Sources: Heidi Mehl, heidim@k-state.edu;
and Melinda Daniels, 785-532-6727, mddaniel@k-state.edu
Hometown connection: Augusta, Lawrence and Towanda
News tip for: Topeka
News release prepared by: Megan Molitor, 785-532-3452, molitor@k-state.edu

Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

River of help: Doctoral student receives prestigious fellowship to study quality of Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's streams

MANHATTAN -- A change of heart in Siberia led to a nearly $100,000 fellowship for one Kansas State University graduate student and the possibility of cleaner water for many indigenous people.

Heidi Mehl, a doctoral student in geography from Lawrence, is the recipient of a nearly $100,000, three-year Science to Achieve Results -- or STAR -- fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency. Mehl recently returned from a conference in Washington, D.C., with other STAR fellowship recipients, where they were given the tools and the confidence to begin moving forward with their work.

This fellowship will fund part of the work Mehl is doing for her dissertation, "A cultural ecology of riparian system on the Prairie Band Potawatomie Nation: Understanding stream incision, riparian function and indigenous knowledge to increase best management plan adoption."

Mehl receives tuition and stipend funding for three years, including a $5,000 equipment fund each year.

"Although the geography department does a great job of helping students by offering graduate teaching and research assistantships, this fellowship is wonderful because now I can simply focus on my research and my studying," she said.

Mehl's research will combine fluvial geomorphology, the study of river systems and related processes, and cultural ecology, the study of how cultures influence land use decisions.

In short, Mehl will focus on the relationships between riparian water quality filtering and streambed incision or down-cutting, along the Soldier Creek system on the Potawatomi Nation reservation. Mehl has been working with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation's stream system near Topeka to determine its water quality and how to improve it.

"Riparian vegetation serves as a filter for runoff, and removing streamside trees and grasses can lead to more nutrients, bacteria and pesticides in the water as well as bank erosion," she said. "What we don't know is how stream incision affects riparian water quality functions."

Starting in the spring and continuing for several years, Mehl will use piezometers -- tubes installed from the surface of the ground to the water table -- to measure the water level in the riparian zone and take samples to determine how water quality is influenced by riparian zones along incising river channels on the reservation. She will also interview tribal members about their land-use decisions.

Eventually, Mehl hopes to use this research and the EPA fellowship to not only earn her doctorate but to educate the public about their natural resources and to improve water quality and availability for those who desperately need it.

Her research and motivation may be impressive on their own, but even more so when one considers her original undergraduate focus: animal behavior. While studying ecology as an undergraduate, Mehl accompanied other students and professors on a trip to Siberia, where she was introduced to water quality science and how it affects indigenous communities. She immediately sought a new focus in indigenous studies with an emphasis on water quality, in which she received her master's degree at the University of Kansas before coming to K-State to pursue her doctorate in geography.

Mehl's passion for water quality shines through to her work, helping her receive the highly competitive EPA STAR fellowship, regularly awarded to students from top schools like Yale and Princeton, said Melinda Daniels, Mehl's doctoral supervisor and associate professor of geography at K-State.

Daniels said that Mehl is the only student in Kansas to receive the fellowship this year, and only the second in the university's history to receive the honor. She is Daniels' second doctoral student to receive the fellowship.

"Heidi brings a unique and powerful interdisciplinary background to her doctoral work in geography," Daniels said. "She is addressing a critical problem -- poor water quality -- in an innovative way that can be transferred from her case study to other indigenous and nonindigenous communities and will help the EPA more successfully effect water quality improvements in the region."

"Rivers are thought of as a conduit to carry waste away, but I want to help people value rivers for their ecological services and recreation," Mehl said.

The Science to Achieve Results fellowship is also an opportunity to represent her state and university, she said.

"I love Kansas, and this is a good chance to bring positive attention to the state, as well as draw attention to important issues with rivers and streams," she said. "This is an important time to focus on our water resources."

Originally from Augusta, Mehl is a graduate of Circle High School, Towanda.