By Sarah Bell, 3rd Year MES Student.
Over this last week I traveled to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas to attend a modeling workshop. The workshop included the theory and use of the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) taught by one of the model’s main developers, Dr. Srinivasan.
Initially I was excited to go to a workshop and receive hands on experience from a world-recognized instructor of the SWAT model. I envisioned myself anxiously answering questions, easily plugging in data for my thesis, all while sitting is a small classroom of equally eager graduate students. Alas, as my departure date approached I started to feel more like a nervous kid on the first day of school. What if I’m not prepared? What if I don’t know the answers? What if my data I brought is all wrong?
Eager to make a good impression, and not to get lost, I arrived early. As the other students started filing in that sense of nervousness grew. Everyone seemed not to be graduate students, but real world working professionals. What did I get myself into!?! But if my experience at Evergreen taught me anything, it’s to get out there and be part of your community, even when you think you’re all alone.
After introductions I was surprised at the diversity of my small SWAT workshop community. We ranged in age and experience, Master’s to Ph.D. students, government to federal employees, and many from abroad including Japan, Columbia, and Peru. Yet we all had the SWAT model in common. Our interest for SWAT model application ranged from quantifying ecosystem restoration, modeling best agricultural practices, tracking point source pollution, modeling climate change impacts of streamflow, and many more.
The range of topics was extremely fascinating, so in true MES tradition I had to arrange an after-hours seminar. It was such a great experience to network and interact with other individuals dedicated to approaching environmental issues with a systems based model. All having such varying backgrounds, I felt that my Evergreen education had truly prepared me to interact with such a diverse group of people, and who knew we would meet in the heart of Texas.
More surprising to me were the vast differences I observed between Texas A&M and Evergreen. Coming from Evergreen, I expect the vast array of recycling options, sustainability infrastructure on campus, and alternative transportation methods. I would go so far to say that the word “compost” is not foreign or scary to us. These were not my observations on or off campus. Recycling paper was not even an option. Rinse a can out to prep it for recycling and you’re now the weird one in the room. These differences were not a reflection of those who inhabited College Station, but more due to the lack of infrastructure and planning. Yet there I was learning a model that was built to predict levels of impairment across landscapes due to land management practices, which includes non-sustainable urban development. The irony of this situation was not lost on me. But models such as SWAT are widely available and more and more user-friendly. It’s these availabilities that give me hope for future sustainability in a multitude of facets, which was demonstrated by the diversity of those in attendance that week.
In reflection I think most of us get preoccupied and comfortable with our work at home. We often forget about the “Big Picture.” In the midst of writing a thesis I have to consider how my work will contribute to the larger scientific community. This concept became clear traveling to the SWAT workshop. Here I was representing my small liberal arts community in the big conservative world of Texas. Yet I found like-minded people passionate about sustainability, restoration, and contributing to their communities. I’m reminded that conversation and interaction is transformative. I don’t have to go into the world and do something innovative to make a difference. I can easily be the first to recycle in a new community, something small that I often take for granted, or run a model to prepare for climate change impacts on water resources. Overall my experience at the SWAT workshop was a success. Not only did I learn the ins and outs of the SWAT model, I was reminded that sharing ideas, finding your network, and moving out your comfort zone can be necessary to contribute to that “Big Picture.”