Former graduate student, now research hydrologist, pursued a new path at WKU

Ozarks native Autumn Singer always knew she wanted to work in — or near — water.

“My entire life I’ve been fascinated with water, and I primarily approached that interest through the biology side,” she says.

After graduating from the University of North Alabama with an undergraduate degree in aquatic ecology, she began exploring her options with two priorities in mind.

Autumn Singer, research hydrologist, WKU’s Crawford Hydrology Lab, gazes up from the canyon floor after descending into Australia’s Grand Canyon (part of the Blue Mountains) at the International Congress of Speleology 2017. (Sometimes our work requires rappelling in caves and canyons, although this was a recreational trip).

“I really wanted to do work that was environmentally impactful but also reflected human concerns,” she says.

She connected with Chris Groves, director, WKU Crawford Hydrology Laboratory, and opted to move to Bowling Green in 2015 to pursue her graduate degree at Western Kentucky University. There, she gave herself the flexibility to make a significant pivot.

“I completely switched gears in terms of what I studied,” she says. “I had a decent amount of chemistry background for my undergraduate studies, and that became my primary focus for my thesis — the intersection of karst hydrology and climate change.”

Not only did Singer complete her graduate degree at WKU; she became so entrenched in both the work and the extensive research opportunities available through the Crawford Hydrology Lab and nearby Mammoth Cave National Park that she stayed on as a research hydrologist. Originally a part-time position, she’s since transitioned to a full-time role through cooperative assistance through WKU’s Applied Research and Technology Program (ARTP).

The CHL vendor exhibit, at which Singer is pictured, travels both nationally and internationally to enhance lab promotion and outreach. During the exhibit, Singer and her colleagues look for potential clients and research collaborators whose projects can be aided through the use of dye tracing.

So what does a typical day in the Crawford Hydrology Lab entail? It depends, of course, on the time of year and what projects are currently in process. During the warmer days of spring, summer and fall, Singer spends time in the field. Most projects start with a hydrologic inventory. Using fluorescent dyes (that Singer aptly describes as “Nickelodeon green!”), the team can collect a variety of information about groundwater’s behavior, including what direction it’s moving and how fast it’s traveling.

“If we inject dye into a stream or sinkhole, we look at a 360-degree radius from that location and identify all of the places where we can recover that dye — a spring, a seep, a surface stream — anything like that,” she says. “Those are really fun days. Often we’ll be out for 10 to 12 hours for a few days throughout the week.”

Most of Singer’s lab time is spent conducting analysis. For example, companies and organizations will contract with the Crawford Hydrology Lab to analyze and even store samples. Sometimes those samples are involved in litigation, which required adherence to stringent quality control and assurance protocols.

Singer points to the spring run issuing from a blue hole discovered during a karst hydrologic inventory. Such locations make for choice monitoring locations, serving as a resurgence point for groundwater in the vicinity.

“We’re responsible for the samples from the moment they arrive until we send the results,” Singer says. “We might even be responsible for holding onto that material for years. All of the steps we undergo to prepare samples for analysis requires a lot of work.”

Samples are examined with a piece of equipment called a spectrofluorophotometer (say that 3 times fast!), which, as Singer explains, “measures the ability for the photometer’s light to transmit through the liquid sample. In our case, with the fluorophotometer, it measures how much excitement, or fluorescence, the sample produces when it’s bombarded with high-energy light.”

In more recent weeks, Singer’s added additional work to her plate: helping Groves and Crawford Hydrology Lab Research Hydrologist and Assistant Director Lee Anne Bledsoe organize the upcoming UNESCO-focused international meeting, Conservation of Fragile Karst Resources: A Workshop on Sustainability and Community, to be hosted at WKU in May.

“Planning and hosting a conference like that is something I didn’t expect to be involved in, but it’s another skill I’m learning that will be useful down the road,” she says.

New and unexpected opportunities could certainly be a theme of Singer’s experience so far with WKU. She remembers some of the highlights from her graduate studies, including lab and research time in Australia and traveling to Senegal to present at a UN-sponsored conference.

Singer pauses during fluorescent dye analysis on the RF-6000 Spectrofluorophotometer. During this process, she evaluates samples for the presence of fluorescent dyes at groundwater monitoring sites. If a dye injected into the subsurface is present in a sample taken from a monitoring point, she can determine that the injection point is hydrologically connected to the monitoring site through groundwater movement.

“For someone like me who’s from a small town, I couldn’t believe I had a chance to present at a UN-related function,” she says.

Now, Singer can draw on those experiences — and her daily work — to offer insight to students who are still navigating their own journeys.

“On a fairly routine basis, we work with all levels of education from elementary school to post-graduates, including presentations, field trips and lab training,” she says. “It’s a really great opportunity for our work to extend far beyond the commercial aspects of sample analysis and other lab work.”