The week that felt like a year

Slide from Jason Scott's master's defense

I have many emotions flowing through me as I write this post. Here at the University of Vermont, we are on day 5 of COVID-19-driven isolation and telecommuting. At the moment, I am bursting with pride towards now successfully-defended master’s student, Jason Scott, and his fellow graduate students who have defended this week. Faced with this unprecedented world-wide situation, and thrown into using often new technologies to them, these students calmly, confidently, and competently have shared and defended their research findings.

Jason had a remote audience of almost 30 people this morning. As such, another of my current emotions is gratitude to all those who were able to carve out an hour to join in and learn from Jason, again, often using technologies that were new to them.

Back to Jason again, I am excited about the information he gathered, training he facilitated, and products he developed that will help improve the response and resilience to oil and other hazardous materials spills along Lake Champlain. His work lays a strong foundation for future efforts of Lake Champlain Sea Grant and numerous federal, regional, state and local partners to further improve our ability to prepare for and respond to oil and other hazardous materials spills. The last step of his efforts prior to departing to return full-time as an Active Duty Officer in the United States Coast Guard will be to work with our Lake Champlain Sea Grant communications lead to create a robust section of our website to share the training tools and resources he has developed and compiled to benefit marinas, first responders, and others during a spill response. For those with interest, the majority of his defense presentation is available to view here.

Another emotion I felt today was excitement. We found out late this afternoon, that Stever Bartlett has been accepted by the UVM Graduate College. This means he will begin his work as part of the WESP Lab this summer. Stever will be working with me and Kate Forrer, UVM Extension Community Forestry Specialist, and our newest Lake Champlain Sea Grant and UVM Extension hire, Alison Adams, on a riparian restoration research project funded by the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

In a week that one meme suggested felt more like a year, and where feelings of fear and anxiety often dominated, I am grateful to have ended it with these positive results for these students. – Kris Stepenuck

Making Progress

All of the WESP Lab graduate students have exciting happenings related to their research right now.

Kristin Raub is due many congratulations, as she was recently named as one of two Thomas J. Votta scholarship winners for the 2019-2020 academic year at the University of Vermont. The scholarship is awarded to graduate students in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, the College of Engineering and Mathematics or the Grossman School of Business who seek to make a difference in “solving environmental problems and using Environmental Best Practices” to meet their goals – much like Thomas J. Votta had done in his life and career before his untimely death in 2009. Kristin’s research focuses on improving coastal resilience of communities by bringing together the food, water and energy sectors in preparedness planning and response. Learn about more her research with the following paper, which will become the first chapter of her dissertation: Raub, K. B. (2019). Coastal Adaptation to Sea Level Rise: Effects of Residential Proximity to the Coast, Climate Change Perceptions, and Attitudes Toward Government for Valuing Ecosystem Outcomes.

Kristin is also competing in the University of Vermont’s inaugural Three Minute Thesis competition. This global competition is for doctoral students who have passed their comprehensive exams. In the competition, they must share how their research is significant with a non-technical audience in just three minutes. There are two preliminary rounds at UVM. The first is March 16, 2020 at 7:00 PM in the Frank Livak Ballroom of the Davis Center. The second is March 19, 2020 also at 7:00 PM in the same location. The final round is scheduled for Friday, March 27, 2020 at 7:00 PM in the Sugar Maple Ballroom of the Davis Center on the UVM campus. Come learn from (and cheer for) her and her fellow competitors!

Rachel just returned from a research trip in New Zealand, where she worked with our partner, Dr. Amanda Valois (@what_fish_eat), a Freshwater Scientist with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (@NIWA_NZ), and volunteers from a variety of volunteer steam monitoring programs on both the North and South Islands. Rachel was implementing the interview phase of her thesis research, following up on surveys done this past summer and fall. Her work was featured in a news article in Local Matters, a news agency on New Zealand’s North Island.

Photo by Local Matters,
Rachel works with volunteers to learn their monitoring methods in New Zealand. Photo credit: Local Matters

In addition to this trip to New Zealand, Rachel has been busy with travel this fall and winter to conduct interviews with volunteers from all three of our project partners for her thesis research. She already visited volunteers in British Columbia, Canada, traveling with our partners from @LivingLakesCanada, Kat Hartwig and Rory Gallaugher, to meet with volunteers from across the province. Earlier, she traveled to several Mid-Atlantic states in the United States to meet with volunteers who have connections with our partner, Julie Vastine and the Dickinson College ALLARM program (@ALLARMWater). Rachel is anticipating defending her thesis in early May.

Speaking of defending, Jason Scott will be defending his master’s project on Friday, March 20. For anyone interested in see his presentation, that will take place in Aiken Center Room 311 on the UVM campus, and we have set up a Zoom webinar for those who would like to join remotely. That information follows his defense proposal abstract below.

Lake Champlain faces numerous complex environmental threats that do not have simple solutions. Oil and other types of hazardous materials spills are among those threats that continue to attract the attention of agencies and organizations trusted to protect the lake. There is significant transportation infrastructure that exists in the region that, in the event of an accident, could lead to spills and extensive damage to natural resources. This project is intended to strengthen the ability of marina owners and first responders in the Lake Champlain Basin to prepare for and respond to oil and hazardous material spills by facilitating spill response training and providing important educational resources. The project is also intended to bolster federal, state and local spill planning efforts through development of the Physical Description of the Lake, which will serve as an appendix to the Multi- Agency Contingency Plan for Emergency Environmental Incidents in the Lake Champlain Region. Finally, the project is intended to increase awareness of available scientific information and expertise for spill response professionals through the development of a database of academic and scientific resources to support readiness for environmental incidents. The products generated for this project are intended to be useful for contingency planners, response personnel and resource managers engaged in spill response. The lake crosses international, federal and state jurisdictional boundaries which complicates preparedness and response in the event of a spill. This project is intended to help to unite the scientific and spill response communities in the Champlain Valley.

To join Jason’s defense via Zoom Meeting use the following link and/or dial-in information:
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Call me WESP

In Dutch, a wesp is a wasp or a yellow jacket, but here at the University of Vermont, WESP is an acronym for a lab – the Watershed, Education, Science and Policy Lab to be exact. Led by Dr. Kristine Stepenuck (she/her/hers), we are located within the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and associated with both UVM Extension and Lake Champlain Sea Grant.

Research of the lab follows two primary themes: 1) public participation in scientific research, otherwise known as volunteer monitoring or citizen science (along with a variety of other terms; for instance, see an ever-growing list of associated terms in the image below); and 2) broadly speaking, environmental resource management, especially as related to water resources, and related community action, response and resilience. This aspect of our work often, though not always, focuses on the Lake Champlain Basin.

If you aren’t familiar with Lake Champlain, it is sometimes mistakenly said to be the 6th largest lake in the United States. While it is large – 120 miles (193 km) long and 12 miles (19 km) wide at its widest – it’s not so big as to be the 6th largest in the U.S. (If we trust Wikipedia, the claim there is that it is the 13th largest by area and 14th largest by volume.)

Nonetheless, one boast Lake Champlain can make – which gives the WESP Lab a lot to work with – is that the land to watershed ratio in the basin is about 19:1. That is very large, especially as compared to the Great Lakes, which have land to water ratios in the range of 1.5:1 or 2:1. That means there is a huge land area draining to the lake, and therefore, the actions we humans take on the land have a significant impact on its water quality. The projects in which WESP Lab students and faculty engage generally have some application relevant to, or inform outreach to a specific target audience to help improve environmental conditions or economies. Learn more about who we are and what we do in the people section of this website.  

Various terms used to describe public participation in scientific research. Credit: Kris Stepenuck