Graduate Trainees Conduct Impactful, Interdisciplinary Research in Auburn’s NRT Climate Resilience Program

In September 2019, Auburn University received its first $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship, or NRT, program, which trains students at both the master and doctoral levels in climate resiliency.

Now in its third year of implementation, the grant-funded program is preparing the next generation of scientists to help communities with preparedness, response and recovery efforts from damaging events in the southeastern United States.

Administered through the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, the Auburn NRT Climate Resilience Program is structured to educate graduate trainees across earth systems science, engineering, geosciences, forestry and wildlife sciences, climate science, data science, agriculture and social science disciplines. Currently, there are 20 trainees in the program. They conduct research within an integrated, multidisciplinary framework and learn quantitative and qualitative analytical and collaborative skills needed to recognize data-driven, decision-making needs of stakeholders and to effectively communicate scientific information to stakeholder and public audiences. Trainees directly interact and intern with stakeholders, exposing them to real-world problems and career pathways.

Miranda Silano

Among the group of NRT trainees is Miranda Silano, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in geography in COSAM’s Department of Geosciences. With the guidance of her research advisor, Associate Professor Dr. Chandana Mitra, Silano is conducting research to assess tropical cyclone risk along the Gulf of Mexico using Geographic Information System, or GIS, technology.

“I am specifically interested in areas with medium-sized populations that have had recent interactions with increased tropical cyclones, specifically hurricanes,” said Silano. “Additionally, I study the socioeconomic and demographic groups of Gulf of Mexico residents. The goal of my research is to comprehend areas at risk for tropical cyclone impact and the affected population. I desire to help others understand the risk experienced by the impacts of tropical cyclones. Then, people in those areas can use research like mine to help them prepare and strategize for how to deal with the storms before they make landfall in their area.”

When conducting research, Silano utilizes Hazus, a risk-estimating program by FEMA, that maps previous hurricane tracks and predicts areas of highest wind damage in an area over several decades. She uses ArcGIS, a mapping software, in tandem with Hazus to provide her with visualizations of areas via maps that have been struck by tropical cyclones or where there is likely to be damage from tropical cyclones in the future.

After experiencing a hurricane while growing up in Naples, Florida, Silano became interested in how people interact with natural hazards and why they may respond the way they do. With a research background in vertebrate paleontology, paleoclimatology and paleoecology, the combination of those fields fostered Silano’s interest in how climate change affects the world around us.

“Knowing that there was a way to combine my love for the science of climatology, while also being able to use the science to benefit others, is what drew me to the area of climate resiliency and led me to apply for Auburn’s NRT Program,” said Silano. “I wanted a program that had a focus on the area of climate resiliency, but also in an environment where I would see what it looked like — not only in my field but in others.”

Silano stated her research will impact the management side of climate resiliency, specifically emergency management for climate-associated hazards, climate adaptation, communication of about such hazards and urban and community planning. The research will highlight the need for an in-depth understanding of people who are disproportionately affected by hazards, benefitting the scientific side of climate resiliency as well as the community resiliency aspect.

According to Dr. Karen McNeal, principal investigator for Auburn’s NRT program and professor in the Department of Geosciences, the program strives to do exactly what Silano describes.

“This program prepares future climate leaders as interdisciplinary researchers that produce products that are actionable and co-produced, or the deliverables students produce can be used by various stakeholders and decision makers to meet the needs they have now,” said McNeal. “Through Auburn’s NRT programming in science communication, partnerships outside of academia and immersion with a diverse scientific community, our students are better equipped to problem solve and communicate about on-going and future climate hazards in the southeastern United States.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (NSF Grant #1922687). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.