An assistant professor and alumna of two separate academic departments at The University of New Mexico have been honored for the success of their interdisciplinary research partnership.

Yolanda Lin, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies department, and Anistasia Baca, a Spring 2023 graduate with a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in Statistics, were selected as the recipients of the 2023 Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Award for their nearly two-year research collaboration, much of which involved working with other university and government partners to help increase flood resiliency in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

"UNM Assistant Professor Yolanda Lin and Anistasia Baca's research activity and commitment to excellence really embody and speak to the meaning behind the Faculty Mentored Research Award," said UNM Vice President for Research Ellen Fisher. "This award was created to spotlight the amazing opportunities and breadth of new innovations that can happen when collaboration takes place – and epitomizes our tagline that Research is Education. Congratulations to our two newest recipients, your research project focusing on building flood resilience in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo will have a lasting impact on that community, as well as our Lobo community."

The collaboration began when Baca, a McNair and Research Opportunity Program Scholar, needed to find a research mentor and was interested in finding a professor doing research with real-world impact. Though she was working towards a degree in Environmental Science and Lin works in the Geography and Environmental Studies department, the two decided the partnership would be a good fit. They bonded over shared interests in natural hazards and having each been first-generation college students. The two worked together with support from different grants and UNM programs from October 2021 until Baca graduated in May 2023.

“I’m super excited to receive the award,” Baca said. “It’s kind of like the cherry on top of everything we worked for, how we work together and all the good things we were able to accomplish.”

Lin was in her first year as a tenure-track assistant professor at UNM when the two met and Baca became one of her very first student mentees as a faculty member. The university-wide recognition honors Lin’s deep commitment to some of the most important work professors do at universities. 

“Mentoring is the most fun part of my job, so I really feel happy that I'm able to do that every day,” Lin said. “Being able to be part of someone else's journey and to be part of their roadmap is just really rewarding and, in my opinion, creates a more vibrant university setting.”

Baca attributes many of her writing, research and presentation skills to Lin’s mentorship, which was characterized by an individualized plan for development, a peer group with other students working with Lin and ownership over a specific project or research task. Baca’s role in the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo project was to examine and help select a fragility curve to assign potential damage risk at different depths of flooding, for example, a two-inch flood might incur minimal damage on a building, while a six-foot flood could potentially destroy it.

Her project began with an extensive literature review examining what fragility curves and models had been used in similar studies. Many of the fragility curves used in prior research were missing information critical for replicating them. Baca then created a database of fragility curves, so future researchers could select the models best aligned to their respective projects, but cataloging the existing options revealed there was not a model that worked for the type of residential structures in Ohkay Owingeh.

“Through that process of collecting all of the fragility functions in one place, I found that there were very few to none that were designed for adobe buildings, which is really important because fragility curves can't really be applied in different construction types,” Baca said.

Typically, researchers might use empirical and analytical flood data to craft the right model, but the lack of data from previous floods was a critical element of the larger research group’s project. In order to create a fragility curve, Baca, with mentorship from Lin and guidance from the group, designed a survey to collect data from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo residents about how previous floods had damaged infrastructure and at what depths of flooding the residents would like to receive early warnings and evacuation notices. She completed training on how to work with human subjects, built relationships with community members to deploy the survey and analyzed the results in the programming language R.

After much of the work was done, Baca delivered a poster presentation at the 2022 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the largest conference in the geography field. With Lin’s encouragement and feedback throughout the application process, Baca received a prestigious travel grant typically reserved for graduate students.

As a faculty mentor, Lin aims to eliminate the hidden curriculum that can make research and careers in academia especially difficult for first-generation college students. In addition to supporting her students in applications for funding, she utilizes an Individual Development Plan to help facilitate conversations about skills, goals and expectations to help ensure students from all backgrounds have the tools necessary to succeed.

Throughout their time working together, Lin helped Baca improve her writing skills and encouraged her to apply for travel grants and other research support programs, like the ASSURE fellowship. Baca participated in ASSURE during the Spring 2022 semester. During her last undergraduate semester, Baca was employed by Lin as a peer learning facilitator to help her develop experience in education. Baca worked with students in Lin’s course, Geography 2115: Information Design in Science and Society, where she assisted with office hours, tutoring and grading.

Baca encourages students who are interested in research to explore the opportunities available to them. It was a conversation with an environmental science professor that led Baca to apply for the McNair program, which provided her with the financial stability to spend more time on her academic interests.

“Look for all the scholarships that are available for research on campus. You can even double up on some of them, which makes it a lot easier to spend time doing research,” she said.

Lin echoed the advice, adding that research can help students figure out what they might be interested in pursuing long term.

“Talk to as many people as possible and ideally you will find a really great fit where the opportunity lines up with your interests,” Lin said. “When I was an undergrad, I did some research that is not at all related to what I do now, but just getting my feet wet, learning what research was, and having the opportunity to be closely mentored by graduate students and a professor was all life-changing.”

Baca currently works at an environmental analysis lab testing water samples for contaminants. She plans to apply for Ph.D. programs to eventually become a researcher and professor at a university.

The Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Award will come with a $2,500 contribution to Lin’s research index and a $1,500 cash award for Baca. Both will be publicly recognized during the Research and Discovery Week in Fall 2023.