Scholar Spotlight: Verónica Morales

Assistant Professor
University of California, Davis

2018 SSMN Seed Grant Winner
2019 NSF CAREER Grant Awardee

Sloan Scholar PhD in Biological and Environmental Engineering
Cornell University

Verónica Morales won a 2019 NSF CAREER Award for her ongoing project: Fundamental Controls of Transport Attributes from Porous Media Microstructure. Visit the Morales Lab’s website here

What is your area of research? And, how did you become interested in this research?

I am particularly passionate about understanding how and why groundwater contaminants move underground through soil and rock.

My primary area of expertise is transport and fate in porous media. I first became interested in this topic when I took a class as an undergraduate at UCSB in Tracer Hydrology, which led to a research internship at a superfund site. The topic itself was fascinating, but most of all I fell in love with the challenge of deciphering the processes taking place in a system that is opaque and generally inaccessible for detailed direct measurements. At the macroscale, studying groundwater contaminant transport suffers from the “observer effect”, in which the mere act of experimental observation disturbs the system to some degree, with at times adverse consequences for contaminant mobilization. Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with incredibly creative scientists who have helped me put together a unique set of research skills that literally shed light on optically obscure porous media so we can better observe and study the processes that happen inside them. I am still passionate about the technical challenges and numerous open questions to be addressed this area, and feed off of the inquisitiveness and motivation of my students to address problems related to public and environmental health.

How did winning the 2018 SSMN Seed Grant benefit your research on groundwater contamination and your overall career development?

The work we were able to achieve in the summer was recently published in a top journal in our field, and is featured on the May 2020 issue cover.

Receiving the SSMN seed grant a couple of years ago allowed me to recruit my first doctoral student and support her over the summer. The timing of the grant could not have been better since she joined my group with funding for the first academic year. This bought me the necessary time to find extramural funds. Furthermore, I was able to use some of the early data for an NSF-CAREER proposal, which got funded early last year. Altogether, the SSMN seed grant has allowed me to quickly establish a vibrant research group on subsurface environmental processes, build a solid track record for grantsmanship, and gain a great deal of visibility through research output supported by the Sloan Scholars Mentoring Network itself.

Your NSF CAREER research is student-centered and focused on creating tools that make science more accessible to students and facilitate flipped classroom environments. Why have you decided to focus this part of your research on students and pedagogy?

My goal as a scientist and educator is to raise awareness and broaden overall understanding of how groundwater contamination occurs. Many concepts related to the fundamental principles for groundwater engineering (and STEM in general) are mathematically challenging. Therefore, I have proposed for the educational component of my NSF-CAREER to create an interactive visualization tool that lowers the math entry barrier in my area of expertise. Tools like this overturn traditional teaching approaches with student-centered learning activities. The goal is to have pupils first interact and visualize data to gain a conceptual sense of the problem, and then work on comprehending the math behind it. These types of inquiry-based pedagogical strategies have been shown to be effective at engaging students with subjects they otherwise find intimidating, and at helping them strengthen connections between mathematical equations and the concepts they represent.

What is your next upcoming conference and what will you be presenting?

The next conference I will be attending is the American Geophysical Union—the prominent meeting for Earth scientists. I will present the findings of a project where we studied the different constituents in produced water from hydraulic fracturing that could increase the risk for groundwater contamination in unlined or breached retention ponds on the drilling site.

What do you like to do for fun/to relax that has nothing to do with your work?

My partner and I try to spend as much time as possible doing outdoor activities to recharge and clear our minds. We love to hike, bike tour, and rock climb, all of which are activities with jaw- dropping backgrounds in the Sierras.

Edited by Selena Rodriguez

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