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Research in Yellowstone brings Blugold national attention

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire grad Mara Reed (right) stands in front of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. Reed’s research about geyser’s more frequent eruptions is gaining national attention. (Photo by Carol Beverly)

Mara Reed still remembers being awed by the geysers in Yellowstone National Park when she visited the park with her family for the first time as a young girl.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate never could have guessed then that nearly 20 years later she would be talking to media across the country — including the New York Times — about her research on one of the park’s most famous geysers, Steamboat Geyser.

“Personally, I do feel I’ve hit a sort of milestone,” says Reed, who earned a degree in physics and a topical minor in foundations of geophysics from UW-Eau Claire in 2018. “My six-year-old self was enthralled by Yellowstone when my family took a trip there, and 18 years later, I’ve now published research on one of the places I went to on that trip.

“It’s a little surreal to see this research appear in the New York Times. I am not used to getting a bunch of emails from journalists.”

Reed, who is pursuing her master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, is excited to see the interest in the geysers, as well as her research.

The Steamboat project

Blugold Mara Reed looks at the famous Steamboat Geyser as it begins a major eruption. (Photo by Xiaojing Ruby Fu)

Blugold Mara Reed looks at the famous Steamboat Geyser as it begins a major eruption. (Photo by Xiaojing Ruby Fu)

Since March 2018, Steamboat Geyser — the world’s tallest active geyser with eruptions that shoot water more than 300 feet in the air — has been erupting at a record pace.

Reed and her research partners wanted to know why it reactivated, what influences its intervals and why its eruptions are so tall.

“We ruled out earthquakes and anomalous precipitation,” Reed says of their findings. “The geyser basin that hosts Steamboat experienced uplift and radiated more heat to the atmosphere in the years leading up to the reactivation, but the temperature of the deep-water reservoir feeding the eruptions did not change and other geysers did not reactivate. So, it’s not clear that magmatic processes are directly affecting the surface hydrothermal system there, as was suggested by others.”

Since intervals change seasonally and are longest in the winter, the researchers think it may be related to the hydrologic cycle, says Reed says.

“The volume of water erupted did not correlate with the interval before or after the eruptions, which was a bit unexpected,” Reed says.

They also determined that geysers with deeper plumbing systems erupt to greater heights. So, the deeper the water, the higher the pressure and temperature, and therefore the more energy is stored to power the eruptions, she says.

While Reed currently is taking a break from her graduate studies because of the COVID-19 pandemic and to treat her depression, she plans to return to Berkeley in the fall to continue her studies and her research.

“In general, most geysers don’t even have the most basic dataset — a continuous record of their eruptions — and we need to get better at monitoring geysers, especially from a geophysical standpoint,” Reed says of the ongoing importance of their research efforts.

Finding her path at UW-Eau Claire

While Reed already was thinking about attending graduate school when she first came to UW-Eau Claire, she didn’t know what path she might follow during her undergraduate years to get her there.

Her UW-Eau Claire classes and faculty mentors helped her figure it out, she says.

“Grad school was always on my radar, but I definitely came into college with too many interests, and my time at UWEC helped me focus them,” Reed says. “For a while I was convinced that I wanted to study astrophysics. But the more geology courses I took, the more I realized I wanted to apply my knowledge of physics to earth science problems.”

She also discovered her love of research during her time at UW-Eau Claire.

Reed was one of 20 incoming freshmen selected to be Blugold Fellows, a program that pairs students with faculty research mentors. The Blugold Fellows, who receive scholarships and stipends, assist a faculty member on special projects or collaborate with them on research for one or two years.

Her first research in Yellowstone National Park was as a Blugold Fellow. For that project, she wrote a proposal to get permission from the National Park Service to put temporary temperature loggers in a handful of geyser runoff channels to record their eruptions.

The fellowship also helped her connect with Dr. Matt Evans, professor of physics and director of the Blugold Fellowship program, who Reed says was an extraordinary mentor.

“I did a lot of work independently, but Dr. Evans provided exceptional mentorship during my four years at UWEC, both in terms of research and in terms of navigating life’s many obstacles,” Reed says.

