Eye on EESI Research

Kelly Numez Ocasio and Natalie Pawlikowski (photo)

March 2017

From weather systems on the west coast of Africa to wildfires in California, a pair of Penn State graduate students are pursuing their passions – with some help from the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.

Graduate students Kelly Nunez Ocasio (Meteorology) and Natalie Pawlikowski (Geography) are the 2016-17 EESI Environmental Scholars. The scholarships, offered each year, are partly aimed at forming connection between departments and increasing student diversity.

For Nunez Ocasio, the work she is doing at Penn State hits close to home. She was raised in Puerto Rico, and lived through Hurricane Georges, a powerful Category 4 hurricane that caused significant damage throughout the Caribbean and along the Gulf of Mexico in 1998.

"Ever since I was a kid I experienced tropical storms and hurricanes," she said. "I lived the impact of Hurricane Georges and how it affected everyone for months. So I was intrigued about how I can help my community."

That journey brought her to Penn State, where she is studying weather systems that form in the West African region and potentially churn across the Atlantic Ocean and develop into hurricanes and tropical storms. She works with Jenni Evans, professor of meteorology and director of the Institute for CyberScience.

"What I'm trying to do is better understand how these storms relate to the topography of Africa, the atmosphere," Nunez Ocasio said. "How do they become potential hazards? We want to be able to track them and understand them better to put this information in models and predictions to better prepare our society."

Western African is a long way away from where Pawlikowski finds herself working. She spent last summer in California, where she studied how fire management strategies have changed forest composition in one area.

"Alan Taylor (a Penn State geography professor) did a pretty extensive study of Beaver Creek Pinery in Northern California in 1998, and what I did was go out and help remeasure it to see how 20 years with no fires would change things," Pawlikowski said.

She said the area is in danger of losing its oak trees, which could be shaded out by taller Ponderosa Pine. Oak species prefer open canopies, like the kind that emerge after a fire. When fire is absent for long periods of time, the pines grow taller and threaten to squeeze out the oaks.

Changes in forest structure can emerge where fire suppression, or fire exclusion, is practiced as a management strategy. Smaller fires are prevented under this strategy, but there can be other consequences like a buildup of fuel that can make fires especially severe when they do happen.

"We have an issue with how we can make forests more resilient, and we think forest structure is a big part of that," Pawlikowski said.

In becoming EESI Environmental Scholars, the pair join a growing cohort of graduate students from EESI affiliated departments. Both Nunez Ocasio and Pawlikowski said the experience has exposed them to valuable connections with other students and faculty.

"Jamie (Peeler, a 2015-16 Environmental Scholar) is in Erica Smithwick's lab, and we just kind of talk about our research and exchange ideas," Pawlikowski said. "She's helped mini-mentor me in a way."