Highlights from BYU colleges


Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering

BYU civil and environmental engineering professor Jim Nelson makes observations at the Provo River. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

A BYU professor teamed up with NASA to develop software that uses predictions of severe weather patterns to save lives across the world. Jim Nelson and his colleagues at the Group on Earth Observations Global Water Sustainability Partnership have developed a technology that predicts the way that every river on earth rises and falls.

The BYU software program, called NASA SERVIR, has already been distributed to more than 30 countries, applying satellite monitoring and mapping systems that help people respond to floods, wildfires and other disasters. The program is even accessible in remote conditions through cloud servers. SERVIR has already been put to the test. It prevented an enormous loss of life in July 2020 when it predicted a flood in Nepal and contacted emergency agencies there.

“Through his work with SERVIR, Jim has developed new and innovative techniques to downscale and visualize the latest streamflow forecasts, thus making them actionable at the local level and resulting in uptake from several governments in the Himalayan region,” SERVIR global program manager Dan Irwin said. “Jim is a world-class scientist, but what’s particularly exciting is his applied focus and passion to make his science actionable to people in the developing world. He strives to deeply understand the issues in the region in which he is working, and then apply the best and most appropriate science.”

J. Reuben Clark Law School

BYU alum Scott Smith interacts with students. Smith was chosen to teach American democracy to young Ukrainian lawyers. (Scott Smith)

A BYU Law alum was chosen to mentor and teach young law students in Ukraine’s emerging democracy. The Leavitt Institute for International Development sent Scott Smith on a two-week trip to Ukraine in spring 2019. Smith and a colleague from Nebraska visited groups at 14 universities in Kyiv and Kharkiv to teach about general principles of Western democracies as well as how to apply those ideas in Ukraine.

Smith said the students he met with reminded him of America’s founding fathers because of their earnest commitment to and belief in the power of democracy. Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union after World War II and only gained independence in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, putting this brand-new generation of lawyers in an uncertain situation much like the one early American patriots dealt with in the Revolutionary War. 

“The students are brave; what we’ve read about in our history books, they experienced when they were in high school,” Smith said of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy. “It’s deeply humbling (to teach them) because the students are really respectful and admiring of our judicial and political systems. I hope we are a good example of how these principles can work, and how, when they fail, you can fix them so that the ideals endure.”

College of Life Sciences

Students studying plant and wildlife sciences are fighting wildfires with preventative seed enhancements. BYU professor Matt Madsen and his students studied how wildfire-ravaged landscapes in the Great Basin become the perfect breeding ground for extremely flammable weeds, perpetuating a cycle of wildfires. This team hopes to stop that cycle by reintroducing native fire-resistant plants in an enhanced way that has never been used before in landscape restoration: by utilizing seed coatings usually used for commercial farming.

One species they’re working with, bluebunch wheatgrass, has already shown a 60% increase in plant emergence from using the seed-enhancers. Madsen is confident the plants will begin a new cycle of positive growth if they survive this first year on the landscape.

“If we don’t get native plants back on the landscapes, we’re going to have more and more fires and those fires are going to be increasingly destructive,” Madsen said. “When we look at our landscapes and how much has been burned, a lot of times we don’t even have enough seed to go around and there’s also a lack of performance of the seed that does get planted. It’s a really big challenge.”

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