Evans says he is excited, though not surprised, to see Reed having success in her graduate studies.

“It has been great to see Mara take a childhood fascination and apply her scientific mind to their study,” Evans says of her research involving geysers in Yellowstone. “In her pursuit of understanding, she has kept her wide-eyed appreciation of its beauty as she has searched for their understanding.”

Evans says Reed always was passionate about her science studies and her research, so he was confident she would excel in graduate school and beyond.

“Mara was the type of student who always pursued her interests in science even as part of her vacations,” Evans says, noting that he remembers her piling into a car with three other physicists during a school break to go explore “her turf” out West. “Being the scientists they were, their trip led to a project that later was completed by another student about the timing of eruptions in Yellowstone. I’m always proud to see students work together to extend science.”

One of her quotes in the New York Times story stands out because it captures Reed so well, Evans says.

“My favorite line from the article is when she says, ‘We still can’t explain simple things about how they work.’ She always relished in the journey of understanding and wants to contribute to the forward progress with her efforts.”

Other mentors who helped guide her during her time at UW-Eau Claire include Dr. Vicki Whitledge, professor of mathematics; Dr. Scott Clark, associate professor of geology; and Dr. Phil Ihinger, professor and chair of the geology department.

“Drs. Clark and Ihinger introduced me to topics in earth science and helped orient my goals,” Reed says. “They also provided support, especially when I was trying to figure out how to manage school and depression.”

While she majored in physics, once on campus, Reed discovered she also had an interest in geology. Faculty worked with her, so she was able to pursue a geology-related topical minor to reflect those interests, she says.

While her academic focus was on the sciences, Reed says she found meaningful experiences across the campus. For example, she played the oboe in bands and orchestras in UW-Eau Claire’s music programs.

“My music taught me that keeping up with things you enjoy is good protection against burnout,” Reed says. “I developed as a musician and continued to explore my creativity. And it turns out creativity and problem-solving skills are really useful when it comes to research.”

Building on her interests in Yellowstone, earth science

Reed has long been fascinated by Yellowstone’s many geysers. As she began studying them, she was excited to find that many people share her interest.

“'Geyser gazing’ was first a hobby of mine, and I got very familiar with the patterns of Yellowstone’s geysers thanks to others in the small but robust geyser gazing community,” Reed says. “As my interests expanded from physics into earth science, it just made sense to start thinking about geysers from a research standpoint, too.”

The Steamboat Geyser study now garnering so much attention began when Reed and her co-authors attended the 2019 Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research summer program.

The Steamboat research started as a group project during that summer program, but the team members found it so interesting that they kept it going after the program ended. The project then morphed into a full-blown research collaboration, she says.

Reed has been involved in the project every step of the way.

She introduced the idea of studying Steamboat to her co-authors, provided some coordination for getting everyone’s work in sync, did fieldwork to collect water samples, and was involved in much of the data analysis, especially calculating eruption volumes.

Reed also co-wrote and edited much of the manuscript, which was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

While Reed and her research partners focused on Steamboat, their findings have implications beyond the one geyser, Reed says.

“If we don’t understand how geysers work, we don’t understand how fluids move through and interact with the subsurface,” Reed says. “Much of the same physics and fluid dynamics involved in geyser eruptions also applies to volcanic eruptions, and geysers erupt more often than volcanoes so can be more easily studied.”

Looking to the future

With the Steamboat research now published, Reed is focusing on completing her master’s degree program and taking care of her health.

She then will decide what comes next for her.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from dealing with chronic depression, it’s that the timeline of my future is always shifting,” Reed says. “I’m still working out how to manage this health condition. But I’m still here, and that means something.

“At minimum I want to finish a master’s degree, and then I’ll decide whether pursuing a Ph.D. is still necessary. Eventually, I hope to end up in natural resource monitoring on public lands, so that I can be a steward to the places that got me interested in science in the first place. I hope some more research is in my future, too.”

As she considers her own future, Reed has advice for current and future Blugolds.

“Remember that there is not a single path to your destination, and that it’s not the end of the world if your destination changes,” Reed says. “Success can look like many, many different things.”