Tuesday, April 18, 2017

From Field Technician to Hydrologist

Last week Eliza Breder successfully defended her MSc thesis on irrigation patterns as influenced by smart irrigation technology. Ms. Breder first joined ABE and the Dukes research group as a field technician in 2013. We worked together on everything from frost protection irrigation, distribution uniformity sprinkler nozzle trials, and the Orange County-based smart irrigation study which would eventually move her out of the field and back into the classroom. As she prepares for the next chapter in her water-use focused career, Ms. Breder agreed to speak with IrriGator about her ABE experience.

Eliza Breder - Master of Science and future Hydrologist
What has been the focus of your research as a Masters student with the Dukes group?
EB: I’ve worked on the OCU (Orange County Utilities) project where we look at smart irrigation technology and the water savings from different technologies and optimized treatments. Specifically what I’ve looked at with that data is the hourly irrigation patterns of each treatment. This means looking at the irrigation applied over the week, in addition to the irrigation applied per event, and the number of events that occur per week on average for each treatment.  
Residential soil moisture sensor

Something else that we look at that ties into these objectives is the comparison homes. These homes have no technology and are not exempt from watering restrictions. They still irrigate once or twice a week depending on the time of the year. That data has been separated by even and odd address and time period to see whether or not they violate watering restrictions. We’ve found that about 20% violate two day restrictions and about 40% violate one day restrictions. What’s interesting about that is they’re supposed to irrigate on specific days of the week, so violation means they may be irrigating more, or just irrigating on the wrong days.

Where all this really ties together is that the smart irrigation technology overall applies less weekly irrigation on average than the comparison homes. However, some of the technologies will irrigate more frequently over the week, this is true for the weather based timers. The soil moisture sensor homes tend to irrigate at the same frequency as comparison, but not as much water is applied.  
Stand alone weather-based irrigation controller

For high irrigators (comparison homes), while some of them do abide by watering restrictions they still apply a lot of irrigation. Maybe there is a better solution for this type of homeowner.

Is water-use research something you were always interested in as an undergrad?
EB: Towards the end of undergrad I was interested in learning more about water use and water conservation. This was a really great opportunity for me, especially for work in Florida. This is an ag-based state, especially in North Florida. We also have a lot of really important water resources here.

My general interest has always been about the environment and water. I went abroad for a year in Brazil and I had a really interesting internship. It wasn’t necessarily about irrigation but it was about water supply. It was under a different context - different country, different issues. But it became important to me to learn about what’s going on with water where I’m from.  

Do you feel your experience as a graduate student has prepared you for the working world?
EB: Yes. Coming across a problem in my data, or in my research, or trying to understand what the objective is - trying to make sure it makes sense, but also answering to someone. Answering to Orange County or Dr. Dukes to make sure it’s in line with their vision and making that work in the statistics and the code I’ve written for the data - so problem solving definitely.

Field days - Eliza Breder calibrates frost protection impact spray heads
Also I can manage data. I can use R and Excel and this was a big selling point. Even if it’s new data that I’m not familiar with, the ability to learn new things and do it on your own was extremely valuable when applying for jobs.

What can you tell us about the next chapter of your water-use research career?
EB: I’ve accepted a job offer to work as a hydrologist with Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD). There are general hydrology and irrigation principles but sometimes it’s helpful to know about specific issues in a specific area – the way groundwater resources work and the way the industry deals with it. It was advantageous for me to stay in the same area given my knowledge.

Maria Zamora and Eliza Breder at strawberry plot in Citra
On a personal level, while I mainly deal with irrigation data, the SRWMD area does have a lot of agriculture. I’m looking forward to learning more about hydrology in that area and going out for field work visits to see how they actually collect the data I’ll be managing. I look at it as an overall learning experience - a place where I can bring the skills that I have to use to get things done.   

You created and maintained a digital presence on Twitter as a graduate student. Can you speak to why and if you’ll continue to develop this as a professional?
EB: It was a great move for getting my name out and learning a little bit about what other people are doing. It was fun even tweeting about some of the challenges I had overcome in my research. It got me some attention. And the people that are looking at you are people you might be interested in learning about, or brands or water management districts. It’s great for getting the word out about yourself and for expressing your professional interests, and also for learning about colleagues, or potential colleagues.

Eliza on catch can detail (image: Gainesville Sun)
I’ll still be active on it to talk about current water resource issues or great things we’re doing at the district or something interesting that happened in the field. It’s definitely a great tool.

The Dukes program consistently develops/prepares top-notch water-use research personnel. What would you attribute this to?
EB: I’ve definitely improved on my skills being here. There is an element where Dr. Dukes has this expectation that you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself, that you’re capable of putting things together on your own. He doesn’t need to hold your hand. You become independent in that way. Sometimes if you can figure one thing out it’s sort of a domino effect. The sky is the limit. For me that was R. When I first started working with R in different classes it was definitely a challenge. But I got over that peak and that was my own motivation. You have to be self-motivated.

Dukes research team 
Of course, there is also taking good classes. And Dr. Dukes making sure you have a solid literature review, and that we have solid objectives, and a solid project behind you. For me, coming in with a project already in progress – there was a huge management side of it, but there was a lot of data there and not a lot of waiting. Ultimately, he expects you to be independent and a go-getter, and in that space I was able to figure a lot out for myself, and what did and did not work, which was a really great learning experience.

Eliza Breder and Sara Wynn help us learn irrigation basics

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