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Katherine Renken, Ph.D. Student

Katherine Renken at field site at INECOL in Veracruz, Mexico

Katherine Renken at field site at INECOL in Veracruz, Mexico

Love of outdoor adventure and physical activity has motivated my professional development from an early stage. As a first-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I faced the typical undergraduate dilemma – the intended major no longer appealed after taking an introductory course. An avid hiker and backpacker, I chose to take a geology course and immediately knew this discipline would be my home for many years. I fell in love with the idea of being able to explore new landscapes while examining the physical processes and properties of those landscapes. My passion for geology and the natural sciences further developed during my undergraduate career, which saw field trips to local sites around Chapel Hill as well as the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina and Virginia and the high Sierras.

I began pursuing a master’s degree in the Department of Geography at East Carolina University immediately following graduation in 2006 from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Geology. Working for North Carolina SeaGrant during my master’s program, I learned the utility of GIS in providing improved analysis of physical dynamics at spatial scales ranging from barrier islands down to individual dunes. I also learned that relationships between physical processes, or fluid flows, and ecological dynamics were intricate and could not be decoupled. This perception inspired me to continue my research and pursue a doctorate at Louisiana State University.

My current research focuses on the interaction between vegetation and aeolian fluid dynamics in the coastal embryo dune zone. I have developed a methodology for measuring the structural responses of different species of flexible, porous vegetation to fluctuations in wind energy using proprietary digital imagery. Additionally, my research distinguishes the effects of these different species on fluid flow and sediment transport in order to incorporate natural community variability within the coastal embryo dune zone into the development of models of coastal dune growth.

My field work experience is extensive and varied. I collected rock samples in the high Sierras and conducted ecological surveys in Jockey’s Ridge State Park, NC; Veracruz, Mexico; White Sands National Park, NM; and Padre Island National Seashore, TX. I also conducted geomorphic surveys in the Outer Banks, Veracruz, White Sands, and Padre Island, and deployed instrumentation to collect data to examine aeolian processes for one field season at Jockey’s Ridge and four field seasons at Padre Island.

Throughout my years at Chapel Hill and in Greenville, I regularly participated in hiking and camping adventures. My favorite event was the annual Uwharrie 20-mile Mountain Run. For several years twenty miles was the longest distance I would run. In 2011, I returned to the Outer Banks to participate in my first full marathon. It took another 16 months until I stepped up the distance and participated in my first ultra-marathon, running 50km in Mississippi. I was hooked. So far in 2014, I have run seven ultra-marathons, ranging from 50k to 50mi, and dream of increasing the distance.

My passion for understanding the processes that operate on the natural world motivates my teaching. While teaching introductory Geography courses at Baton Rouge Community College over the last two years, I focus on engaging students in learning the principles and theories of natural science and producing enthusiasm for expanding their knowledge about the world around us.

My eyes are set on the road ahead as I near the completion of my dissertation. In the future I would like to further explore ecogeomorphodynamics within the coastal zone, focusing on system responses to disturbances such as aeolian sediment burial, overwash, scarping, erosion, and human development. My broad field experience coupled with my GIS skills which have been developed in various research positions at LSU make me uniquely qualified to pursue this avenue of research.