Faculty Research Projects

The Urban Watershed Evolution team studies the effects of urbanization in Austin area streams. During Year 1, the team: 1) identified sources and quantified controls on urban water quantity and quality; 2) developed new methods for quantifying vegetation water use; 3) found differences in urban vs. rural watershed response to drought; 4) assessed watershed biodiversity; and 5) developed a new model for water flow and sources in rural vs. urban watersheds. The team will continue building integrative broader impacts.

The following faculty members are core members of the Urban Watershed Evolution Project Team. Please select your top two choices for your REU experience.

Each student will be part of a research project led by one of the faculty mentors listed below and will participate in field trips and seminars. The full student cohort will also work with each other to integrate their research plans and analysis to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of urban watershed evolution.

Faculty

Jay Banner’s (Dept. Geological Sciences) research applies principles of geochemistry to understanding: 1) past climate change based on studies of cave mineral deposits (speleothems) and tree rings, and 2) impacts of urbanization on water resources over decadal to century time scales. Example research questions and projects: How do reconstructions of the processes that control the evolution of water quality in Austin-area watersheds over the past century, inform planning of new urban development? (Beal et al., 2020). How did the climate of central Texas change in response to abrupt global change events during the transition out of the last ice age? Students will use novel applications of isotope tracers to reconstruct climate and water quality histories.

Patrick Bixler’s (School of Public Affairs) research investigates socio-political and governance dimensions of sustainable systems. His group focuses on both urban and regional processes and social dynamics and governance mechanisms that drive social-ecological change. Example research questions and projects: How does the relationship between public and community-led governance of urban green spaces in Austin watersheds change outcomes for biodiversity, water quality, and flood mitigation? How do these outcomes vary with social vulnerability of residents? Students will collect socio-demographic characteristics of vulnerability and apply network science to better understand how underlying collaborative dynamics translate to ecological outcomes.

Dan Breecker’s (Dept. Geological Sciences) research spans the study of soil and caves. Improved understanding of the biogeochemistry of these systems through monitoring of modern processes is used to inform interpretations of the geochemical composition of paleosols and speleothems. Example research questions and projects: How does the timing and delivery of rainfall influence the formation of calcium carbonates in soils? How can such soil carbonates be used to reconstruct past rainfall patterns and paleoenvironments? Student research projects may span timescales from climate change occurring over millions of years to the effect of individual rainfall events on the dissolution of soil carbonates.

Kasey Faust’s (Dept. Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research on sociotechnical systems—primarily water sector infrastructure—aims to improve service to communities. Her work spans the project phase during construction through the operations phase, exploring human-infrastructure interactions and infrastructure interdependencies. Example research questions and projects: What are adaption strategies of water infrastructure, regarding aging infrastructure failure and climate change, to ensure the continual provision of service in low-income or rural communities? How have water use profiles changed and how have affordability and equity been considered during the pandemic in the provision of services? Faust’s methods bring equity into water infrastructure decision-making and modeling of infrastructure systems and public perceptions.

Juliana Felkner’s (School of Architecture) research aims to reveal current and future impacts of climate change and population growth on our infrastructure, people, and the environment. Through simulations of growth scenarios, building designs, retrofit strategies, urban morphologies, and atmospheric warming, student project results will inform decision makers on how to plan for sustainable urban growth. Example research questions and projects: How will building and planning codes affect Austin’s carbon footprint and what local strategies can help mitigate climate change impacts on vulnerable communities? Students will explore technical and community-level solutions that make renewable energy adoption and retrofits more feasible for Texas residents.

Shalene Jha’s (Dept. Integrative Biology) research investigates species interactions and ecosystem function across urban, agricultural, and natural ecosystems, specializing in two key ecosystem service providers, plants and insects. She uses biodiversity surveys, ecosystem service experiments, and genetic/genomic tools to quantify tradeoffs and synergies between key ecosystem service indices, such as food production, climate buffering, and pest-control. Example research questions and projects: Can we predict the quantity of pollination and pest-control services and resulting food security gained by urban gardeners? How do we quantify and incentivize cultivation practices that optimize such services for gardeners and residents? Students will analyze patterns of biodiversity (e.g., insect, bird) and ecosystem service provision (e.g., climate buffering, pollination) in urban green spaces, including value to human visitors (e.g., sense of place and well-being, recreation). Interdisciplinary connection: Jha, Breecker and Banner can co-mentor students studying how climate and soil composition underlie plant phenology in urbanized watersheds, and subsequent impacts on critical ecosystem service providers, such as pollinators. 

