Graduate Research Fellows 2019

Dawson Fairbanks

I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. My work is rooted in microbial biogeochemistry and global change. Microbes are the unseen majority of biodiversity on Earth and are important to understanding ecosystem responses to climate change. Still relatively little is known about the functional redundancy and community interactions of microbes at the landscape scale. My research seeks to bridge the gap between microbiology and soil processes. I examine microbial distribution and responses to environmental perturbations, such as fire disturbance and pulsed precipitation dynamics. I work with the Critical Zone Observatory network to understand microbial processes in a multi-disciplinary, model-supported ecosystem framework. I am also committed to science education and outreach and participate in various community and K-12 outreach activities in Tucson.

My career path as an environmental research professional has been a winding one. Before I began graduate school to train as a microbial ecologist, I worked in land management with the Forest Service as a Wildlife Biological Science Technician. After graduating college, I worked as an Americorps service volunteer working on various restoration projects in the Southwest. My UA/NASA space grant project seeks to tell the stories of individuals who apply STEM knowledge in order to study, conserve and restore natural ecosystems. I aim to highlight the intersection between research advancement and applied science, showing how science informs land management practice and policy decisions to steer us toward sustainable solutions. In my experience, I have seen a fundamental disconnect in transferring science to environmental management and policy. My project will highlight the stories of young professionals who help society manage interactions between humans, the environment and the economy through video story-telling and in-person outreach. I am creating a video mini-series in coordination with UA Flandrau Science center that highlights the stories and varied career paths of individuals using science-backed conservation techniques to meet land management goals and inform policy. The second aspect of my project aims to distribute the video series by organizing various panel discussions and a Science Café Series that will also provide a platform for discussion on this topic. 

Erin Maier

I am a 3rd year Ph.D student in the Department of Astronomy working with Dr. Ewan Douglas on the development of techniques and instrumentation for high contrast imaging in space. For my dissertation work I will be developing a testbed to test these techniques for a future small satellite telescope mission.

With the NASA Space Grant, I will be working in partnership with local astronomy education programs, including Astronomy Camp and the University of Arizona Sky Schools. I will develop inquiry-based hardware/instrumentation curriculum modules for their programs. Inquiry-based youth STEM education programs often lack this kind of content in their curriculum. This issue is particularly compounded when it comes to astronomy education programs. The development of new and innovative telescopes and instruments is critical to the cycle of research in astronomy. However, many instrumentation projects, particularly those meant for space, are large, complex, possibly decades-long endeavors, which even a professional astronomer may only ever work on one small part of. There is thus a need for an instrumentation curriculum for astronomy education programs which introduces students to the broad spectrum of instrumentation in a way that is engaging, relevant to them, and provides them with the opportunity to develop critical skills like design and engineering thinking. I will be developing a set of lectures, hands-on skills development workshops, and team project concepts which can be integrated into Astronomy Camp and in the Sky Schools to achieve this goal.

Allison McGraw

I am a second-year graduate student in the Department of Planetary Sciences at The University of Arizona under the research advisement of Dr. Vishnu Reddy. My research resides in searching for linkages between the meteorites that fall onto Earth to their parent asteroids in the Solar System. Meteorites that arrive to Earth carry with them the history and chemical composition of various objects in the Solar System. They provide us with direct samples of their parent asteroids to be remotely studied here on Earth. To discover the linkages between meteorites and their parent asteroids I use spectroscopic techniques in visible and near-infrared wavelengths.

One of my major science career inspirations is to teach and give back to the community that helped foster my own love for planetary science. The Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium fosters such an environment here at The University of Arizona, and I am honored to be partnering with them in addition to NASA Space Grant for this project. My NASA Space Grant project is the construction of a ‘Meteorite Planetarium Module’, where I have the opportunity to teach the public about meteorites, and more specifically to visualize real meteorite data and information in a full 40-foot planetarium dome. My goal is to teach the public and young students the strange wonders of meteorites and the information they encompass about the Solar System through the various types of meteorite data and techniques. Meteorite data will be visualized and displayed in the full dome, and will be offered within planetarium shows to the general public as well as local Southern Arizona school groups. Much of the meteorite data will be from here at The University of Arizona, highlighting the longstanding involvement of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory towards planetary and space sciences. As an undergraduate student, I worked at the Flandrau planetarium and also participated in the undergraduate NASA Space Grant program. Now as a graduate student in the program, I can bring these two critical components that nurtured my own career into a merged experience between science education and research.


