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NSF grad fellow aims to make roads safer

jbrehm2, October 17, 2014

NSF grad fellow aims to make roads safer

Curtis Walker loves storms, but the New York native didn’t come to Nebraska to watch its spectacular lightning shows. He came to study cloud cover and to make the roads safer in bad weather. His doctoral research got a significant boost last year that continues to pay off for him and for UNL.

Walker is one of seven UNL graduate students who began the new academic year as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. The prestigious fellowship program provides three years of financial support for graduate study leading to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree. Students receive a yearly stipend as well as international research and professional development support.NSF Graduate Research Fellows

A second-year fellow, Walker said that, in addition to the financial benefits, the fellowship is allowing him to advance his research beyond what he could accomplish otherwise. While many graduate students must balance research and teaching, Walker concentrates solely on research. He also has access to the NSF-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research’s supercomputing resources, which has enabled him to expand his data-intensive research project.

Working with his adviser, Mark Anderson, associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, Walker is investigating ways to use cloud cover data to better forecast road conditions.

Today’s road temperature models view clouds as either present or absent. “The problem is clouds don’t work like that,” Walker said. “We’re interested in those transition periods of increasing or decreasing cloud cover as well as types of clouds.”

He’s plugging existing satellite data regarding clouds into models that forecast road temperature to see if he can improve their performance. One benefit of better road-condition forecasting would be to improve predictions about icy roads and help municipalities send salt crews to areas likely to freeze first during a snowstorm. For example, roads that had warmed under sunny conditions hours before a storm would freeze more slowly than those that had experienced some cloud cover.

He’s also thinking about future applications, such as helping power plant managers know when they can rely on solar panel energy from a sunny day.

Walker said UNL’s warm welcome and Anderson’s support drew him here. Anderson and others at UNL encouraged him to seek additional opportunities to advance his research and career.

Anderson said the fellowship demonstrates Walker’s capabilities, but the connections Walker has made through the fellowship also are opening doors for both of them.

“It’s helping to snowball other research,” Anderson said. “His fellowship has expanded communication and opportunities for UNL.”

Walker said, “Being able to focus purely on my research with the NSF fellowship has allowed me to be a lot further along, and the financial resources can’t be overstated. I would encourage other students to always be on the lookout for opportunities to further your research.”

NSF Graduate Research Fellows

UNL’s 2014-2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellows, their faculty advisers and research areas are:
Walter Bircher, a master’s student working with Shane Farritor, professor, mechanical and materials engineering, researches robotics to improve minimally invasive surgery.

Daniel Geschwender, a doctoral student working with Berthe Choueiry, associate professor, computer science and engineering, studies constraint processing.
Elizabeth Knowlton, a doctoral student working with Eileen Hebets, associate professor, School of Biological Sciences, studies animal communication.

Jocelyn Olney, a master’s student working with Larkin Powell, professor, School of Natural Resources, researches the effects of wind farms on greater prairie chickens.

Angela Tran, a doctoral student working with John Lindquist, professor, agronomy and horticulture, conducts crop cover research to improve agricultural systems.

Curtis Walker, a doctoral student working with Mark Anderson, associate professor, earth and atmospheric sciences, studies ways to improve road condition forecasts.

Melissa Whitman, a doctoral student working with Sabrina Russo, associate professor, School of Biological Sciences, studies plant soil specialization.