Melissa Kemp’s (Dept. Integrative Biology) research explores how biodiversity originates and is altered by global change phenomena, by integrating paleontological methods with archaeological, historic, and modern records to 1) identify patterns and causes of extinction and resiliency in vertebrates on geologic timescales, and 2) distinguish between impacts of human vs. abiotic forces on biodiversity. Example research questions and projects: How do vertebrate communities vary over land-use gradients (e.g. species composition, phenotypic and genetic diversity)? How did climate change impact human and animal populations over the past 20,000 years in central Texas? Students will study historic biodiversity patterns to serve as a pre-anthropogenic baseline and to assess current conservation practices. Interdisciplinary connection: Kemp, Miller, and Bixler can co-mentor a student studying species distributions across socioeconomic gradients in urban environments. 

Ashley Matheny’s (Dept. Geological Sciences) research explores the role of hydraulic strategies in regulating exchange of water between the subsurface and the atmosphere and how this influences the water, carbon, and energy cycles. Her projects use a combination of field and modeling techniques. Example research questions and projects: How do different tree species acquire, transport, store, and release water in exchange for carbon during photosynthesis? Are some tree species more adept than others at rooting in shallow aquifers during drought on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas? Her work focuses on the ways that different vegetation stressors (e.g. drought, disturbance, salinity) can alter land-atmosphere dynamics.

Eric McDaniel’s (Dept. Government) research investigates issues related to racial and ethnic politics, religion and politics, and health policy. His group studies the role of religious institutions in shaping political engagement and how descriptive representation influences health. Example research questions and projects: How does descriptive representation influence equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits? How can indigenous institutions such as churches influence health behaviors and environmental awareness in underserved communities? 

Jennifer Miller’s (Dept. Geography and the Environment) research applies geographic information science (GIScience) concepts to investigate spatial patterns of plants and animals. Her students develop models to predict species distributions based on climate, topography, geology, and other environmental and anthropogenic factors. Example research questions and projects: How important is species ‘movement’ or dispersal ability in predicting a species’ distribution with respect to changing environmental conditions? Students will use GIScience and species distribution modeling to evaluate the importance of dispersal in mediating species distributions, in contrast to other environmental factors.

Dev Niyogi’s (Depts. Geological Sciences and Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research investigates the dynamic role of coupled land surface processes on regional climatic extremes, and the translation of results into decision-support tools for resilient cities. Example research questions and projects: How has land use/landcover changed across the strong urban-rural gradient in central Texas in recent decades, and how does this affect regional hydroclimate (Liu & Niyogi, 2019)? What strategies are available for communities to use against heat stress, air quality deterioration, and increased flooding? To address such questions, students will learn methods using satellite data and models for testing ‘downscaling’ approaches to develop climate projections at the high-resolution needed for impact assessments (e.g., watershed-scale).

Adam Rabinowitz’s (Dept. of Classics) research investigates the archaeology of Greek colonization in the Western Mediterranean region, using material as well as environmental and biological evidence for human interactions. Example research questions and projects: What natural and anthropogenic processes changed water quality that influenced societal relationships in ancient Greek and Roman cities along the Danube? How can such information bear on our understanding of challenges to sustainability in modern urban systems? Students in Rabinowitz’s group use archaeozoological and isotopic analysis to examine the human, ecosystem, and climate change influences on ancient societies.

The University of Texas at Austin Environmental Science Institute (ESI) REU in integrated environmental science gives undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct research into Urban Watershed Evolution. This 10-week program will take place remotely from May 30th to August 5th. The faculty members leading this program are Drs. Faust, Jha, and Banner.