Two University of Arizona scientists received the 2013 National Science Foundation Career Award, the agency's most prestigious honor for junior faculty members.
Shirley Papuga, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Jonathan Sprinkle, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, won the awards, roughly $500,000 over five years, granted to scientists who demonstrate outstanding research, excellent education and have a particular skill at integrating both aspects.
Papuga's work in ecohydrology and land-atmosphere interactions seeks to discover more about how arid and semi-arid ecosystems work, particularly as it relates to ongoing drought and climate change.
"The problem is a lot of science that has gone into our global climate models comes from areas rich in biomass. A lot of what we know about physical processes comes from those regions," she says. "We really need to get better representation of arid and semi-arid ecosystems into these models."
Papuga has developed a simple framework that is meant to serve to design field campaigns, greenhouse experiments and computer modeling exercises to "think about climate change in terms of these projections and use the framework to study additional questions."
Designed for water-limited ecosystems, the experiments will concentrate on two layers of soil. The division between an upper layer, wetted by small rainstorms, and a lower layer, starting 20 centimeters deep, that needs large storms, is important for making hypotheses about what's impacted in specific types of rain events.
This framework will be useful in understanding the influence of potential precipitation changes associated with climate change in places that aren't just creosote-dominated uplands, but in other water-limited ecosystems that depend on specific water sources, like snow melt, as well as places that experience short term drought.
"You'll be able to think about climate change in terms of these projections and use the framework to study additional questions," Papuga says.
Furthermore, her framework is simple enough to work for undergraduate or even high school students as they develop hypotheses and their own experiments.
"The job market is so competitive today that students need not just to have lab experience in a course, but something bigger than that on their resumes," says Papuga, whose own undergraduate education included a senior thesis with research work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Because it's a part of me, I want to make sure students have that experience. We'd be doing students a disservice if we don't give them that opportunity."
Sprinkle's research into cyber-physical systems has a flashy component – an autonomous car – that he uses to demonstrate to undergraduates (and next up, high school students) that science and engineering have plenty of exciting real-life applications.
"I'm not solving the same problems I solved in college. The most important thing is to give people a challenging problem and teach them to learn how to solve problems," he says.
The autonomous car is a particularly good project for demonstrating to younger students how important science and engineering are to the world around them.
"The vehicle gives you a reason to talk about problems in all kinds of engineering, problems in mathematics, problems in computer science and chemistry," Sprinkle says. "In a sense, it's the answer to the age-old seventh grade questions: What's math going to be good for in life?"
Sprinkle will visit high schools with the autonomous car and work with students to mark off a track with cones and conduct experiments, calculating acceleration, velocity, braking capability and other aspects of the vehicle.
Students will be taught to understand the trade-offs between safety and optimal performance. For example, the car might be able to go faster, but will it be able to turn as safely?
"They'll be able to look at it analytically, run it through a simulator and test it in the field," Sprinkle said. "People love to use computers to figure stuff out, but at some point, they realize it never actually matches the physical situation. There will be this mismatch between the concept and the actual thing and that becomes another problem to figure out."
That sort of hands-on, unexpectedly visceral experience with engineering is exactly the type of thing that pushed Sprinkle himself into engineering. Taking a drafting course in high school, Sprinkle got to experiment with an autoCAD program and milling machine that came to his high school.
"That was a game-changer for me," he says. "It unified physics, math and computer-aided drawing. If you bring something into the school, that has the capability of opening somebody's eyes who wouldn't have thought of it before."