K-State student researcher tackles climate change, flooding

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Tori Thomas, senior with a dual major in Spanish and biological systems engineering, is a Kansas State student from Lenexa, Kansas, who has dedicated her undergraduate research to studying climate change and green infrastructure.

Thomas began conducting undergraduate research for the university in 2017, the first semester of her junior year.

“Sometime during my sophomore year when I was thinking about how I could make the most out of my K-State experience, I realized I was completely missing out on the research aspect of our research university,” Thomas said. “So, I went to my advisor and asked if there were any undergrad research positions available. My advisor said not currently, but that she’d keep me in mind for upcoming positions.”

It took time for a position to open up, but her persistence and willingness to inquire about different research opportunities ultimately led to her receiving the position she was looking for.

“At the beginning of my junior year, I started my paid undergraduate researcher position in my department, which eventually led to my decision to pursue the 5-year BS/MS program the department offers to continue the research project and turn it into my master’s thesis,” Thomas said.

Thomas explained that her research primarily focused on climate change resiliency for cities, including if and how they can use green infrastructure to reduce flooding.

“We are researching this in the Blue River Watershed in the Kansas City metro area with a PCSWMM,” Thomas said. PCSWMM, or personal computer storm water management model, is a modeling software for storm water and wastewater systems.

“It’s definitely the most challenging thing I’ve done in school and my life, but it’s very rewarding to be working on real-life problems that I’m passionate about,” she continued.

Thomas said her research work is split between literature reviews of academic journals and working with the previously mentioned computer model.

Thomas said her work as an undergraduate researcher required a certain level of responsibility and accountability.

“I set up weekly meetings with my advisor to keep myself accountable and to seek her guidance,” Thomas said. “Getting one-on-one access to a professor’s wealth of knowledge in their subject field is another invaluable benefit of research.”

Through connections that she has made from her research, she has received advice and encouragement, including a message from Jim Hohenbary, director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at K-State.

“When I feel inept, [he] reminds me, ‘If you don’t feel like you are just making it up as you go, at least part of the time, you are probably not doing anything very interesting,'” Thomas said.

For students interested in research opportunities, she recommends reaching out to your advisor or favorite professors.

“You get paid and learn tons that you may not have apart from the opportunity to do research,” Thomas said.

This fall, she will return to campus to pursue her masters in biological and agricultural engineering, with an environmental engineering emphasis, and graduate with all three degrees in May 2020.

Thomas expressed how beneficial she believes working as an undergraduate researcher has been.

“Research is a valuable exercise in self-discipline and project management,” Thomas said. “The most valuable lesson I’ve learned through the research experience is just how important funding research is for solving problems and improving our world.”

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