Quarter 1

"A peak a week." That was my goal when I first moved to Seattle last August. Coming from Midwestern elevations, I was excited to take advantage of the city's proximity to both the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges and embarked on an ambitious plan to tackle a mountain summit every week. I soon realized that as a first-year PhD graduate student in the Civil Engineering Department's Environmental Fluid Mechanics group, trekking to the woods every weekend doesn't always mesh with academic workload. My commitment to the challenge began to sputter after about week number five, and now that the avalanche chutes are primed with snow, both safety and finals have kept my "summits" to slightly lower elevations.

I've also decided to take a more liberal interpretation of "a peak a week." I figured, hey, sometimes biking up Phinney Ridge feels like breathing at 10,000 ft and sometimes debugging a Python function feels like picking a path up tricky talus. Maybe a "peak" can include the struggle and subsequent high of overcoming challenges from mountains to math-problems.

With a new take on the phrase, here are the highlights and excitements from the peak tally of Quarter 1:

1. Presenting a new research project 

I often forget that there's a distance between understanding a topic myself and understanding it to a level where I can explain it to others in a comprehensive manner. Gathering the scattered tidbits of information from meetings, articles, maps and reports into a cohesive, presentable story-line always takes longer than I expect. If I've been grappling with a project for long enough, I've usually accumulated a couple of approaches to take when sharing my work, but hopping on a new project and turning my understanding into presentation-level quality requires a bit of an extra kick.

I joined the team this September, to work with my advisors, Dr. Alex Horner-Devine and Dr. Nirni Kumar, on a flood modelling project that we’ve recently dubbed with the nifty acronym, MoHGeoH (pronounced: ‘mojo’): Modeling of HydroGeomorphic Hazards.

MoHGeoH is part of the NSF-funded Prediction of and Resilience against Extreme Events. (PREEVENTS) program. The goal of MoHGeoH is to understand how sediment may be contributing to flood risk in rivers. When I arrived, my advisor, Alex, was gearing up to head to the NSF headquarters for the PREEVENTS PI meeting. As the other grad students on the MoHGeoH project had yet to arrive, I kicked off the first two weeks of my time at UW speed-prepping to head to NSF as the grad student representative.

Here began the process of collecting project pieces into a presentation. I tried to soak in the details from team meetings, project proposals, and papers that would help in whipping up a poster on preliminary results. This included creating visual representations to describe the flood model framework:

Framework for flood modeling project

Some of the questions to be answered in this project are displayed in the figure above, such as "how do upland sediment source-mechanisms i.e. (a) landslides, (b) glacial retreat, and (c) deforestation contribute sediment to rivers?" and "can we predict how these forcing will affect flood risk (d)?" Researchers from the UW Civil & Environmental Engineering and Earth & Space Science departments have joined forces with the United States Geological Survey and National Park Service to tackle these questions regarding the connections between sediment and flooding.

The meeting turned out to be a blast. It was exciting to connect with the ~15 other groups researching topics from hurricanes to solar wind, and it was cool to see the diversity in budding projects with the common goal of mitigating hazard severity.

Having the quick turn-around time for prepping and presenting turned out to be an efficient way to get a handle on the project material. From my experience TA-ing courses in the past, I've often found that my most productive learning experiences have actually occurred when I'm trying to teach others. The combination of these experiences impress the value of continually pondering ways to communicate as I conduct research; not only will presenting help share future findings, it also forces me to systematically understand the scientific concepts I'm working with.

2. Learning & applying statistics
The hypothesis of this flood-modeling project is that aggradation or sediment deposition on the riverbed could be increasing flood risk by reducing channel capacity (see conceptual figure below).

Sediment induced flooding

My first task in project MoHGeoH has been to investigate flood history and river behavior in Puget Sound basin networks to see if this is actually happening. To do this, I have been parsing out signatures of bed evolution by using statistical methods to analyze river stage and discharge data.

Somehow I snuck through my undergraduate physics major without taking an official stats class. However, after taking a course on data analysis this quarter I've realized that statistical methods can be really powerful! Learning stats has felt like joining a club with a bunch of secret tricks to help unearth patterns in data. It has been exciting to connect signatures that have shown up in my river data analysis to physical events and processes. 

3. The actual PEAKS!
And now for the physical hikes from this quarter. The count includes,
Week 1: Wright Mountain
Week 2: Kaleetan Peak
Week 3: Mt. Si
Week 4: Mailbox Peak
Week 5: Kendall Katwalk 

Gem Lake below Wright Mountain
Spooky downclimb from Kaleetan Peak

Kendall Katwalk

Steps up to Gem Lake

Fall hiking in the Cascades often sends you into a misty mountain mystery which breaks into patchy sunlight near the summit. I'm excited to continue exploring this Pacific Northwest terrain. From researching rivers to traversing trails, this land is laden with intricacies to be discovered both within the lab and outdoors.