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Powering Student Research: Spotlight on Lauren Brunsdale

January 11, 2017

Imagine a college that cut its unnecessary energy expenditure and reallocated funding to ultimately empower student research instead of continuing to power inefficient appliances and lighting. Imagine just what that college could accomplish.

That’s exactly the initiative Penn took last year with its annual Power Down Challenge. Each February, our campus commits to reduce energy consumption and live more sustainably, culminating our efforts in a one-day campus-wide Energy Reduction Challenge. Last year, Penn’s Green Campus Partnership (GCP) added an additional incentive, offering funding equivalent to the energy savings generated on the day to the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF), which supports undergraduate research on climate change. And this year, GCP intends to do the same.

Interns in the GCP office caught up with two of the students whose research was supported by the Undergraduate Climate Action Research Grants.

Lauren Brunsdale, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, has discovered much—both tangible conclusions and personal growth—through her research project, which began during her sophomore year. Her broad interest in the environment and water narrowed during an environmental science case studies course, which focused on the environmental impact of dams, and she took the opportunity to complete further research on the subject through CURF.

Lauren’s project, entitled “Evaluating Landscape and Vegetation Change in Ventura River Watershed, California Using Remote Sensing,” is an effort to provide a quantitative watershed analysis as a way of better understanding the ecology of this particular area and how it has been influenced. The end goal of the project is to inform a decision on the removal of the Matilija Dam in the Ventura River Watershed.

Lauren was surprised by the inadequacy of existing research on dams and their effects on local ecosystems; most studies are focused on the short-term. Her research, as a result, attempts to weave together data of different types over a much longer time period to provide a more comprehensive analysis. For example, she is comparing historic measures of water quality and watershed typography against modern hydrologic data to track changes over time resulting from the dam’s presence.

To Lauren, the opportunity to complete research as an undergraduate student was incredibly influential. As a result of her experience, she now intends to pursue a PhD, studying environmental science paired with either management or geologic engineering. She admitted, laughing, that these paths do significantly diverge, but her end goal of working in environmental policy—specifically water issues and watershed management—remains the same. By way of this research, enabled by CURF and directly supported by the energy reduction funding, Lauren has identified both a personal interest and a social and scientific need.

The extra funding Lauren received through the GCP initiative allowed her to visit the site she had been working with, to talk with local experts and to better understand the area. She says this experience provided more context for her research and was very influential in her relationship with the work.

While the majority of Penn’s underclassmen were sitting for finals this December, Lauren was presenting at an international conference, one of the largest for the field of geoscience. She traveled to San Francisco to a conference of the American Geophysical Union to share her work. Just before heading off, she was particularly excited at the prospect of presenting to a local audience to whom the dam’s removal is personally relevant.

At the end of the day, Lauren loves the complexity of the issue she is researching. She takes a broader perspective on dams; while most people see hydroelectric power as a fairly clean and risk-free source of energy, she recognizes the risks of technological and engineering constraints, of unnatural sediment buildup, and of expiration dates of existing infrastructure. Lauren is motivated by the potential nearing expiration of many dams in particular, and she hopes to contribute a different perspective as a creative mind within a hard science field to address these issues.

Lauren is impressed by the planet’s ability to adapt unlike anything humans could achieve. “The earth will always play one more card,” she quips. As she continues her studies in this field—a field she has been able to explore deeply with the support of the Climate Action Research Grant and the Energy Reduction Day funding—perhaps she will be able to engineer innovative solutions to better to help her field work with, rather than against, the planet.

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