By Published: Nov. 11, 2022

Undergraduate awarded funds as a part of an effort to encourage research for student military veterans

Randall Duncan has always taken an interest in how water affects the environment. But it was not until later in his life that he became aware of the fraught issue of water in the West.

Duncan is an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also a U.S. Army veteran. He is pursuing dual degrees in geology and geography and once pursued a bachelor’s degree in international studies at the University of Wyoming before enlisting.

But Duncan found a renewed interest in hydrology (the scientific study of water resources, management and movement) and hydrogeology (the study of the distribution and movement of groundwater in rocks and soil) upon returning home.

Randall Duncan out in the field

At the top of the page: Beaver dams on Trout Creek (Jeff Mitton/Flickr). Above: Randall Duncan conducting field work on the influence of beaver on rivers and floodplains near Crested Butte, CO (photo courtesy of Katherine Lininger).

After returning from the Army, Duncan committed himself to a couple geology and geography research projects.

Last summer, Duncan assisted a master’s student’s research investigating the role of beaver dams in controlling sedimentation rates and organic carbon storage in rivers.

“I’ve basically been helping out anyone in the lab that needs help,” says Duncan. “I just wanted to be a part of it and would work with whomever and wherever I was needed.” 

Now, Duncan has been given the opportunity to start his own undergraduate research.

Duncan’s research will continue to analyze how beavers affect rivers and floodplains in the Manitou Experimental Forest and the Coal Creek Watershed, which supplies water to the town of Crested Butte, Colorado. He notes, “I have become much more interested in these unique creatures and more importantly how their actions change the environment around them.”

Duncan will focus on a geospatial analysis of historic beaver activity over time using aerial imagery, linking the density of beaver ponds with the physical characteristics of the river corridor (channel and floodplain).

The research will study if the ponds remain in certain areas and, Duncan says, “how different interactions with (beavers’) habitat, like from livestock and humans, have an effect on their development.”

Duncan’s undergraduate research project is a part of the Dynamic Water Cluster project, which itself is attached to the Critical Zone Thematic Cluster —a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program. The project studies “how water stored in the subsurface drives environmental processes from supporting forest growth to groundwater and surface water quality,” says Holly Barnard, the lead principal investigator of the Critical Zone Thematic Cluster.

Duncan’s project will be assisted by his mentor, Katherine Lininger, an assistant professor of geography and co-principal investigator. Lininger says there is a variety of choice from the critical zone program. She says Duncan “could have chosen to do anything related to critical zone work.”

Duncan’s project will be funded by the NSF’s GEO-VETS (Geosciences-Veterans Education and Training) initiative. The initiative grants the “opportunity to support U.S. veterans’ participation and experience in research and fieldwork related to active NSF geoscience grants,” says Barnard.

The initiative recognizes that veterans are an underutilized workforce and believes that the military training obtained by many student veterans is useful in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, specifically geosciences. “It’s a great place for those skills that don’t ever get used,” says Duncan.

The initiative is a great way to support the involvement of veterans in research activities.

GEO-VETS funding is offered to U.S. veterans who are students, two-year college faculty, or K–12 teachers. The funds provide veterans an opportunity to work with approved principal investigators to conduct NSF research and fieldwork.

“The GEO-VETS funding opportunity has created a formal mechanism to broaden participation in undergraduate research for student veterans and increase their experiential learning opportunities,” says Barnard.

Lininger agrees. “The initiative is a great way to support the involvement of veterans in research activities.”

The fund to CU Boulder’s critical zone project totals to $21,495 from GEO-VETS. It will support veterans’ attendance at a scientific conference of their choosing in addition to research experience.

“It really helps. … Given that most vets are coming in as non-traditional students, so they don’t quite mesh as well as your standard undergrads,” says Duncan, adding:

“It has been a great opportunity!”

More information and eligibility requirements for veterans interested in research can be found on the National Science Foundation’s website.