Trevor McKellar

I am a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. For the past few years, I have been working to improve drought monitoring techniques across the southwestern United States by incorporating soil moisture modeling. With the NASA Space Grant, I am taking this project to the next step and developing a drought monitoring online exploratory tool (yet to be named) that will aid local rangeland managers by identifying which drought monitoring technique best represents soil moisture conditions on their land, helping them make better informed management decisions. 

The amount of online drought monitoring indices available to local rangeland managers and livestock producers has increased significantly in recent years, complicating interpretation of which index best represents drought stress conditions to the average user. These indices can represent different aspects of hydroclimatic variability within soils and thus objectively identifying the index that best represent drought effects on rangelands remains a significant gap for applying available climate information to land management actions. Developing a drought monitoring online tool will address this issue by acting as an educational resource that successfully communicates to land managers which index best represents drought stress conditions of their ecosystem, removing the demand on users of needing to make complex interpretations between indices. Additionally, the online tool will allow users to explore how past drought events were represented by different indices through a series on interactive graphs. The drought monitoring online tool will consist of three main components. The first will identify which drought index best represents water stress conditions for different soil types compared to modeled soil moisture. The second will allow users to view how past drought events were represented by different drought indices, climate variables and modeled soil moisture through a series of interactive graphs. The third component will allow users to view how past drought events were represented by local vegetation monitoring data, different vegetation monitoring indices and modeled soil moisture. In the complex semi-arid environment of the southwest, this has the potential to be a robust resource for combating future drought impacts related to climate change.

Charles Parrish

I'm a second-year M.S. student in Biosystems Engineering focusing in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), and I conducted my thesis project in the Mars-Lunar Greenhouse (MLGH) Prototype Laboratory on the optimization of spectral quality with quantum dot technology to enhance yield in CEA. The MLGH is a full-scale, modular bioregenerative life-support system (BLSS) utilizing hydroponic polyculture to recycle oxygen and water while providing fresh, nutritious produce for astronauts during sustained missions on the moon or Mars. As MLGH lab manager I have had the privilege of leading lab tours for individuals and groups of all ages and backgrounds, and I volunteer at Biosphere 2 (B2), the largest controlled environment on Earth, by giving specialty tours on the Future of Food in Space. These unique facilities, however, are relatively remote and so are difficult to visit for many individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

The UA/NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellowship will help me to democratize access to these facilities via the development of accessible, immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences designed around middle and high school learning objectives in the life and Earth sciences. Anyone with access to a web browser or VR headset will be able to experience a virtual tour of B2 and an educational game within a navigable planetary surface habitat based on the MLGH design. Both VR experiences will be developed with and released as open source software to maximize accessibility.

Diana Zamora-Reyes

I’m a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences as well as the Bryant Bannister Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. My graduate research involves understanding changes to the Southwestern US’s climate, precipitation and hydrology in the present and how they relate to the past. Furthermore, I have an interest in fostering relationships and promoting communication between science/policy/public as these three realms are often disconnected from each other. In line with this part of my dissertation, I have developed a project in collaboration with the local National Weather Service (NWS) office to create awareness in the public prior, during and after the start of the several flooding seasons in Arizona with an emphasis on the Spanish-speaking community.

The NWS has a mission to protect life and property and enhance the national economy. However, from 1980 to 2018 the US has responded to 241 weather and climate disasters that reached or exceeded $1 billion in damages, with a total price tag of over $1.6 trillion and thousands of human casualties. Additionally, the scientific community has continuously suggested that the agency improve the way its products are accessed, comprehended, and utilized by the public. This problem is compounded in states such as Arizona where the Spanish-speaking community makes up more than 40% of the population, yet very little information is available in Spanish. In order to fill this gap, the purpose of my project is to create an assortment of ArcGIS Story Maps (SMs), which are online interactive narratives that describe the development, attributes and consequences of flooding throughout Arizona with graphics, images and video, in both English and Spanish. These SMs will also be simplified such that brochures can be printed and distributed in the NWS outreach and safety events held throughout the year. Moreover, I will seek out feedback from the public throughout the academic year to improve the way this information is presented through outreach and social media. As a scientist and native-Spanish speaker and member of the Hispanic community, I believe it is my duty to impart knowledge in a language the public is comfortable communicating in.    

[UPDATE] View Diana's StoryMaps here!