Earth Science professor, student return from groundwater research project in Mexico

With the help of a National Science Foundation grant, Northeastern Illinois University Associate Professor of Earth Science Kenneth Voglesonger completed his second successful Research Experience for Undergraduates trip to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico this summer.

The grant, a three-year, $474,000 award in partnership with Northern Illinois University, funds summer research experiences for six undergraduate students each year focusing on issues related to water quality. Last year, Northeastern student Karen Segura was selected to participate in the program, and this year’s Northeastern representative was Earth Science junior Andrea Saavedra.

The students are selected from across the country, and they work with experts from the United States and Mexico on projects related to groundwater recharge, groundwater contamination and public health, and groundwater geophysics. The Yucatán Peninsula is susceptible to water contamination due to tourism and population increases.

“This project gives students an opportunity to practice science in another environment, to collaborate with scientists in another country,” said Voglesonger, who works closely on this project with Earth Science Professor Laura Sanders. “It addresses the key problem of water resources in this part of the world.”

This year’s project began in June with two weeks of workshops at Northern Illinois, where students learned about responsible conduct of research and techniques for research, and worked with their mentors to write research proposals.

The project then shifted to Mexico for four weeks of execution of their research proposals in collaboration with Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán. The experience concluded with two more weeks at Northern Illinois.

Voglesonger mentored a Chemistry student from Humboldt State University to explore how nitrogen and phosphorus behave in groundwater, while Saavedra worked with Northern Illinois University Assistant Professor Thomas Pingel to collect accurate elevation measurements using drone technology to determine how groundwater moves in the subsurface and potential sources of contamination.

Saavedra learned how to use software such as ArcGIS, ArcMap, Mission Planner and Pix4D. She also learned how to fly drones and use the images taken with a GoPro camera to create 3-D point cloud maps.

“I had a wonderful and unforgettable experience,” said Saavedra, who plans to pursue a master’s degree after she graduates. “I consider myself lucky to have been able to do research in another country.”

Saavedra will use her experience to present at geological meetings and conferences during the coming academic year. While she appreciated the research experience, she also enjoyed the cultural side of her time in Mexico.

“I love to travel, so living in another country for a month and exploring different areas was my favorite part,” Saavedra said. “I also really enjoyed a place called Rio Secreto, which is where you get a tour of underground river and cave systems with fascinating stalagmite and stalactite formations.”

Northeastern is currently executing 15 projects funded by the National Science Foundation, up from four in 2014.

Northern Illinois University Assistant Professor Thomas Pingel (right) Andrea Saavedra work with their drone. (NIU/Scott Walstrom photo)

Top photo: Associate Professor of Earth Science Kenneth Voglesonger (right) and Earth Science major Andrea Saavedra (NIU/Scott Walstrom photo)

Above photo: Northern Illinois University Assistant Professor Thomas Pingel (right) Andrea Saavedra work with their drone. (NIU/Scott Walstrom photo)

Image: 
Associate Professor of Earth Science Kenneth Voglesonger (right) and Earth Science major Andrea Saavedra (NIU/Scott Walstrom photo)
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