Postcard from Leigh-Anne Krometis

October 9, 2018

If you live in the New River Valley, chances are that your local news (and perhaps your social media feeds) have included mention of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) construction, which began in Spring 2018. Debates over the MVP bring up a wide variety of tangled issues, ranging from economic cost-benefits to property rights and individual freedom to environmental quality and the role of regulators.

This summer also marked the first year of our USDA-funded REEU: “Confluence of Water and Society” summer program. The USDA REEU program – Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates – is similar to NSF’s well-known summer REU programs, which aim to provide undergraduates with hands-on research experience and to encourage these promising students to consider graduate degrees and research careers. The second “E” in the REEU program – extension – indicates that undergraduates in these programs are expected to gain not only research skills, but also experience directly communicating with stakeholders. Their research is supposed to directly relate to community needs and concerns, and students need to gain experience communicating with these communities. Given the complexity of the issues surrounding MVP, the numerous questions local communities have asked various Virginia Tech faculty about potential environmental impacts, and its location essentially in Virginia Tech’s backyard, this issue proved a compelling and challenging framework for our interdisciplinary research efforts associated with the REEU this summer.

Along with my co-program directors, Cully Hession (BSE), Brian Badgley (SPES and GCC), and Amber Vallotton (HORT), we immersed our eight students in the unique local culture and hydrology of the southern Appalachians during their nine-week stay in Blacksburg. Students learned about Appalachian history and culture from Dr. Theresa Burriss, the head of Appalachian Studies at Radford University, visited an active natural gas extraction site in Buchanan County with Dr. Nino Ripepi from Virginia Tech’s Mining and Mineral Engineering Department, visited local farmers dependent on water resources in the New River Valley, and experienced the reality of karst geology firsthand during a local caving trip with the Department of Environmental Quality.

The goal of these speakers and trips was not simply for students to “download” background information, but to provide a real-time opportunity to start conversations with – and listen to! – local stakeholders with a variety of perspectives. Sustainable solutions to difficult issues in the food-energy-water sectors require an ability to be comfortable in the midst of complexity and understanding even when emotions run high.

Although our formal analysis of student outcomes is ongoing, early indicators suggest that students appreciated the opportunity to step out of the laboratory (or away from the computer) to talk to members of the local community, and that these conversations added nuance to their understanding of the MVP issue. Several intend to pursue careers that directly involve some science communication.

Our eight students spent their summer working collaboratively on three intersecting research projects focused on environmental and social aspects of the MVP, aided by a similarly diverse set of faculty mentors, including Global Change affiliates Bryan Brown, Julie Shortridge, Erin Hotchkiss, and Ryan Stewart, and IGC PhD student Lauren Wind. Student project specifics and perspectives on the summer program were recently covered by VT News. This specific REEU will continue for another two years, focusing on a different multi-faceted freshwater issue each summer. Send interested undergraduates our way!

Written by Leigh-Anne Krometis

Biological Systems Engineering