Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Gretchen Bohnhoff
Dr. Gretchen Bohnhoff thought geoenvironmental engineering would be a good fit because of the opportunities it provides to work in the field and solve environmental problems. As an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, she has worked with many students doing undergraduate research and is actively involved in the Women in EMS program. Outside of work, she spends time with her 3- and 5-year-old sons.
What current publications or research have you been working on?
I am currently working on a publication with a colleague and close friend of mine at Villanova University. We’re writing a paper for a conference called CPEG, which stands for Coupled Phenomena in Environmental Geotechnics. This is a conference that’s going to be at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom next September. The paper is on a very theoretical topic, we’re trying to figure out a way to decrease the time it takes us to run lab tests. Right now the duration can be months to years, we’re hoping to reduce this testing time by analyzing the transient data from these tests. Also, a couple of colleagues and I are currently finalizing a paper on polymer modified bentonites, otherwise known as chemically modified bentonites. Bentonite is a type of highly swelling soil that is used in applications like waste containment or remediation. There has been a recent increase in different forms of modified bentonites on the market. We have assembled and analyzed much of the data that is available in literature and summarized it in one paper as a review article.
What is the groundwater monitoring program at Pioneer Farm?
There is an extensive groundwater monitoring well network at Pioneer Farm that was installed in the early 2000s. In addition, the farm is one of the USDA’s Long-Term Agro-Ecosystem Research sites, a national network of sites dedicated to long-term coordinated research. As part of this project, I have worked with several different students collecting quarterly groundwater samples for the past five years. The students and I collected samples so we could investigate long-term trends in water levels and nitrate and chloride concentrations. Over the years, I have worked with four undergraduate research assistants; we have spent many days out at the farm collecting samples. It’s always nice to get outside! We’re currently exploring new ways to fund this work because the monitoring well network is a great resource that is available to us.
What are some outreach programs you’re involved in?
I have been involved with several different activities through the Women in EMS Program here at UW-Platteville. There are several outreach activities where high school or middle school students come to campus; I’ve led projects that teach these students about civil and environmental engineering using groundwater models or building groundwater filters. One of my favorite events through the Women in EMS Program is the Progressive Dinner. What happens is, different faculty members or different people involved with campus have a dinner course at their house. I’ll have soup at my house, and they’ll have salad somewhere else and so on. I end up having about three groups of 15 students, or approximately 45 students, to my house for dinner. My two young boys love it, and I think the students do too. It’s really great for the students to see that professors are real people too. Plus, a lot of students, especially freshman and sophomore, miss their pets from home, and they get to play with my cats and dog. I really enjoy doing the progressive dinner, even though having 45 people over in two hours gets a little crazy. Also, through the Women in STEM Living Learning Community, there are several days throughout the semester when students can have lunch with professors. If there are students in civil and environmental engineering attending, I will try to go eat lunch with them at least once during the semester. I hope this interaction helps students realize that professors are personable, and they should never be afraid to come visit our office hours and ask questions.
What are hands-on learning opportunities the College of EMS provides to students in your discipline?
We have many different hands on opportunities available for our students from undergraduate research to internships and co-ops to laboratory sessions. In terms of curriculum, we have several labs associated with our 3000 level courses. Some of these labs include fluid mechanics, geotechnical engineering and environmental engineering. Currently, I am teaching both geotechnical and environmental engineering so I interact with the students in lab weekly. One of the cool things we do in those classes is have students design a lab at the end of the semester. They formulate a hypothesis and then must develop some sort of methodology or lab test to test the hypothesis. Designing a lab gives students the opportunity to go into the lab, run their own tests and then present their results to the class.
What do you hope students take away from your classes most upon graduation?
One of them is to think critically about problems and understand how to investigate alternatives. Since we’re engineers, we’re trying to come up with solutions to different problems. One of the biggest things I hope that they understand is there isn’t always a right or a wrong answer. Often times, students do homework problems, and the calculation is either right or wrong. When they actually get out there and start working as an engineer, there is not just one right answer. There are going to be multiple options that may be right for different reasons. I want students to understand how they can weigh the different pros and cons of a given design. It is all about figuring out what is the best fit for a community, client or specific location. Additionally, as an environmental engineering faculty, I hope that my students understand that there are societal and environmental impacts of all the work that we do. We need to incorporate environmental-friendly and sustainable solutions in all of our designs.
Interview conducted by Lindsey Overby, student writer, Communications. To nominate a candidate for the Pioneer Spotlight, contact email@example.com.