Forest fires devastate anything standing in their paths. And they also alter the ground beneath them. Scorched soil can become water-repellent — and that means disaster when it rains, causing floods and further endangering nearby communities.
But UNLV Ph.D. student Rose Shillito is developing a way to predict water runoff that can help vulnerable communities better prepare for flooding.
With support from the Wolzinger Family Research Scholarship, Shillito and her colleagues are working on mathematical models that have drawn the attention of the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ultimately, land management agencies may be able to use her work to improve flood warning systems.
Additionally, her research is drawing attention from scientists in hotbeds of fire-related research worldwide, such as Australia, the Mediterranean, Europe, and Canada.
“It’s very exciting,” says Shillito, a hydrologic scientist who was born and raised in Arizona. After building a career in hydrology and soil research that led her to work for the Flood Control District in Tucson, Arizona; grow potatoes on experimental farms for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and study effects of over-fertilization on drainage in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, she realized, “I missed the desert.”
So, she moved to Las Vegas to work at the Desert Research Institute in 2011 and began her Ph.D. in geoscience at UNLV in 2014. She plans to defend her dissertation this fall.
“I think it’s important for people to know an academic education can continue over your lifetime, and I appreciate UNLV’s support for nontraditional students,” Shillito says.
“Donors who support this kind of work are invaluable,” she says. “It makes all of this possible.”