Spending her entire life surrounded by the Great Lakes of Michigan, it’s no surprise that Whitney Woelmer, the 2022 Outstanding Doctoral Student of the Year in the Virginia Tech College of Science, centers her research on issues of water quality.

At Eastern Michigan University, Woelmer earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary environmental science and society with a biology focus. The relatively new and unique academic program, combined with a study abroad trip to China, helped shape Woelmer’s research interests.

“At that time in my life, I became more aware of environmental issues, and that trip to China was pretty formative in seeing all of the environmental impacts,” said Woelmer. “[My experiences] really solidified the importance of environmental problems [in my mind] and wanting to work in that realm – not only because it felt very meaningful to me, but it was something that was relevant across the board, across the globe.”

Now a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biological Sciences, Woelmer arrived at Virginia Tech in 2018, where she works in the lab of Associate Professor Cayelan Carey. As part of a long-term partnership with the Western Virginia Water Authority in Roanoke, the lab runs a water quality monitoring program for four drinking water reservoirs.

Woelmer is the second student from Carey’s lab to earn recognition as the College of Science’s Outstanding Doctoral Student, joining 2021 recipient Mary Lofton.

Woelmer’s research is broadly focused on understanding water quality – things like the amount of algae or nutrients – in lakes and reservoirs and predicting how it can change both over time and spatially. More specifically, Woelmer examines the influences of phytoplankton dynamics in drinking water reservoirs. By combining historical monitoring data with statistical models and high-frequency sensor networks, she and her colleagues are able to produce near-term forecasts of algal blooms.

The various types of data available for analysis date back to Carey’s arrival at Virginia Tech in 2013, giving the research team a distinct advantage.

“When you have a longer time series like that, you can see these bigger trends because there’s going to be so much variability from year to year,” said Woelmer. “Being able to look at things from a longer perspective allows you to really understand the directionality of how things are changing.”

Woelmer also notes that having datasets available from longer periods of time enables researchers to filter out the influence of rare events or smaller changes, creating a more accurate long-term picture, and aids in building prediction models.

“One thing I really like about my research is that I tend to use simpler models that are not really complicated to build,” said Woelmer. “They’re relatively easy to develop, but you can apply them in many different locations — rather than a complicated model that someone has to have a lot of expertise in order to calibrate or apply in a new system.

“It’s showing the idea that we don’t always need the most complicated model out there; we can adapt simpler things more easily.”

Carey heaps praise on Woelmer’s “demonstrated work ethic, desire to tackle ambitious research projects, and proven track record,” and asserts that Woelmer’s research “will transform water management.” But what makes Woelmer so deserving of this year’s Outstanding Doctoral Student award is a unique set of skills developed during her broad life experiences.

Woman collects water sample
As an environmental scientist working at the intersection of data science and ecology, Whitney Woelmer is motivated by her desire to use science in real-life applications and provide meaningful knowledge to the people who need it. Photo courtesy of Whitney Woelmer.

After graduating from Eastern Michigan, Woelmer spent 2 1/2 years as a fisheries contractor at the U.S. Geological Surveys (USGS) Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Seeking a change of scenery, Woelmer then joined the Peace Corps, moving to Zambia, where she worked as a rural aquaculture promotion extension agent.

Although Woelmer’s stints at the USGS and Peace Corps were vastly different, her experiences at each allowed her to progress to her current position.

“I think my experience in fisheries work at the Great Lakes Science Center was really helpful in setting me up to do the project that I did in Peace Corps, which was focused on teaching people aquaculture promotion, teaching people to raise fish for food purposes,” said Woelmer. “My position as USGS allowed me to gain valuable research skills, but I wanted to do something that was more applied, and [I was able to work] a little bit more with people in the Peace Corps.”

Now, Woelmer is able to combine and strengthen the skills that she developed in her earlier experiences. Woelmer not only relies on her background in data science to build forecasting models, but she is tasked with communicating with an array of audiences.

The Roanoke water reservoir project has enabled Woelmer to interface with managers of a water utility. Meanwhile, another project based at a lake in central New Hampshire requires Woelmer to communicate with different constituents — namely, local landowners who want to keep the lake pristine.

“[These projects] span across the realm of actual management for drinking water to aesthetic and cultural enjoyment of lakes,” said Woelmer. “They’ve provided a wide range of seeing how humans interact with lakes and reservoirs and freshwater ecosystems.”

In addition to her status as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow, Woelmer is also the student co-chair of the NSF-funded Ecological Forecasting Initiative. Entering the role in 2019, she leads an association of approximately 50 early-career researchers from around the world.

“Ecological forecasting is a rapidly growing field, and Whitney’s research is guiding not only the management of the drinking water reservoirs, but also informing new approaches for model-data fusion and forecasting in ecology as a discipline,” said Carey, who is an affiliated member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Global Change Center.

Woelmer’s interest in ecological forecasting extends to teaching: One chapter in Woelmer’s dissertation is geared towards producing an educational module that teaches undergraduate students how to communicate forecasting to different stakeholders.

“I was really excited to develop that research chapter,” said Woelmer. “It pulls together all of my different interests, helping to both teach and communicate research for a diverse group of people.

“Dr. Carey was really great in helping me find a way to be able to include that chapter,” Woelmer continued. “Even though my research focus is in the biology department, it allows me to bring some of these social science or pedagogical components to my research.”

Woelmer expects to conclude her Ph.D. program in 2023 and after earning her degree, hopes to work in extension or in the nonprofit sector heading up a research program.

“Ultimately, I’d like to work at the intersection of research knowledge and application for real world problems.”

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