Sara Burch and Adam Wetherall backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Sara Burch and Adam Wetherall backpacking in the Grand Canyon.
Education & Service 

NAU student researchers seek solutions to environmental challenges

Sara Burch and Adam Wetherall backpacking in the Grand Canyon.

At Northern Arizona University, our faculty and students look for answers to some of our most compelling environmental challenges—together.

One of these initiatives is protecting and preserving the region’s scarce groundwater supplies during a prolonged drought. Natalie Jones, a graduate student in NAU’s School of Earth and Sustainability, conducts hydrogeology research in the Grand Canyon under the mentorship of her advisor, hydrogeologist and ecohydrologist Abe Springer. Jones led a study on Roaring Springs, the Grand Canyon National Park’s only source of water, in collaboration with researchers at the park, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, and the Kentucky Geological Survey at the University of Kentucky. Her research provides better information to water managers, enabling them to protect the Grand Canyon’s water resources.

“These springs and streams support diverse ecosystems, and many hikers and wildlife rely on them for survival,” Jones said. “This research helps narrow down where these water sources are coming from and could help us better protect them in the future.”

As an undergraduate student, Geology major Cecily Combs had the opportunity to work on one of the region’s most significant forestry projects of this century—the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI)—as a researcher for Springer. 4FRI is designed to increase biodiversity and make southwestern forests more resilient.

Combs’ research is focused on monitoring and obtaining water samples from springs in the Flagstaff area. Combs samples the springs seasonally to measure their water output. Her research provides a longitudinal view of the effects of 4FRI on groundwater recharge.

“It’s honestly pretty amazing to know that as an undergraduate, I was allowed to participate in something that’s going to be a long-standing project, something that’s going to make a difference,” Combs said.

As a professor in NAU’s School of Earth and Sustainability, Springer conducts research on hydrogeology, ecohydrology, non-market valuation, karst hydrogeology, and many other related water topics. He mentors students like Natalie Jones, Cecily Combs, and Kayleigh Nuyttens, pictured below during a research expedition.

Geology graduate student Kaleigh Nuyttens surveys the Grand Canyon.

Combs appreciates the guidance she has received from Springer. “I like that Dr. Springer doesn’t let you get lost,” she said. “He encourages us to work with each other, play to our strengths, and build our network connections. He’s really encouraging us not to grow just as scientists, but as people too.”

The collaboration and support she has received at NAU from Springer and others have made an impact, and her goals are much clearer now: Combs sees research in her future, whether in graduate school or for a public or private employer. Mentors like Springer, who dedicate so much to helping their students, set NAU apart from the rest.

Student photographers at the Grand Canyon.