Rain and snow are normal weather events in many areas. But when weather turns severe in the form of storms, floods, or fires, it can cause massive damage for communities.
Sita Nyame ’18 (CLAS), today an environmental engineering major at UConn, is working with the Eversource Energy Center at UConn Tech Park to develop a prediction model for wildfires, the start of a promising research career.
Nyame spent her childhood in Ghana, an area that is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global climate change.
“When I was young, I saw a lot of environmental issues and didn’t understand why governments wouldn’t deal with it,” Nyame says.
This concern has followed Nyame throughout her life. When Nyame first came to UConn in 2015, she intended to major in environmental engineering, but when she took an introductory anthropology course, she fell in love with the subject.
“At the moment, that was the perfect fit for me,” Nyame says.
Nyame graduated with a degree in anthropology in 2018. After taking a year off, Nyame returned to UConn and is now completing a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering.
A Big-Picture Outlook
Nyame’s interest in anthropology still has applications for her work as an engineer.
“It definitely gave me a bigger-picture outlook,” Nyame says.
Oftentimes, engineers design a solution without considering how it needs to be integrated into the community using it.
“You can think that, as an engineer, you found the perfect solution, but you bring it into a different culture and they don’t see it as useful,” Nyame says.
As an engineer, Nyame was particularly drawn to studying natural hazards.
“Seeing how these events are very normal in our environment, but in extreme circumstances they do cause a lot of damage and have a severe impact on people’s everyday lives made me interested in studying them,” Nyame says.
Nyame worked on an NSF Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) project studying flood predictions in Ethiopia and the impact on food security. When an area swings from drought conditions to flooding, it can be difficult for farmers to plan where and when to plant and harvest crops.
In the work with PIRE, cross-cultural communication was critical. The communities the researchers work with in Ethiopia have a very different culture than the one from which the US-based researchers were coming.
“Talking to community representatives and getting their input and combining it with our input, bringing those two together, and coming up with a solution together was really beautiful,” Nyame says.
A New Project
Looking to expand her research work, Nyame approached Efthymios Nikolopoulos, a PIRE researcher, who introduced her to the principal investigator Emmanouil Anagnostou, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Eversource Energy Center at UConn Tech Park.
Nyame began working with the Center in Spring 2020, developing a wildfire prediction model under the supervision of Diego Cerrai, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and manager of the Eversource Energy Center. This was a great fit for Nyame, who had been following the stories of wildfires breaking out around the world last year.
“It was the icing on the cake to dive into it and see how engineers are going about tacking this issue,” Nyame says.
The model uses factors such as tree dryness, a forest’s proximity to roads, wind patterns, and human factors to predict where and when wildfires will break out.
Every week and everything we do I’m surprised by and intrigued by — Sita Nyame
Before a wildfire, energy companies cut off service because electrical wires can become dangerous during a blaze. This model will help companies better prepare for instances in which they need to cut off power.
“The hope of the model is to help companies predict wildfires before they happen, so they can get resources to people who will be impacted and limit outages,” Nyame says.
The model is currently focused on California, which regularly experiences devastating wildfires, but can be applied to other areas. This model could be useful for local government agencies who need to plan how to distribute resources to combat natural disasters.
Nyame’s role on the project is to complete data analysis, something she had little previous experience with from her engineering classes.
“Every week, and everything we do, I’m surprised by and intrigued by,” Nyame says.
Nyame was thrust into the center of a problem without a clear solution, but with a supportive team of other researchers.
“You just get thrown into a project and figure it out with everyone else,” Nyame says. “If it goes wrong, people are always around to help, so I never feel alone.”
Nyame hopes to continue working on this project while completing her Ph.D.
“Because of this research, I’ve gained the motivation to complete my engineering degree,” Nyame says.
After completing her Ph.D., Nyame wants to become a professor or work in the industry doing research and design, maintaining a focus on natural hazards.
“It definitely gave me insight into the engineering major. It helps you see the different things you can do with your major,” Nyame says. “This research has shown me the possibility of combining multiple aspects to find something I’d like to do.”
Research Driven by Industry Need
Nyame is one of many undergraduate students who gain a unique research experience working at the Center. Whereas traditional research labs focus narrowly on a specific research challenge, the Center incorporates students into an interdisciplinary team tackling challenges relevant to industry partners.
“They do gain a lot, and we gain a lot because they are very motivated, and that’s a great help to the project and the progress we’re making,” Anagnostou says.
The Center includes students from a variety of majors including engineering, physics, math, statistics, and computer science, as well as social sciences like economics.
By nature of the problems the Center is addressing, they need an interdisciplinary team to consider engineering, business, and community concerns.
“You do see a whole range of expertise coming together under the same roof,” Anagnostou says. “No matter where they go, they’ll have to be able to understand a problem holistically.”
The work students complete at the Center helps prepare them technically and mentally for work they will do as graduate researchers.
“The path we are trying to give students is to guide them through the research and to further studies they can do at the graduate level,” Cerrai says.
As the work at the Center is driven by industry needs, students can see a direct impact of their research on society.
The Center is deeply committed to recruiting students from minority populations. The Center recently established a diversity scholarship which provides minority undergraduate students with $2600 for the spring, summer, or fall semester to work on the Center’s research project.
“We’re looking for students who are excited about research and we are keen in enhancing diversity and inclusion in the research environment,” Anagnostou says.
Anyone interested in joining the research team at the Eversource Energy Center should contact Emmanouil (Manos) Anagnostou at firstname.lastname@example.org.