Geography graduate pursues challenges in school, career

May 8, 2015

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Growing up in Glendale, Jaylee Conlin always loved hearing about extreme weather in places other than Arizona.  photo of Jaylee Conlin Download Full Image

By the time she entered ASU as a freshman, Conlin had declared a major in geography with a concentration in meteorology and climatology – and soon after, thinking about increasing her employment opportunities, she declared a second major in computer science. 

“At that point, they just seemed like two good majors – I had no idea how much weather forecasting and climate research rely on models that are built using programming and an understanding of computing principles,” Conlin said.

Five years later, Conlin is graduating with both degrees, having earned recognition at the national level for research she has carried out, and earning the Dean’s Medalist award for the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, as well as being selected as the outstanding graduate in the social sciences by the ASU Alumni Association.

As a freshman and sophomore, Conlin worked on courses in both her majors, and in her spare time represented ASU on the racquetball team – as a sophomore, playing in the National Intercollegiate Racquetball Championships. 

By her third year at ASU, she had added a job as a language lab assistant to her list of activities. The following year, she took on a second job as a preceptor, assisting students with introductory physical geography coursework. At that point she gave up racquetball competition but continued to fulfill requirements for both majors, unfailingly earning top marks.

“The best thing about ASU,” Conlin said, “has been all the professors who taught really well, in ways that really challenged me.”

In spring of her junior year, Conlin decided to apply for the highly competitive NASA Student Airborne Research Program, a summer experience in which students develop and conduct individual research projects, mentored by NASA scientists and utilizing NASA’s airplane-based earth science instrumentation. She was one of 30 students selected out of a pool of applicants from all over the country and from disciplines spanning the physical sciences, natural sciences and engineering.

The program begins at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, north of Los Angeles in the California desert. There, Conlin chose to work with a group that focuses on understanding coastal and near-shore processes working with data from aircraft-borne earth-sensing instruments. 

Continuing the program on the University of Irvine campus, Conlin was on a team of eight students researching coastal and near-shore processes. The team was led by by Raphael Kudela, professor of ocean sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Tackling a toxin

Each student develops his or her own research project, and Conlin was intrigued by a topic on which little work had been done: Microsystin, a toxin that’s produced by blue-green algae and sometimes contaminates fresh-water sources in Southern California, is a known health hazard. 

Drinking microsystin-infested water has killed animals and caused serious diseases in humans. One researcher describes the toxin as potentially 12 times more deadly if inhaled rather than swallowed – but very little is known about the extent to which water-borne microsystin may enter the atmosphere.

With meteorology and climatology coursework providing a deep understanding of atmospheric processes, and her computer science providing programming and conceptual skills, Conlin set to work to begin to fill in the picture of whether microsystin in Southern California water bodies might be entering the atmosphere in concentrations that could be a health hazard.

“Jaylee did a fantastic job,” said Kudela, her scientist mentor. “She came into the program knowing essentially nothing about oceanography or limnology (the study of inland waters). In her time at [Student Airborne Research Program] Jaylee not only learned about harmful algal blooms, she learned how to process remote sensing data, and then went even further, learning to run atmospheric transport models.”

The first step was to identify areas with potential for high microcystin concentrations . For that phase, Conlin applied mathematical algorithms to data gathered from an Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer – a device that measures radiation of energy from land and water surfaces in great detail. The next step was to assess the potential of the atmosphere to transport the toxin. To do this, Conlin drew on several mathematical estimating procedures and models.

The results were somewhat reassuring – the final model showed most of the area being studied to typically have only very low toxin levels.  However, as a worst-case scenario, she assessed the toxin levels based on the highest amount of recorded microcystin in a particularly infested water body, Pinto Lake.  Here, the model showed levels that could potentially present a health risk at some distance from the water body, if levels and exposure continued for some time.

“I hope this work leads to more investigation of microsystin in the atmosphere,” Conlin said.

“Jaylee built on some work from previous students but took it into a whole new direction. To my knowledge, Jaylee is the first person to model the potential airborne transport of the toxin, and she essentially completed the equivalent of two summer research projects during SARP,” Kudel said.

The NASA Student Airborne Research Program program sends a small group of each summer’s students to the national meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and Conlin was one of those selected. She presented her research at the organization’s December meeting in San Francisco.

She left the meeting having earned an award for the Outstanding Student Paper in the area of hydrology – an honor given to only the top 3 to 5 percent of presenters, including master's and doctoral students, as well as undergraduates.

“Our geography program in meteorology has proven time and time again to be one of the best in the country," said Randy Cerveny, one of Conlin's professors in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

"The fundamental reason for that success has been that we have been able to attract the best and brightest students – and without question Jaylee defines that description. Jaylee has the academic – and personal – qualities that will take her to the top of whatever career path to which she seeks.”

As she prepares to receive her bachelor’s degree, Conlin hopes to return in a few years to begin graduate studies. For now, she’s ready to enter the working world and already has been offered a position with the local branch of an international engineering firm, doing software testing and analysis.

"I look forward to following Jaylee on what I expect will continue to be a strong upward trajectory," said Kudela.

Barbara Trapido-Lurie

research professional senior, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


ASU students share life lessons through acting

May 8, 2015

Ciara Archer came to ASU with the goal of becoming a journalist, but she had no idea she would add singer, dancer, writer and comedy sketch artist to her resume.

When she was a sophomore, Archer joined DisOrientation, a student-led comedic drama and sketch poetry production, where current students reveal the "real deal" of campus living. Download Full Image

Archer remembers her first impression of DisOrientation during her initial week at Arizona State University.

“The cast members were putting their lives out there for everyone to see, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my life.’ I was just mesmerized because it was so cool. The fact that they wrote it all themselves and these were true stories really resonated with me,” said Archer, who is now a senior studying journalism in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Under the direction of Pamela Sterling, an associate professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and an accomplished playwright herself, the production is designed to offer advice on everything from roommates to relationships – and a lot in between.

Going on its ninth year with a cast of 15 students, DisOrientation now plays to more than 3,000 first-year students during Fall Welcome.

"Everybody writes, performs and sings, whether you’re a good singer or not,” Sterling said. “Singing, dancing, performing, writing and composing or musicianship are the five main components. I’m looking for all types of students to apply to be part of the paid cast."

As a unique summer opportunity, DisOrientation allows current ASU students to try a new experience and share their Sun Devil stories. Participating students are not required to be theater majors. Past shows have included engineering, biology and math majors, along with Archer, a journalism major.

“We did a lot of trial and error. Some things worked and some things definitely didn’t work,” Archer said. “It’s great to see the dynamics between each of the cast members, because we all come with our own view on college and life. So to be able to have that voice and put it into the show was really unique.”

Accompanying an unforgettable experience for new students, cast members often experience personal growth during the production, Sterling said. A student from the 2014 cast, who is transgender, was able to tell the personal story of her transition, and the challenges it presented, with her parents in the audience.

“They heard some things they had never heard, that she had not been able to tell them. And after hearing her and seeing her tell this story, they came up and hugged me and thanked me for allowing her to have this opportunity,” Sterling said.

The benefits of becoming a cast member are many, according to Sterling. Besides offering a paid campus job, DisOrientation provides students with confidence, new skills to put on a resume and fun collaboration with fellow Sun Devils.

Auditions for DisOrientation will be held May 23-24 in the Fine Arts Center 131 on the Tempe campus. Rehearsals begin July 13, and performances will be held during Fall Welcome, Aug. 15-22. For information on how to apply, email before May 12.

Written by Jim Brophy,