “We had someone come who works for the National Park Service, for example, and someone who works for Exxon Mobil,” Lautz says. “So students are engaging with Ph.D. scientists in different career sectors, and they’re getting an idea of what they can do with their degree. And they’re getting that from day one.”

Students laughing together in a classroom
Students get acquainted with the other program and each other at a 2017 EMPOWER orientation event. Photo by Steve Sartori.

The seminar also provides opportunities to understand aspects of academic careers that traditional graduate programs may not cover, including participation in a mock panel reviewing actual NSF funding proposals. Additionally, it allows trainees to team up and lead sessions for one another—a highlight for many students. “There are usually three or four students leading a discussion on a couple of papers that a visiting speaker is going to be presenting on,” Millard says. “So there’s an idea of some of the jargon that’s in those papers, and you go through activities so you’re familiar with the material. Sometimes the paper is really intense groundwater modeling, sometimes it is really intense biogeochemistry. But you get so much more out of the speaker’s visit than if you were just going to their presentation. The seminar lets you lean on other students for expertise you don’t necessarily have. And everybody takes a step forward together.”

Other high points for EMPOWER trainees include the program’s science communications coursework; workshops on such topics as networking and social media, data management, and negotiating a salary; peer mentoring opportunities; and the summer field excursion, which was held regionally last year and this summer will involve travel to Lake Kivu in Rwanda.

For Lautz, one of the biggest highlights has been the students themselves. “This is something I’m really passionate about—working with and mentoring graduate students, helping them get through their graduate program, have a positive experience, and get where they want to go professionally,” says Lautz, who hopes to share what the EMPOWER team is learning with other departments across the University. “So it is very satisfying to engage with students in all these disciplines who are working on all these interesting topics—to learn about what they want to do and figure out how we can better serve their needs. They are fascinating people with interesting curiosity. They’re research scientists who have energy and passion. What better group to work with? For me, that’s been the most rewarding thing.”

Amy Speach

This story was published on . It also appeared as “​​Empowered” in the Spring 2018 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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