For the unique opportunity, San Francisco District's Cynthia Fowler gladly trades California's summer sun for Mississippi's sweltering humidity as one of eight Corps district selectees for the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's inaugural class at ERDC University. The new program features six months of collaborative research partnerships for applying and implementing technical solutions.

Fowler joins seven fellow Corps professionals from three USACE districts and one division chosen for the FY16 ERDC University Pilot Program, where they are matched with research partners in four ERDC laboratories. Working with ERDC's Environmental Laboratory on the Vicksburg, Mississippi, campus, Fowler is partnered with EL Researchers Dr. David Smith and Dr. Christa Woodley.

A district leadership email on ERDC U peaked her interest, and Fowler decided to apply for the new program as part of her graduate school studies on the effects of hydraulic hopper dredging on small fishes. ERDC offers districts the choice of student funding for either labor hours or travel expenses.

Win-win opportunity

"I had planned to work with Dr. Smith and Dr. Woodley separately from the ERDC U program on my research thesis. The district was supportive of my going to graduate school, particularly because of my interest to study dredging effects, since San Francisco District has quite a large dredging mission.

"Once ERDC U was introduced, my supervisor suggested that this program could be a great opportunity for completing my graduate research, while also providing much needed scientific information regarding the entrainment risk of small fishes in hydraulic dredge equipment and the potential efficacy of fish deterrents to reduce risk," Fowler said.

The environmental manager, who considers herself a Newport, Oregon, native, saw it as a clear win-win opportunity for herself, the district and the University of California at Davis, where she earned her bachelor's in 2003 and is currently pursuing her master's.

Fowler's career path

"After graduating, I began working for the San Francisco District as a DA Intern. I've been working for USACE since as a civil works environmental planner and also as an assistant team leader for emergency response. I recently began pursuing a master's degree at the UC Davis, studying fish physiology and behavior," Fowler said, answering "Yes, they do," to the question "Do fish exhibit personalities?"

"In addition, this program has provided a great avenue for UC Davis and ERDC to collaborate. As an ERDC U student, however, I do hope to focus predominately on the research I am doing for ERDC U for the duration of the program.

"Projects I have led and continue to work on include programmatic environmental permitting for maintenance dredging of all federal navigation channels in San Francisco Bay and environmental planning for the SF Bay to the Stockton Navigation Improvement Project. Both are dredging projects," Fowler said.

Fowler said that her ERDC U project will assist in better quantifying the potential risk of entrainment in hydraulic dredge equipment and investigating if various fish deterrents are successful, like the air bubble curtain experiments she is conducting in EL's new 33,000 gallon Cognitive Ecology and Ecohydraulics Research Facility, also known as CEERF.

"I will be carving small parts out of the larger project for my research. I plan to work with Asian carp here at ERDC and redo the experimental design at UC Davis using delta smelt. I may not be able to get all of this done this year, however! I hope to improve my statistical analysis and modeling capabilities, and be able to better ask questions that can be answered with solutions to help accomplish USACE missions," Fowler said.

As an inaugural member of ERDC U, Fowler said this experience will assist her career path by improving her technical capability and helping attain her master's degree. "And in is so nice to be on campus with so many nerds, in the best possible sense of the word," Fowler said.

ERDC University sponsors

This pilot initiative, sponsored by Directorate of Human Capital and the Office of Research and Technology Transfer, serves as an opportunity for ERDC subject matter experts and district selectees to partner on projects. The participants can then go back to their districts and share what is available for researches and scientists at ERDC's seven laboratories.

"Participants serve as a member of the interdisciplinary research and development team reporting to lead project managers and/or research and development direct program managers. The incumbent supports, and possibly leads, any number of activities to develop research and development technologies related to solutions in support of multiple Corps business line areas," said Antisa Webb, ORTT's chief of technology advancement.

In his briefing to the university participants during their first week of introductions and campus tours, ERDC Director Dr. Jeffery Holland shared goals for the program expansion to a total of 20 participants in FY17, as opportunities increase for USACE and ERDC engineers and scientists to collaborate.

The FY17 program has been announced to USACE for the next round of candidates.