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Former UW McNair, Wyoming Research Scholar Studies Puerto Rico Forest Hurricane Damage

March 15, 2018
woman with GPS device in dense forest
Jazlynn Hall, of Rawlins, and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, uses a high-resolution GPS to mark the corners of her calibration plots in the forests of Puerto Rico. Hall is part of a research team that is studying hurricane damage to better process how an increase in extreme weather may hinder the ability of forests to create a positive effect on the climate. (Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Photo)

A scholar from Rawlins who got her start in academia at the University of Wyoming is part of a major research project that recently was featured in the New York Times.

Jazlynn Hall, a former UW McNair Scholar and Wyoming Research Scholar who graduated from UW in 2016, is now a doctoral candidate in ecological and evolutionary biology at Columbia University. She was the subject of a photo that accompanied a March 7 New York Times feature article. The story centered on research of the devastated forest canopy in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria barreled through the country last September.

“I feel fortunate to be working as a part of Dr. Maria Uriarte's lab doing research that is directly related to current events,” Hall says. “It was a pretty big milestone to be mentioned at all (in the article), and I am excited to continue the research and see what we can discover with the data we are collecting.”

Hall is part of a research team that is studying the hurricane damage to better process how an increase in extreme weather may hinder the ability of forests to create a positive effect on the climate. Uriarte is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia.

“The Uriarte lab hopes to use this data to examine how the hurricane will affect forest dynamics and what that may mean for the future of the forests,” Hall explains. “This research hopes to estimate the physical changes in forest composition and structure, which will likely have a significant effect on the ability of forests to deliver ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and water resources.”

Hall says the research team spent three weeks in January assessing forest damage from plots marked in the field. A good portion of the January fieldwork was spent calibrating satellite images. This work, conducted with her lab partner, Andrew Quebbeman, was part of a joint student grant from Columbia’s Earth Institute.

Hall says her role, thus far, has been to use remote sensing techniques and the Google Earth Engine platform to estimate island-wide damage. She looked at Landsat data from before and after the hurricanes (Irma and Maria), and applied spectral mixture analysis to estimate the per-pixel proportions of non-photosynthetic vegetation. Much of her January research, and a portion of the fieldwork for the next few months, will focus on determining the relationships between the Landsat satellite-derived damage estimates to the damage that the research group is seeing on the ground.

The team will return to Puerto Rico periodically over the next few months.

“Our next steps will be to use those relationships to estimate vegetation damage and, therefore, biomass redistribution and loss, across the island,” Hall says. “I also have been involved with helping to process the field damage data that we have been sent by the volunteer team, and have been personally using that data to calibrate the estimate, of damage, that I created.”

UW Laid the Foundation

Hall says she benefited from the multitude of undergraduate research experiences she accumulated while at UW.

“I honestly cannot say enough good things about the McNair Scholars Program,” Hall says. “It played a large role in my being admitted to graduate school, as they have an incredibly helpful program training their scholars in how to appeal to schools, reach out to potential advisers and how to ultimately select the right program.”

woman looking up at downed tree in thick forest
Jazlynn Hall, a 2016 UW graduate, observes hurricane damage in the forests of Puerto Rico during January. Her fieldwork -- assessing hurricane damage with her Columbia University research group -- was featured in a March 7 New York Times article. (Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Photo)

The McNair Scholars Program also provided a course to prepare students for the Graduate Records Examination; held seminars about diverse topics ranging from time management to dealing with cultural and social barriers involved with being a first-generation college student; and provided guidance on writing and research techniques that have proven to be useful, she says.

“Additionally, they provided the funding for me to visit Columbia, which ultimately helped me make my decision, which I would not have been able to afford without the financial assistance of the program,” Hall says.

Hall also was a member of the inaugural class of the Wyoming Research Scholars Program. That opportunity provided research experience by pairing her with a faculty mentor and providing funding for travel to Panama, a trip she otherwise could not afford.

“They offered a seminar that highlighted critical thinking as well as insight into the scientific community that I have found useful in graduate school,” she says.

She also participated in Wyoming EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) and WyCEHG (Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics), and was a recipient of the competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award. When she graduated from UW in 2016, Hall was one of the top 20 Outstanding Arts and Sciences graduates.

“My time with WyCEHG taught me much about experimental design, field techniques and data processing, which are skills I utilize nearly every day in graduate school,” Hall says. “Monitoring and setting up the long-term research field stations gave me access to a wealth of information and taught me much about how to formulate questions with the data we have.

“EPSCoR provided the funding for multiple personal research projects, and was a valuable resource for conferences and conducting research,” she adds.

Adjusting to the Big City

Hall admits growing up in rural Wyoming was quite different from living in the urban jungle of New York City, which took some getting used to.

“It took some time to adjust to the crowds, noise and, honestly, the smell, of the city. It’s much more fast-paced, and you begin to miss having a car,” she says. “But, in other ways, it isn't terribly different. In my experience, New Yorkers put on rough faces, but they are not afraid to stand up for their fellow New Yorkers when they can see someone needs help. There is a strong sense of community here that I have a deep respect for.”

She also credits her support base at Columbia with helping her make the transition.

“I am incredibly fortunate to work alongside my colleagues here and to have had the opportunity to conduct research that I find meaningful while having so many wonderful people here to inspire and push me,” Hall says. 

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