Students Explore the Importance of Water

Students Explore the Importance of Water

The importance of water should never be understated! It is a vital component of all life-sustaining processes and integral to chemical reactions. The human body is made of up nearly 60-70% water by body weight, with a decrease of 4% causing dehydration and losses of 15% becoming life-threatening or fatal. Drilling down further, water is considered a universal solvent, it plays an important structural role in our cells as it regulates their shape based on water concentration in various environments and facilitates biochemical reactions by being directly involved in dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis reactions. And this is only at the cellular level. As water crises and droughts highlight the lack of consistent water access around the globe, we know that water is essential for life.  

Our Headwaters Research Experience students recognize the importance of water quality to aquatic systems, and we help students create projects centered around the analysis of water quality in their neighborhoods and watersheds. These types of water quality studies are simple to conduct, but can yield impactful results  and raise awareness among local community members. 

Ethan Liu was curious about water in NYC and focused on comparing water quality between the neighborhoods of Chinatown and Bayside, which have a sizable difference in average household income. Ultimately, Ethan found that there was no significant difference in pH or total dissolved solids (TDS, like inorganic salts and some organic matter) for water sampled from restaurants in these regions. Ethan, and the community members who allowed him to sample their water, were reassured by his findings.

Ethan’s presentation is the first of our student presentations featured here if you’d like to learn more:

Katie Chen wanted to research the effects of fertilizer on the water quality of Saratoga Creek. Many land managers use fertilizers to increase crop yields, but nitrogen runoff can cause significant damage to the watershed and harm water quality in the area. Through her experimental research design, Katie found that the fertilizer significantly reduced the pH and increased the TDS of Saratoga Creek water. Katie did a great job designing, conducting, and analyzing her research and the Journal of Emerging Investigators accepted her write up for publication!

Read Katie’s paper here!

This week for Headwaters’ Back to School Fundraiser, we’re highlighting water! Donating to Headwaters helps us plan and run the Research Experience and students like Ethan and Katie pursue projects that impact their communities and contribute to science. Your support also helps us provide Lunch with a Scientist talks, like Dr. Tonya Shearer’s on coral reef health, to students around the country. Thank you!

Winter field day students study ‘the importance of snow’

Winter field day students study ‘the importance of snow’

Students at the 2022 TEA Snow Science field day.

Headwater Science Institute’s winter of studying the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada continued last week with the completion of the Tahoe Expedition Academy Snow Science Field Program. 

It was two days of fun-filled and informative research, the first day for ninth- and 10th-grade biology students and the second for 11th- and 12th-grade earth science students. 

“I never knew what I skied on everyday was so complex,” one student said.

The days were a shortened version of Headwaters’ Research Experience, an immersive, months-long program where students develop a formal research paper, allowing students to see how snow depth and density is measured and what kinds of water-quality metrics can be measured from snow melt. 

Like the full Research Experience, these students then completed a mini research project of their own to experience how the scientific process works. 

Here are some more quotes from the two field days:

“I loved learning about how snow layers are formed and seeing it in real life.”

“I got to learn about the importance of snow and different factors [that can be measured] in snow. I got to be outside and have a blast.”

“I had a lot of fun and learned about albedo and its impact on rate of snow melt.”

Check out more photos from the camp here.   

‘This trip was really amazing’: Bay School Snow Science Camp kicks off 2022 programing

‘This trip was really amazing’: Bay School Snow Science Camp kicks off 2022 programing


Building a snow cave at the 2022 Bay School Snow Science Camp.

Do roads impact water quality in the snowpack? How does a forest or an open meadow change snowpack depth? 

These are just some of the questions students examined at the recently completed Headwaters Science Institute’s Bay School Snow Science Camp in the Sierra Nevada’s Olympic Valley – topped off with a healthy portion of cross country skiing, playing in the snow and even learning how to build an emergency snow shelter.  

“I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, from going out into the meadow of snow and taking samples, to cross country skiing,” Bay School camper Coco told Headwaters. “I learned so much over the course of this trip, especially about the chemicals in snow, such as pH and how that affects drinking water and the native biotic species.”  

The camp kicked off with students watching our Lunch With A Scientist talk with Dr. David Hill of Oregon State University to give them background on snow science and how we measure snow in the field. 

Arie Koshkin, a graduate student studying snow science at University of Nevada Reno, brought her expertise to the camp examining the effects of fire on snow pack. She even brought some cool instruments from her lab for the students to use. 

“I really enjoyed being in the snow and learning about its role – from the chemical composition of snow to skiing,” Arie, another camper, said. “I also met a lot of new people and found friends with similar interests in science. This trip was really amazing and I can’t wait to continue exploring science.” 

Check out more photos from the camp here.   

4 Headwaters Research Experience students published in academic journal

4 Headwaters Research Experience students published in academic journal

She was a middle schooler with a passion for bird watching when she joined Headwater Science Institute’s Research Experience just a year ago. Now she’s a published researcher attending college at 14 years old.  

Lara Tseng’s stunning educational evolution, from middle-schooler to full-time student in the Early Entrance Program at CSULA, is just one example of the success experienced by graduates of Headwater’s Research Experience. In fact, she’s one of four recent Headwaters students who had their research manuscripts published in the Journal of Emerging Investigators.  

Colin Saltzgaber, a senior at the Nueva School in San Mateo, Calif., cited his published work on vegetation in the Yosemite Valley as a primary contributing factor to his acceptance into the University of Pennsylvania.  

Thresia Vazhaeparambil, a senior at Harker School in San Jose, Calif., published her research studying the dams, reservoirs, and watersheds in the foothills surrounding her home.  

And in 2020, Monta Vista High School student Ryan Li was published for his research on the relationship between macroinvertebrates, water quality, and the health of a creek near his home.  

