Civil Engineering Senior Lauren Nance

Lauren NanceReflections: Oso Bay Research Project

This semester, spring of 2008, I participated in the IE Pre-Graduate Internship. I did my internship in the Civil Engineering Department under EWRE - Environmental and Water Resources Engineering. I am a fourth year undergraduate student in civil engineering and have one year to go before going on to graduate school. This essay includes information about the research I did during my internship, the reaction to my research experience, and what I have learned from this experience.

Going into my graduate internship, I was unsure if I was more interested in water resources or environmental engineering. I took a class this semester on water and wastewater treatment, which led me to realize that I was not interested in the majority of the aspects of environmental engineering. Through my research and other experiences this semester, I have discovered that I am in fact interested in various aspects of water resources engineering. During my internship, I worked in the research area of water quality management, which focuses on the processes and engineering systems that control the quality, transport, and fate of surface and subsurface waters. My project was to model the environmental effects that the flow of water out of Oso Bay had on the Corpus Christi Bay environment.

The focus of my research was to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms leading to bottom water hypoxia in Corpus Christi Bay. Hypoxia is defined as the condition in which a water body's dissolved oxygen level is below that required to sustain aquatic life. The hypoxic zone in Corpus Christi Bay is characterized as bottom water hypoxia, which only occurs at the bottom layer of water in the bay. It is suspected that this bottom water hypoxia is caused by a dense underflow of hypersaline (very salty) water exiting Oso Bay. The dense hypersaline water is a concern because as the water enters Corpus Christi Bay the biogeochemical oxygen demand consumes all of the dissolved oxygen and the water soon becomes hypoxic. Typically Corpus Christi Bay is well mixed by wind, providing bottom water oxygen replenishment. However, the hypersaline water from Oso Bay is so dense that it is unable to mix with the less dense water above it, therefore preventing the bottom water from regaining a healthy level of dissolved oxygen. Because hypoxia has a negative impact on biological activity, understanding the mechanism of this phenomenon is an important scientific question. We believe that flow of water from Oso Bay into Corpus Christi Bay is leading to the hypoxia problem. Therefore, I created a water budget to identify the dominant inflows into Oso Bay to better understand the water quality of the Oso Bay water. The water budget led me to determine that the major contribution to the water in Oso Bay was from a local power plant and from storm water runoff during heavy rainfall events.

My graduate mentor throughout the semester was Paula Kulis, a PhD student under Dr. Ben Hodges. Paula has been working on the Corpus Christi Bay project for over four years. Her research has included developing a model of Corpus Christi Bay to understand the variance of salinity concentrations throughout the bay. Salinity concentration is a concern because hypersaline water is believed to lead to bottom water hypoxia. I contributed to Paula's research by providing salinity loading data of the Oso Bay water that flows into Corpus Christi Bay. Paula will be able to use the Oso Bay model that I created to understand the change in salinity concentrations during various events, such as a summer drought or a heavy rainfall. My model will be very helpful to understanding the relationship between the water exiting Oso Bay and the water in Corpus Christi Bay. Also, the ability to control the salinity concentration of the water coming into Corpus Christ Bay will enable Paula to determine if hypoxia is in fact occurring due to the Oso Bay water.

Every Wednesday afternoon I went to the Pickle Research Center to work with Paula. I was able to interact with other water resources graduate students that were at various levels in their research. There was a girl that shared the same office with Paula who I was able to interact with frequently. She was working on her final dissertation, and she recently received her PhD. It was really exciting to see her finish her PhD, and to see how joyful she was to finally come to the end of her long study at UT. I also had the opportunity to talk with a girl that was in the Peace Corps prior to coming to UT for her master's degree. She helped me with several questions that I had about the order I should pursue my masters versus going to Peace Corps. I was concerned that going to Peace Corps right out of school would not be a good idea, because I would lack technical expertise. However, she told me that going into Peace Corps before going to graduate school is actually a good option. Out of college the technical expertise that you have is not yet set on the typical American standards, so you are more flexible at pursuing projects from different viewpoints.

Through my interaction with various water resources graduate students, I found it most surprising at how hard all of the graduate students work. Many of the students work over 9 hours a day and sit in front of a computer the entire day. It is a lot different than my undergraduate experience, because they have to motivate themselves to work on their projects. There are not specific deadlines or assignments that come with their research. That actually scared me, because I feel that I would have to be very passionate about my research in order to have enough motivation to get things done. At this time I have decided that I would like to pursue a master's degree in water resources engineering. I have learned that a master's degree is kind of like an extension of your bachelors, with the ability to pursue more detailed study in a particular field. I think I still need time to decide whether to pursue a PhD since I have not found a research area that I am truly passionate about. I feel that a PhD is not worth pursuing unless you are dedicated to your research and desire to become an expert in a particular field. I am also still not sure what I want to do in water resources; there are so many options!

This semester was a lot more challenging than I was expecting. I only took four real classes, along with the graduate internship, and an extracurricular class, but I was challenged with time management this semester. My participation in the organization called Engineers Without Borders was very demanding this semester, because I had to juggle my officer position and my participation in an international design project. We were able to receive class credit for the Cameroon water distribution project that I am involved in; therefore, the demands from the project were higher than I had expected. I was also leading a sub-group within the class, so I had a demanding role in the group as well. My involvement in Engineers Without Borders has opened my eyes for the need for proper water resources planning around the world. There are many people that do not have adequate access to clean drinking water. My passion is to be able play a part at improving this water resources problem, so people all around the world can have adequate drinking water supplies.

I actually met Paula from our involvement in Engineers Without Borders together. I knew she was a graduate student in civil engineering, so one day I asked her about her research. I was so intrigued when she told me about the Corpus Christi project that I wanted to get involved right away. I had received emails about the graduate internship program, so I decided that would be a good program to participate in to gain some research experience.

I also took a class on groundwater this semester with Dr. McKinney. I learned that Dr. McKinney had a lot of experience in international work in water resources. This got me really excited because this connected my interests in international development that I have gained through Engineers Without Borders and my interest in water resources. I developed a close relationship with Dr. McKinney this semester and will be taking a graduate course with him next semester on Water Resources Planning and Management. I also talked with him about doing research with him next year in groundwater and water resources planning.

My IE Pre-graduate internship this semester has helped me gain a better grasp on what going to graduate school really entails. I have learned that graduate school requires a lot of hard tedious work and that it takes a lot more dedication than pursuing an undergraduate degree. Although graduate school is a lot of work, I saw the important role that graduate research plays in our society and how exciting it is to be a part of something that big.