Faculty Research Projects

Reconstructing past climatic impacts on hydrologic and soil systems

To formulate rational environmental policies for the future we must understand the past. Linking conditions in modern and ancient systems allows us to assess future and paleoenvironmental responses to climate.

Jay Banner’s laboratory explores: (1) the application of modern hydrologic, geologic and soil conditions, determined by monitoring, to Pleistocene and Holocene mineral deposits in caves (speleothems; Pape et al. 2010); and (2) the impacts of urbanization on streamwater quality through novel tracers (Christian et al., 2011). Speleothems can be precisely dated and incorporate tracers that preserve decadal to millennial-scale records of water quality and quantity (Banner et al., 2007). REU researchers can investigate: (1) the physical and chemical parameters of cave hydrology and meteorology and how speleothems reflect past climate, or (2) the natural and anthropogenic sources of dissolved ions to streams. They will learn methods for low-contamination field and clean-room sampling and mass spectrometer analysis of water, soil, and rock. Speleothem studies in Texas afford a regional analysis of paleorainfall across abrupt climate change events during the late Pleistocene, in a region of particular climate sensitivity (Feng et al., 2014a). Studies on Guam can help define paleorainfall and present aquifer conditions near a growing U.S. military base on a water-limited (although not arid) Pacific island.

Nate Miller applies the tools of analytical chemistry, petrography, and field geology to understand Earth System evolution in marine and terrestrial settings. He will mentor an REU student interested in applying or refining geochemical proxies to understand aspects of paleoclimate. Prospective research topics include: (1) using chemical signatures of pre-glacial marine carbonates to investigate the origin of Cryogenian Snowball Earth; (2) testing carbonate elemental signatures of benthic and planktonic foraminifera as proxies of Miocene climate change; (3) and using high spatial resolution chemical mapping (LA-ICP-MS) to understand growth variations in biominerals and speleothems.

Climate Change Impacts on Ecosystems, Hydrologic Systems & Public Health

Earth’s biological systems are changing in response to shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns and amounts. REU researchers will study the ecological interplay of symbionts, natural and invasive species, and fire with changes or gradients in climate.

Joshua Apte’s research group focuses on the intersection of cities, air quality, human health, and climate change mitigation. REU students will be mentored on one of several projects that explore the relationship between urban form, energy, and human air pollution exposures. Current research projects in the Apte group include high-resolution mapping of urban air quality using low-cost sensors and highly instrumented vehicles, interpretation of satellite remote sensing datasets on regional air quality, and field-based investigations of the relationship between urban form and human air pollution exposures.

Norma Fowler’s research group studies the effects of wildfire on plants and plant communities. As the climate of the Western US warms, plant transpiration rates will rise, which by itself will increase drought stress and lower plant moisture content. It is now thought likely that annual rainfall will decrease in this region. Both warming and precipitation decreases will increase the likelihood and intensity of wildfire. REU students may participate in one or both of these projects: (1)  A study of prescribed fire to control an invasive grass, King Ranch bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum) and reduce the danger of wildfires. (2) A study of the effects of fire on plant communities, especially on the wildflower species that provide nectar and pollen for insect pollinators. The second project is part of a collaboration with Dr. Jha’s lab; Dr. Jha and her students and postdocs are experts on pollinators, especially bees, and we work on the ‘plant side’ of the collaboration.

Rob Plowes at Brackenridge Field Laboratory (BFL) mentors students either working in the Invasive Species Research Program or on climate related ecological studies at the field station. The Invasive Species lab researches the causes and consequences of biological invasions, and tests opportunities for biological control of pest species applicable to the arid western and southern parts of Texas where climate plays a limiting role in species distributions. In other studies at the BFL field station, we follow several biological systems across time to determine relationships with weather patterns and environmental gradients. We also have two DroughtNet installations, part of a global group that studies vegetation responses to climate change.

Energy-water nexus and infrastructure adaptations

Climate change and increasing demand combine to exert pressure on hydrologic systems, many of which are already regulated for human needs such as drinking water supply, agriculture, energy production and energy use.

Mary Jo Kirisits’s research group will mentor REU students in one of several ongoing drinking-water projects. The first investigates the effect of climate change on water treatment practice at small drinking-water systems. The objective is to develop guidelines for small-system operators to account for temperature changes in their treatment systems. The second project involves emerging biological drinking water treatment systems and the goal is to decrease the energy and associated greenhouse gas footprint of centralized water treatment.

Lynn Katz and Kerry Kinney are engaged in two research projects focused on the reuse of water in semi-arid regions that are suitable for REU researchers. The first project is on the reuse of water from hydraulic fracking and oil production. This project involves the further development of a patented hydrophobic membrane technology for oil/water separation from produced, frac, oil spill and biofuel production waters. REU students will evaluate the membrane operation for a particular set of waters and operating parameters to support the development of a predictive model for this system. The second project is a collaboration with Pecan Street, a 501(c)(3) research and development organization focused on collecting data on consumer energy and water consumption.  Students will be sampling and analyzing rainwater and air conditioning condensate at Pecan Street metered homes to assess the reuse of this water in semi-arid to arid climates.

Charlie Werth’s research group will mentor REU students on research related to catalytic removal of nitrate from drinking water.  Nitrate is the worlds most common groundwater contaminant, arising primarily from the widespread use of nitrogen-based fertilizers on crops.  When ingested with drinking water, nitrate causes blue baby syndrome, and also the formation of carcinogenic nitroso compounds.  Catalytic treatment of drinking water is an emerging field with the promise to treat water more sustainably.  However, most catalysts used for this treatment are precious metals, with a high cost.  In this research, new catalysts containing non-precious metals will be synthesized and tested for nitrate reduction.  The REU students will work with and be mentored by a graduate student in the laboratory.  They will perform experiments to quantify nitrate reduction kinetics, and to characterize new catalyst properties.