Class of 2019: Laura Puckett merges a passion for the outdoors with keen insights into environmental data
Whether she is hiking a 1,000-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail or setting the standard for future environmental informatics majors in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Laura Puckett is a trailblazer.
Puckett, selected as the 2019 Outstanding Senior in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, has found her niche in the relatively new field of environmental informatics. Excelling in the discipline calls for an aptitude for using quantitative tools to unlock new information about ecosystems and environmental changes — as well as a passion for protecting and preserving our natural resources.
“A lot of people in the environmental sciences are interested in the field study aspects of research,” Puckett said. “But with so many existing large environmental datasets, there’s also a demand for people who can process the data and draw conclusions from it. The field of environmental informatics combines statistics, data science, and ecology to study environmental systems.”
Assistant Professor Quinn Thomas said that Puckett represents the vision of what an environmental informatics major can be: “When the department created the major five years ago, we wanted to give students the opportunity to learn and practice both data analytics and the science of the environment. Laura excels at the computer side of research as well as having an understanding of how environmental systems operate.”
Puckett was hired to work on Thomas’ research team for several semesters, assisting with computational needs for different ongoing projects each semester to improve the ability to forecast the future of forest and freshwater ecosystems.
“In one of the projects, Laura played a critical role in an NSF-sponsored study focused on forecasting drinking water quality at a reservoir in the Roanoke area,” Thomas said. “The study is developing forecasts that, in the initial phase, used NOAA weather forecasts for a 30-square mile region as weather predictions for a specific location. Laura’s work has improved the accuracy of the weather forecasts used in the water quality forecasting by statistically adjusting the large-scale forecast, based on historical weather data at the reservoir, to be more specific to the location.”
Thomas said that Puckett has a particular ability to take a task and run with it: “She’s done a range of very computationally intensive problems with a high degree of independence. I can give a general direction and she will figure out how to proceed with the work, which is very impressive.”
Puckett’s capacities at self-direction were reflected when she was selected for Harvard University’s prestigious Harvard Forest Summer Research Program in Ecology. Students participate in an 11-week program focused on independent projects researching the effects of human and natural influences on a forest ecosystem.
“I was studying background tree mortality on a series of long-term forest plots,” Puckett said. “I collected information about recently dead trees and incorporated that with the growth records to model competition and estimate the extent that competition was a driver of tree mortality.”
Puckett, who grew up in Radford, Virginia, is an avid hiker who spends her free time working as a trail maintenance supervisor for 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail maintained by the Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech. Trained in wilderness first aid, Puckett has led trips on the trail and logged two extended stretches on the “AT” — an 1,100-mile trek from Georgia to Pennsylvania and an 800-mile hike from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire.
“My passion for hiking definitely goes hand-in-hand with my interest in environmental informatics,” she said. “The reason I’m on this career path is because I care about understanding and protecting the natural world. Living in the woods for months at a time has taught me a lot about forest ecosystems that would be impossible to pick up in class.”
“It’s been easy to feel at home at the College of Natural Resources and Environment,” Puckett said, when asked to summarize her time at Virginia Tech. “I especially like that the professors care so much. Their hobbies and past experiences seem to fit in with how they’ve found their fields. It makes learning more interesting when you know they are so involved with the subjects they’re teaching.”
In the fall, Puckett will be starting a Ph.D. in ecological and environmental informatics at Northern Arizona University.
Testing the water: Virginia Tech team launches system to predict water conditions
Each morning, Jamie Morris, water production manager at the Western Virginia Water Authority in Roanoke, receives an automated email from a team of Virginia Tech researchers.
It resembles a weather forecast. But instead of predicting weather, it forecasts 16-day water quality conditions. It provides data about expected water temperatures and mixing, and soon it will include algae levels and amounts of dissolved oxygen in the Falling Creek Reservoir in Vinton.
Eventually, the water authority will begin using this information to determine how to chemically treat the reservoir water ahead of time, ensuring that it is palatable for Roanoke Valley residents. Falling Creek is one of four reservoirs managed by the authority.
“If we have a couple of days’ notice, that’s much better than having to react within minutes,” Morris said.
After more than a year, this unique water forecasting system, developed by a Virginia Tech team led by Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor of biological sciences, is ready to go. And it is drawing interest from groups around the globe who want to emulate it. In May, a representative from a group that manages lakes in Ireland and in other parts of Europe is making plans to visit Virginia Tech to see the forecasting system in action.
The work started in 2018 after Carey’s team received a $1 million Smart and Connected Communities grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a real-time water forecasting system for the reservoir. Since then, faculty and graduate students representing various disciplines have visited the reservoir weekly in the spring and summer and monthly in the winter to install sensors, take water samples, and collect other data.
Meanwhile, Falling Creek has been offline since June because of concern over poor water quality, Morris said.
The spring is an important time of year for tracking water quality. As outside temperatures warm, more algae can develop in water, creating taste and odor issues, and possibly staining.
Before Carey’s team got involved, the water authority’s lab technicians collected water samples by hand at the reservoir and took them back to the lab for testing, Morris said.
Now, “it’s much easier when I pull up a graph” from Carey’s lab, he said.
Sensors that Carey’s team installed in the reservoir collect a variety of information, such as carbon and oxygen levels and aquatic life. This information, combined with weather predictions and a model, is transmitted to a cloud network that water utility managers and scientists can access, Carey said.
