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Blue Waters Graduate Fellow: Elizabeth Agee

The Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship was awarded to ten outstanding Ph.D. students in computational science. In this series we’re featuring brief introductions to who they are and what they’re trying to accomplish. This program serves to prepare the next generation of science researchers to solve the world’s problems. Follow along as we highlight these young researchers. Read more profiles here.

Tell me a little bit about yourself—where are you studying now, where did you do your undergrad, what was your major, etc.

I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in the environmental engineering program at the University of Michigan. I received my bachelor’s in physics from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

So what was your process like getting involved with Blue Waters? What made you want to apply for this fellowship?

I first heard about Blue Waters back in 2012 when visiting Illinois for the Computational Methods in Water Resources conference. Even then, I was struck by the scale of the system and the scientific questions it could help answer. I really stumbled upon the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship when researching ways to help fund my graduate research. At first, I was worried that my research in ecology and hydrology would not fit with the mission of the fellowship, but after looking through previous fellows’ biographies, I felt much more comfortable. By the project descriptions, I could see that the administrators of the program really value diversity and cross-pollination in scientific research. This, coupled with the amazing resources being offered by Blue Waters, led me to my application to the program.

Tell me about your research—what are you trying/hoping to accomplish? What made you want to pursue this topic?

My research is focused on the interactions between forest ecosystems and hydrology. Over 50% of global evapotranspiration comes from forested ecosystems, so this represents a significant pathway for understanding global water and energy cycling. The question that drives my research is how these pathways will respond to climate change. Using Blue Waters, I will explore how tree species in the Amazon rainforest use water in different ways and how those differences influence community resilience to drought events. It is my hope that this work will improve the representation of tropical forests in the current suite of land surface models and provide mechanistic insights into forest community dynamics. Forests in every biome of the world are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Improved model representation and forecasts can help decision-makers craft effective policy for managing this vital global resource.

How has the ability to use Blue Waters impacted your research?

Blue Waters is making an impact on my research in a number of ways. First, not only are they providing me with computing time at one of the most advanced computing centers in the world, they are connecting me with a project team that will help me succeed on that system. Second, the financial support provided will help me focus solely on my research project. Finally, even though I am a new fellow, I have already met a great community of researchers working with the Blue Waters system. These cross-disciplinary connections are a fantastic opportunity to take innovations from other fields and apply them directly to my own research.

Would you have been able to do this kind of research on any other machine? Why or why not?

My research is focused on examining how the physiological traits of different tree species influence their water usage and community drought resilience. The Amazon is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and is home to over 11,000 different species of trees! The computing power of Blue Waters will allow me to explore this diversity in ways I would not have been able to before by allowing me to incorporate more species, larger domains, and more parallelization of my model.

What is the overall impact that your research will have on the science community and the world at large?

Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty about how the Amazon River Basin will respond to climate change. As drought events become more frequent and more severe, it is likely we will see some major changes in forest composition and structure. It is my hope that my research can help inform both scientists and decision-makers about the resilience of the forest to drought events. This knowledge will not only improve models vital in global climate modeling, but could also be used in the design of management practices that preserve the precious biodiversity and important economic services of this beautiful forest.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your research/fellowship?

I am very excited for this opportunity and thank Blue Waters and NSF for providing support to a diverse group of computational scientists.

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