In the battle against global warming, rock glaciers — masses of rock, ice, snow and debris tugged down mountains by gravity — may be one of the least understood geological features. But they could have huge significance, says Brianna Santos, a senior Geography and Environmental Studies major.
In partnership with Brandon Vogt, Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, Santos is conducting a yearlong Undergraduate Research Academy project investigating rock glacier hydrology in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Together, Santos and Vogt are measuring vegetation density to define areas where rock glaciers have moved more rapidly than normal.
“This research began because rock glaciers are a poorly understood landscape feature found throughout the world that are known to be ecologically and hydrologically significant,” Santos said. “Rock glaciers are expected to respond to recent rapid climatic change, but the ways they will respond is unknown.”
One of these unknown responses could even be resistance to climate change.
To share more, Santos answered eight questions about her research, her partnership with Vogt and her best advice for students interested in future research opportunities.
1. What was your path to UCCS and working with your faculty mentor?
UCCS caught my eye for its incredible access to the natural world that I knew would further my education with hands-on experience. It included features not available to many such as the Rocky Mountains, making it a unique opportunity. Having Dr. Vogt as my faculty mentor was truly a blessing, as he is an amazing instructor and mentor who cares for the learning of his students. He works tirelessly to help support and further our education and research.
2. If you were describing your research/creative work to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
Our research stemmed from the project of a graduate student in Applied Geography, Austin Routt, who is working to measure the movement of rock glaciers at two sites: Yankee Boy Basin and Engineer Peak in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. My own project works off of his to to understand rock glacier hydrology at these sites and hydrology’s connection to vegetation density to emphasize their ecological importance and help define areas of rapid rock glacier movement.
3. Which concept or discovery from your research/creative work most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
Throughout my project I attempted four different methods to measure vegetation density, all of which proved to have some downfall that would lead to inaccurate information. I am extremely excited to see how technology will advance in order to resolve these issues and the research and information that will grow out of this.
4. Describe how and why this research/creative work was started.
This research began because rock glaciers are a poorly understood landscape feature found throughout the world that are known to be ecologically and hydrologically significant. Rock glaciers are expected to respond to recent rapid climatic change, but the ways they will respond is unknown.
5. What has the experience of working with your faculty mentor and fellow researchers been like?
I cannot express how lucky I am to have worked beside such knowledgeable people in their field. I not only learned about the function and importance of rock glaciers on paper, but also in person. The places we went to had high-risk factors, such as lightning, that could make the trips risky, but Dr. Vogt was so knowledgeable in his field he could accurately predict the weather and assess our level of danger based on the clouds, wind, rain and temperature. Working with other student researchers was helpful because they asked questions that not only furthered my knowledge on the surrounding environment, but also helped me create my project and ask valuable questions myself.
6. How has this work helped prepare you for your future in graduate school or your career?
This work has significantly prepared me for my next step of graduate school by giving me hands on experience of how to build a thesis project. It allowed me to understand the work that needs to be put in before and during the project, how to overcome adversity when certain aspects of the project do not produce the expected outcome, and how to work well with others in a team setting.
7. What has been the most memorable part of working on this project with your faculty mentor?
As simple as it is, the most memorable part of working on this project with Dr. Vogt was walking towards the headwall of the rock glacier early in the morning. We had an incredible view of the stars that eventually led to an amazing perspective of the whole rock glacier during sunrise. Throughout our walk we discussed different ideas that could help support the project and I would listen to him speak about the different environmental components around us. This held a huge impact on me as it has motivated my desire to one day become a college professor who can also support their students.
8. What advice would you give first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor?
Engage in class and build a relationship with your teacher! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and stop in for office hours. This is the best way to show you truly care and are interested in what you are learning so the faculty member will consider you a valuable option when an opportunity presents itself.
The Undergraduate Research Academy encourages UCCS students to expand their education beyond the classroom through participation in research and creative projects while engaging in mentorship with UCCS faculty. The yearlong collaborative research projects further students’ professional and academic development while furthering faculty members’ research program goals.
UCCS celebrates this year’s cohort of Undergraduate Research Academy student and faculty researchers. All those interested in participating should visit the Undergraduate Research Academy website for more information.