A key gauge in this forecast is the likelihood of the lake turning over, which occurs when cold temperatures cause the water layers to break down and mix, bringing iron, manganese, and nutrients from the bottom of the lake to the top. This results in poor water quality, Morris said.
Carey’s team uses a modeling system that Quinn Thomas, an assistant professor of forest dynamics and ecosystem modeling at Virginia Tech, created to study the growth of loblolly pine forests. It translates well to water work, he said.
“We can post our forecast before the next day happens,” Thomas said. “That’s the foundation of the scientific method, making predictions based on inference that you’ve developed over time.”
Carey’s team includes undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty who are ecologists, social scientists, geologists, and engineers spanning the College of Science, the College of Engineering, and the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
Across disciplines, “the whole idea is that every piece feeds into another piece,” Carey said.
For example, Virginia Tech computer science students have visited the reservoir to understand how water data is collected, while natural science students are helping social science students collect data.
“By engaging in the hands-on experience of working together in really applied settings, but in ways that are predictable to making a project work, students are being exposed to different disciplines in ways that would never be possible in the classroom,” Carey said.
Whitney Woelmer, a Virginia Tech graduate student studying biological sciences who works in Carey’s lab, is one of the team members. Her passion for water and the environment stems from growing up in Michigan, surrounded by the state’s many lakes.
“Our job is to say what we think will happen,” Woelmer said of the forecasting system. Her focus is analyzing the presence of the reservoir’s phytoplankton, which are microscopic algae.
Both students and faculty are gearing up for more visits to the reservoir this summer. Woelmer also is leading a new water sampling initiative in the Beaverdam Creek Reservoir, which is managed by the water authority, in Bedford County.
This summer, a Virginia Tech graduate student and a team of other students will survey Roanoke area residents about their water. Michael Sorice, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech, is leading this group. They plan to survey 800 Roanoke Valley residents about their water and their trust of a water utility’s work to keep it safe for consumption. The team will go door-to-door with surveys for residents to fill out.
The idea is to understand a community’s response, Sorice said. He also is working with the water authority to identify ways that employees can integrate data from the forecasting system into their daily workflow.
The fundamental question — “How can we design this system so that it is meeting a real need for the water authority?” Sorice said.
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone
Madeline Grupper, The Third Nutshell Games
Researchers to forecast water quality with NSF support
Public utility managers will be able to predict drinking water quality more accurately thanks to a team of scientists with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The team, which includes ecologists, social scientists, geologists, and engineers, was awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Communities grant to develop a system that can create a real-time water forecast similar to a weather forecast for Falling Creek Reservoir near Roanoke, Virginia. Falling Creek is one of five drinking water reservoirs used by the Western Virginia Water Authority.
The system will collect multiple real-time environmental datasets, such as levels of metals in the reservoir water, presence of aquatic life, oxygenation levels from current treatment, and use these data, along with local weather predictions and a state-of-the-art reservoir model, to forecast future water quality. Warmer temperatures brought on by climate change can spur algal blooms and unlock metals stored in the sediment of the reservoir, both of which can cause taste, staining, and odor issues in the drinking water.
“This smart system will allow us to predict times at which water may require additional treatment due to environmental factors,” said Cayelan Carey, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science. “We can then use adaptive management practices to create the best water possible at all times for consumers.”
The system is based on a similar technique that forecasts the growth of loblolly pine forests in order to better inform land management in light of global change. Quinn Thomas, an assistant professor of ecosystem science in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, designed the technique and will implement it in this project as well. The system will transmit data to a cloud-based network available to scientists and water utility managers.
“Our goal is to create probabilistic forecasts of water quality, similar to a ’20 percent chance of rain’ weather forecast,” said Thomas.
Another component of the project involves researching the best way to ensure the forecasts will be integrated into management decisions. Social scientist Michael Sorice, an associate professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is an expert in the study of human dimensions of natural resource management. He will engage with water managers to understand current practices and how the new scientific data and technology could best be implemented into daily tasks. In addition, he will examine public perceptions of this new technology and its effect on public trust in the water authority.
The Appalachian region’s geology results in high levels of iron and manganese in sediment that lines the bottom of the reservoir. However, in the past, the team found that pumping additional oxygen into the bottom waters of the reservoirs can keep these metals safely locked up in the sediment, even in warmer temperatures. Madeline Schreiber, a professor of geosciences in the College of Science, and John Little, the Charles E. Via Jr. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, were key to these findings.
“The Falling Creek Reservoir is a unique ecosystem, and we are excited to expand our partnership with the Global Change Center to benefit the drinking water consumers of the Western Virginia Water Authority and limnologists around the world,” said Jamie Morris, water production manager for the Western Virginia Water Authority.
The research team also includes partners at North Carolina State University and the University of Florida. Francois Birgand, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University, developed the next-generation sensors that can be used to monitor water chemistry in approximately 10-30 minutes, taking much less time than the weeks needed for traditional lab work.
Renato Figueiredo, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida, will use cyberinfrastructure that he developed to securely transmit the sensor data and run the models creating the water quality forecasts.
The team was initially supported with a seed grant from the Global Change Center, an arm of the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech.