UW American Indian Student Receives Major Science Fellowship Award

May 6, 2010
Man testing snow
Ernie Lawson measures snow depth in the Medicine Bow National Forest.

Growing up hunting and fishing in the Northern Arapaho Tribe on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Ernest Lawson has always been an outdoors enthusiast, but he had no idea that his interest would lead to a research position and several major research scholarships while attending the University of Wyoming.

This academic year, Lawson received the Wyoming National Science Foundation EpSCoR Undergraduate Research Fellowship and a Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium Award. He conducts field research in southwestern Wyoming's Medicine Bow National Forest that involves measuring snow depth along the sagebrush-conifer landscape. The work is part of a study designed to better understand the role of climate change and bark beetles on forest ecosystems and adjacent plant communities.

Lawson is a student with UW's American Studies Program and the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

"I am the first member of my family to attend college, and my community was really happy to hear that I received this honor and funding support for this research," Lawson says.

His research team and mentors, Bill Lauenroth, an expert in plant community ecology and ecohydrology, and Post Doctoral Research Associate Daniel Schlaepfer, both with the UW Department of Botany, are using the data collected by Lawson to conduct computer simulations to assess the affects of climate change (drought and high participation years) on these natural systems.

Not only does Lawson considers himself a research apprentice, he has proven himself to be a leader of other students interested in combining their curriculum with real-world applications in the field. Lauenroth, along with faculty members in American Studies and ENR, highly recommended Lawson for the scholarships.

"Ernie is an exemplary student because of his academic performance as well as his tireless work in the field and the laboratory," Lauenroth says.

Lawson was also recently awarded the Chief Washakie Memorial Scholarship, Northern Arapaho Endowment, and the John and Ada Thorpe Scholarship. These additional awards will support his tuition and fees in the coming academic year.

"Ernest is an example for how American Indian students can take advantage of the university's programs and fellowship opportunities. With his tribe's long ties to the landscape, this project, which was designed to better understand the relationships between precipitation, the forest ecosystem and sagebrush, is a good fit for him," Lauenroth says.

Sagebrush, always associated with the Wyoming landscape, is a keystone species for a variety of wildlife. "Our research will help us know more about this important plant species and what it needs to survive long term," Lawson says.

Wyoming has proven to be an ideal testing grounds for this research because of the high, open arid country and the proximity of sagebrush to adjacent forest areas. Dense stands of conifer trees and snow depth on the forest floor play a significant role in the plant's growth and adaptability, he says. Another aspect of the research is to better understand pine beetle outbreaks in Wyoming's forests.

The EpSCoR fellowship that helped launch his applied research has provided Lawson with a stepping stone to a possible career in natural resource management.

"I would like to learn more about operating a laboratory so I can bring that knowledge back to the Northern Arapaho nation and the reservation," he says.


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