Robyn Williams stands by windows

Sustainable Connections

Across Iowa, there is an army of people whose jobs and lives focus on the health of the environment and the water we need to survive. Graduate Research Assistant Robyn Williams knows firsthand how challenging this work can be.

Robyn poses for a photo in front of a window

Williams uses GIS (Geographic Information System) to create new flood models

Originally from Texas, Williams graduated from Texas State University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. There she worked for two years at an environmental lab, where she saw oil spills, chemicals, and other contaminants in drinking water before it is treated. Her work in the lab inspired her to seek a job that focused on the environment, but she hit a roadblock: upper-level positions in her line of work require an advanced degree.

“That inspired me to apply here, and then I started looking at jobs in the field and a lot of them require experience with using hydrologic models and using GIS to make water resource decisions,” Williams explains. “So I came here with the specific purpose of learning hydrologic modeling.”

Williams applied to the University of Iowa’s Sustainable Water Development (SWD) graduate program, which is educating a new generation of water professionals focused on developing sustainable water solutions for communities most in need. Based at the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, this innovative program also encourages the participation of students from a wide range of STEM disciplines. Many of the SWD students also affiliate with the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) because of its groundbreaking research in flooding.

When she came in for her interview at the Iowa Flood Center, Williams explained exactly what she wanted to do. She was paired with Allen Bradley, an IFC researcher. Williams now works alongside Bradley, modeling the effects of building constructed wetlands in the English River Watershed.

The English River Watershed is one of nine watersheds that are the focus of the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), a project dedicated to reducing flooding across Iowa. The IWA is designed to slow the movement of water through the landscape by strategically building farm ponds, wetlands, and other conservation practices in the watershed. IWA researchers are working to restore some of Iowa’s natural resiliency to heavy rainfall, while also improving water quality, adding natural beauty to the landscape, creating wildlife habitat, and restoring ecosystem services. The goal is to adapt the model for use in the other eight IWA watersheds.

To create the hydrologic model for wetland scenarios, Williams uses GIS, a geographic information system that uses current maps to show researchers and modelers where infrastructure such as roads and buildings are located.

“That’s where GIS sort of fills in the gaps of the model, bringing it to life.”

Williams explains that she can create a model to simulate wetlands anywhere in the watershed, but there are rules about how close to houses the wetland can be built. GIS shows her where her project would be feasible, which brings the project one step closer to reality.

When Williams isn’t in school or at work, which isn’t often, she can be found hanging out with her friends both at home for movie night and out on the town.  Her extracurricular activities also include being involved in the Student Advisory Board and, like any good college student, sleeping.