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Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Potential research projects

CWU faculty mentors come from a variety of disciplines including Biology, Chemistry, Geography, Geology, Public Health, Recreation and Tourism, Science Education, and Sociology.

You could:

  • Reconstruct forest and fire history by analyzing lake sediment cores
  • Study the impacts of insect pest expansion on agriculture and forestry
  • Examine the effects of wildfire soot on snowpack
  • Test air and water samples to describe changes in these resources
  • Conduct pika surveys to examine their responses to climate change
  • Develop classroom activities to teach others how snowpack is changing
  • Evaluate long-term climate change through rock glaciers in the Cascades
  • Design surveys and interview community members about their perceptions and personal behavior on local or regional climate change
  • Determine the impact of climate change-related hazards on tourism services and agritourism operations in Washington
  • Conduct experiments on sunflowers to test drought tolerance of different genetic lines
  • Analyze health behavior responses to air quality events due to wildfire

Some of these potential projects are described in more detail below. Note that actual project availability may differ from this list. 


Understanding wildfire: Reconstructing fire history in the Pacific Northwest

Megan Walsh, Geography
Students extracting a lake sediment coreWildfires in the Pacific Northwest are becoming more frequent and destructive as the result of climate change and 20th century fire suppression, but how is this activity likely to change in the future? The answer lies in understanding the past. Paleofire research gives us insight into how current fires compare to past fire activity and helps us understand the influence of both climate variability and human actions on fire regimes. By developing a better understanding of the long-term history of fires in the region, more informed forest management decisions can be made to better protect our landscapes in the face of future climate change. Students will participate in all aspects of fieldwork, lab work and data analysis to examine lake sediment cores that preserve macroscopic charcoal records of past fire activity.

Preparation: No particular background is required, though students may find introductory geography, geology, ecology, or Earth science courses to be helpful.


Climate-change canaries:  assessing responses of American pikas to climate gradients

Kris Ernest, Biological Sciences
American pikas (Ochotona princeps) are particularly sensitive to climate change due to their low tolerance of heat, need for winter snowpack as insulation, and responses to changing nutritional quality of their food plants. Students will participate in field work, lab work, and data analysis to examine potential responses of pikas to climate change near Snoqualmie Pass. Our findings will be applied to the SPEP, where multiple wildlife crossing structures along a climatic gradient are planned (in part) to support the ability of pikas and other species to maintain population connectivity across the highway as climate changes ensue. 

Preparation: Potential students should have some background in general biology and ecology.  GIS training and statistics are helpful.


Investigating climate and environmental change in the Cascades using seasonal snow and ice cores from glaciers

Susan Kaspari, Geological Sciences
Students using the SEMIce cores and the seasonal snowpack provide a wealth of information about climate and environmental change in the Pacific Northwest.  This project will involve: 1) Chemical analyses of ice cores to reconstruct how the climate and environment has changed during the past 150 years, and/or 2) Measuring light absorbing aerosols (LAA) in surface snow samples.  LAA include black carbon (commonly referred to as soot) produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil and biofuels, dust emitted from desert regions and land use change, volcanic ash, and colored organic material related to biologic activity. When deposited on highly reflective snow and glacier ice, LAA cause darkening of the surface (i.e., reduce the albedo, or reflectivity), resulting in greater absorption of solar energy, heating of the snow/ice, and accelerated snow and glacier melt.  LAA can thus affect the timing and availability of water resources. 

Preparation: Potential students should have taken introductory chemistry.


The Effect of Biomass and Fossil Fuel Combustion Particles on Aquatic Systems

Anne Johansen, Chemistry
Increased emissions of combustion related carbonaceous nanoparticles (CNP) affect climate, and local and regional environments. Once deposited onto surfaces these particles interact with naturally occurring matter in reactions that remain largely ill-defined. To increase our understanding of the chemical mechanisms that control particle reactivity, we perform laboratory studies of soot particles in the presence of environmentally relevant molecules. Results from these experiments are compared to chemical and physical properties of soot particles. Students receive experience with a large suite wet-chemical as well as dry analytical techniques, including UV-Vis spectrophotometry, fluorometry, chemiluminescence, X-Ray Diffraction, particle size analysis, chromatography, and photochemistry.  Results from these studies help scientists assess the impact of increased fossil fuel consumption and forest fires on our environment.

Preparation: Students should have taken the entire general chemistry sequence and either be interested in analytical chemistry or have taken quantitative analysis.

Rock Glaciers and Pro-talus Lobes as Permafrost Indicators and Potential Water Sources in Eastern Cascade Watersheds

Karl Lillquist, Geography 
Rock glaciers and protalus lobes are elongate to broad deposits of rock and ice found in the high elevation heads of mountain watersheds. They were traditionally considered key landform and climate indicators of more continental mountain ranges, where snowfall and winter temperatures are lower than their marine counterparts. Little attention was previously given to such features in the marine-influenced Cascade Range of Washington state. Cascade Range glaciers are rapidly declining. As a result, their influence of base flow in streams is diminishing. Because of this decline, rock glaciers and protalus lobes, with their thick debris covers and potentially ample ice (i.e., permafrost) cores, may increase in importance as water sources in Eastern Cascades watersheds.  We will map Cascades rock glaciers and protalus lobes to determine the location of present-day and past permafrost in the region.  We will then determine ice contents of a sample of these features using basic field observations as well as ground penetrating radar in remote field settings. From this mapping and classification, we will then estimate the amount of water stored in Cascades rock glaciers and protalus features, and its potential impact on regional hydrology in a warming world.

Preparation: Potential students need only have taken introductory physical geography or physical geology. Knowledge of GIS is a plus. Students should be willing and able to hike with a heavy backpack, carrying gear into remote locations.


Impacts of climate change/natural hazards on tourism services and/or agritourism operations in Washington

Carla Jellum, Events & Tourism Management

Climate change in the Pacific Northwest has the potential to impact snowpack, availability of water resources, and the distribution of microclimates, among other things. Many components of the tourism industry are built around these climatic conditions, including the ski industry, wine and beer production, river rafting, and fishing. In this research, students will collect and analyze data from businesses, counties, and individuals using surveys and other techniques. 

Preparation: Potential students should be interested in a social science research project.


Health behavior responses to air quality "events"

Casey Mace, Public Health

One of the major influences on summer air quality in the Pacific Northwest is wildfire, and the wildfire regime is changing as climate changes. The number of unhealthy air quality days has increased in recent years, which disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations. This project focuses on health belief models, as well as barriers and cues to action for preventing and reducing air pollution exposure for children and other vulnerable populations. The work will involve surveying parents.

Preparation: Potential students should be interested in a social science research project.



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