Student Stories: Biological engineering major whets passion for rivers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As an avid whitewater kayaker who recently qualified for the 2014 U.S. Wildwater Canoe and Kayak Team, it's no surprise that Kurt Smithgall found an internship involving rivers and water.

Last summer, the fifth-year senior biological engineering major joined the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program team in Otto, N.C., as a biological science technician to help with research examining the effects of disturbance and environmental gradients on biogeochemical cycling.

"The Coweeta Hydrologic Lab, a government-funded site, runs long-term experiments to answer important ecological questions," said the Montoursville, Pa., native. Situated on 5,400 acres of national forest land in the mountains, the facility is world renowned for its research in forest hydrology.

During his internship, Smithgall worked on projects involving water resource engineering, hydrologic modeling, stream restoration and geographic information system product creation.

"I worked on a hydrologic modeling project for most of the summer, developing a model for one of the 41 watersheds in the basin," he said. "I simply expressed interest in improving my modeling skills, and my supervisors helped me come up with a plan to develop the Soil and Water Assessment Tool hydrologic model."

The purpose of Smithgall's model was to help predict runoff within the basin. Due to a recent increase in storms, he had firsthand experience with the effects of stormwater there.

"There was a two-week period during my internship when it rained a total of 14 inches," he explained. "It was ridiculous. The area got three quarters of its annual rainfall by the end of July."

When he graduates in May, Smithgall hopes to use what he learned in the lab to pursue a master's degree.

"I had a great experience working with modeling outside of an academic setting," he said. "I was able to apply what I learned in the classroom to real life, so I have truly useful skills now."

Learn about the biological engineering major.

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Last Updated March 24, 2014