A huge congratulations to all four of our students! Below is more on each project and how the Research Experience helped in their journey to being published.  

A passion for birds turns into an educational opportunity

“I just never was expecting something like a manuscript to be a part of the equation, but Headwaters encouraged me to do that,” Lara Tseng said. “My research mentor helped me with writing and editing the manuscript because, especially in middle school, there really isn’t a lot of that incorporated into the curriculum. Headwaters and the people there definitely guided me through the experience so I didn’t really feel like I was alone or afraid to approach something.” 

Lara’s project focused on eggshell consumption in different reproductive stages and broods of the Western Bluebird. She was inspired after reading an article about feeding eggshells to wild birds and trying it in her own backyard. She had also begun to monitor bluebirds the previous year.  

She called the impetus to her research as a “combination of interest and coincidence,” a good starting point for many good scientific inquiries. She’s since enrolled in CSULA, one of the few programs in the nation that allows students 16 and under to be full-time university students.  

“For me, the Research Experience changed a lot of things about my perception of science,” she said. “… It taught me about the different aspects of a study: Going from the initial observation that leads to a question that you’re interested in, discovering the answer to it and then hypothesizing and creating a methodology that actually works and then actually going through with that methodology and producing results and drawing some sort of conclusion from those results.   

“One thing that surprised me is the results; they don’t have to match up with your hypothesis. It can be completely different, and it can still be really important impactful research.”

A dream to attend UPenn becomes a reality 

Colin Saltzgaber has had his eye on attending the University of Pennsylvania, where his dad graduated from, for as long as he can remember. He said his Research Experience was a big part of being accepted, specifically a letter of recommendation from Headwaters Executive Director Meg Seifert.  

“Meg touched upon not only the work I did with Headwaters, but also she wrote about broader things like work ethic and how I contributed to help Headwaters outside of science, whether it was through donations or giving talks helping other students out,” said Colin, who plans on studying mineralogy and geology at Penn. “The Headwaters program itself, it was one of things I talked a lot about, ways I could back up my interest in mineralogy and geology.” 

Colin’s research project focused on vegetation in relation to slope in the Yosemite Valley. He said the path to getting published was “tedious and stressful, to be honest,” but rewarding and well worth it in the end.  

“This stuff is really important and something I’ll take to college with me,” he said.  


Environmental concern for her own backyard becomes published research 

Thresia Vazhaeparambil read with concern about the proposed expansion of the Pacheco Reservoir in Santa Clara County and decided to do something about it. Her Research Experience project put a literal microscope on the impact of dams on the nitrification of the surrounding ecosystem.  

“The rendering of the proposed expanded reservoir will increase the reservoir’s operational capacity up to 140,000 acre-feet of water,” she said. “Dams have many widely known benefits to humans, but not many people are aware of the harmful effects they can have on their surrounding environment.  

“An expansion of this magnitude will have significant and severe impacts on the reservoir’s ecosystem, which is why I wanted to further study dams and the nitrification of their surroundings.” 

She echoed Colin’s sentiments of the publication process being arduous but worth it.  

“I was not expecting the depth of feedback that I received and was surprised by the extensive nature of the process,” she said. “… It was reviewed by three scientists with relevant expertise in the specific field in addition to the editors and reviewers of the journal itself. While the process seemed intimidating at first, it was an exciting learning experience.” 


Finding large-scale climate phenomena in his own backyard 

Ryan Li also based his project out of interest in the water quality in a prominent watershed in the San Jose area, studying the relationship between macroinvertebrates, water quality, and the health of Stevens Creek.  

He said his favorite part of the process was “the opportunity to delve deeply into an area of science which I have been interested in while helping to make new potential discoveries which relate to that field of science as well as the study area.” 

He said the publication process helped him improve his ability to translate findings into writing.  

“I would say to a student considering entering this program that they should definitely give it a go,” he said. “Even if you don’t have an exact idea of what your research project would look like, the people who run the program will help you narrow down and guide you through the process of writing a research paper.” 

Science Mentor Jasmine Speaks to the Value of Hands-on Learning

Science Mentor Jasmine Speaks to the Value of Hands-on Learning

If you had told the teenage me that I could earn a living by catching, counting, and measuring fishes and invertebrates, I most certainly would not have believed you – yet I found myself trying to convince middle and high school students just that. A career in research performing observational and experimental studies in the field was unknown to me until my third year as an undergraduate student. This revelation sent me down an exhausting, but exhilarating and rewarding, path of studying aquatic ecology. In this new chapter, my office was a river decorated with cattail and willow, regularly visited by heron, beaver, and osprey. I could not be happier, and I wanted to spread this information with young students. 

students use nets to find invertebrates in shallow water

I was eager to work with Headwaters Science Institute as a mentor because I wanted to share with students the vast possibilities that exist in the field of scientific research. I hoped they would find wonder in natural environments that would instill curiosity and excitement. This anticipation was met as I helped students complete their projects in an incredibly short period of time – one week for 6th and 7th grade students from Sacramento Country Day and two weeks for 12th grade students at College Preparatory School.

students use nets to find invertebrates in shallow water

From study design to data collection and analysis, the level of collaboration and teamwork that occurred within groups at College Preparatory School was amazing. The students were impressive both virtually in the classroom and in-person in the field. As I helped a group of students collect aquatic invertebrates from a stream and sort them by taxonomic group, I drew parallels between the research they were performing as high school seniors and the research I conducted as a graduate student. This program is so valuable because it exposes students to experiences that cannot be taught through lectures and allows them an opportunity to learn by engaging with nature and their classmates.

Jasmine Williamshen

Jasmine Williamshen

Science Mentor