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Hydrologist Martha Conklin Pursues Interdisciplinary Study of California Rivers and Streams

February 26, 2004

MERCED, CA — Imagine a group of middle school students - perhaps later this year - clustered on the banks of the upper Merced River. They're collecting data on stream water temperature and air temperature. And they'll pass their measurements on to Martha Conklin, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Merced, who will incorporate their measurements into her research.

Conklin's highly interdisciplinary work focuses on how dissolved constituents, such as metals from mine tailings, nutrients from vegetation and chemicals absorbed from the air, move through rivers and their complex surroundings. This research will influence the quality of the water, soil, air, plants, and even the health of people and animals in and around a stream.

Synthesizing information about all these elements of river systems should ultimately help people use the water and everything around it productively and responsibly. K-12 students in the area will get involved with Conklin's work through GLOBE, an international organization that aims to improve primary and secondary environmental and science education through collaboration with university-level scientific researchers. The goal of the organization is to develop scientific uses for data collected by science students from kindergarten through high school. Conklin is currently working to develop student-monitoring sites on the upper Merced River and looking for contacts to do similar work on the San Joaquin Valley floor.

“It's vital to educate the next generation about the environment and encourage them to go into science and engineering,” Conklin says. “GLOBE works toward those goals, and I've helped the organization develop a greater emphasis on hydrology. We will need well educated and creative scientists to find solutions for water problems in the future.” Conklin joined the School of Engineering faculty at UC Merced in June 2003 after 16 years in the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona.

Conklin's research group investigates the biogeochemical cycling of metals associated with mining activities, such as manganese and nutrients in the nitrogen species. For the last nine years she has investigated Arizona's Pinal Creek, a metal-contaminated stream. This research involved fieldwork, laboratory studies and modeling to determine the biogeochemical constraints involved in the natural attenuation of such heavy metals as zinc, nickel and cobalt, and how these processes change in response to active remediation of a riparian system along the perennial reach of Pinal Creek. With California's past history of hard rock mining in the Sierra Foothills, Conklin is looking forward to developing new field sites here.

“The education that students will receive at UC Merced will be special because of both the dedication of our faculty to innovative student learning, and their leadership in cutting-edge scientific research,” says Dean of Engineering Jeff Wright. “Martha Conklin values and excels at both, and our students will see that immediately. Her enthusiasm and energy are already helping to shape the academic character of our program.”

Working on California streams, especially those flowing out of the Sierra Nevada, will be an interesting change, according to Conklin. The water in these systems comes largely from snowmelt, without the input from summer monsoons that streams in Arizona receive. Here, there are different factors to consider with population and air pollution.

Conklin and her students are currently working on determining the partitioning of snowmelt and groundwater in the Merced River, pursuing the hypothesis that recharge is an important sink for snowmelt. The ultimate goal, she says, is to determine the contribution of the Sierra to the water in the San Joaquin Valley. “That's a tall order,” she says, “but UC Merced is assembling the right team to tackle it.”

Conklin says she looks forward to the impressive list of collaborative opportunities available in Central California, from her new colleagues at UC Merced and other UC campuses to the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park and the National Laboratories at Berkeley and Livermore.

Conklin's research has been funded through prestigious sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), which provided financial backing for studies of metal cycling in streams and biological process. Currently, she is pursuing funding for new research.

Conklin received a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College in 1976. After working in air pollution consulting, she began work on an M.S. at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which she completed in 1980. She received her Ph.D. from Caltech in 1986.

Outside of work, Conklin enjoys gardening, dogs, outdoor recreation and her two children. Her husband, Roger Bales, is also a member of UC Merced's founding faculty. The family lives in Catheys Valley, California.