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University of Montana professor and water policy expert Brian Chaffin leans over his booth in the Buttercup Cafe on Friday, cracking a smile as he discusses the specifics of his latest project, which won him a National Science Foundation fellowship. 

Rebekah Welch, Missoulian

Researchers have an astonishing amount of data about the Middle Platte River watershed in Nebraska.

"They know the dynamics of this watershed since roughly the Dust Bowl until today," said Brian Chaffin, assistant professor of water policy at the University of Montana.

Nutrient flows? Check. Crop production cycles? Yep. Water flows? For sure.

But Chaffin, faculty member at UM's W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, said researchers haven't collected and overlaid social and policy data that show the interactions between humans and the natural resource, and they don't know how those dynamics change over time.

That's his area of expertise, and the National Science Foundation recently awarded him a $214,000 fellowship to build social and ecological perspectives into the data. The project is a collaboration among UM, the University of Nebraska, and the U.S. Geological Survey of Nebraska's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit.

As part of the fellowship, Chaffin will head to Nebraska for one month late this school year and then for fall semester in 2018 to look for links between policies and ecological change. Then, he'll bring the work home to Montana because there's predictive value in looking back.

"How do we use that information and prepare for fundamental shifts in the future?" Chaffin said.

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Chaffin has started his third year teaching at UM, and he's one of two junior researchers the university recently announced as recipients of NSF fellowships. Tung-Chung Mou, an assistant professor of biological sciences, earned a $219,000 award for a project in conjunction with the National Center for Macromolecular Imaging at Stanford University.

According to UM, its researchers "on the frontiers of science and engineering" are among 30 in the country whose work was recently rewarded by the National Science Foundation. The EPSCoR fellowship granted nearly $5.6 million to scientists in 20 states who are partnering with premier research institutions, UM said.

In a statement, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship Scott Whittenburg said the awards show faculty's commitment to world-class research that's of interest to the National Science Foundation.

"These two research awards are a continuing indication of the high quality of new faculty who are being recruited to the University of Montana," Whittenburg said.

Last week, UM also noted a recent review by the National Taiwan University ranks the research coming out of UM as among the top in the world — and as the best in Montana. UM ranked in the top 800 among 4,000 institutions in the world based on its production of scientific papers and their impact, according to the campus (see box).

“Faculty publications, the citation of those articles by other researchers and the high impact of those journals are primary indicators of quality and demonstrate that our faculty and students are conducting research on par with leading institutions around the world," Whittenburg said in a statement.

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Chaffin is recently back from speaking at a geomorphology conference in Texas on the concept of resilience in the study of change in the earth. The assistant professor said much of his own research is based on the notion of resilience.

The climate is changing, and precipitation patterns are going to change as well, the researcher said. Traditionally, scientists have looked at the relationship between, say, precipitation and farm production in a particular place.

But human factors influence agriculture as well, Chaffin said: "Maybe agriculture becomes difficult because of less precipitation. But it's still an important shared value in our community."

This specific fellowship brings the idea of "threshold dynamics" into the equation, he said. At what point do people keep farming, change the way they farm, or change their approach?

"What are the major shifts over time? And what does that tell us about preparing for the future?"

The results come at the intersection of ecological phenomena and decisions of governance, Chaffin said. In Santa Rosa, California, for instance, fires devastated neighborhoods and people lost lives, and people will grapple with how to move forward given the massive shift the fires brought into their lives.

"When a system is faced with a major disruption, does it adapt, or does it transform into something new?"

This semester, Chaffin is teaching a seminar about the innovations at the nexus of food, energy and water, and he's coaching graduate students who are studying the connections among those sectors.

He lives in Missoula with his wife, Jenni Chaffin, and the former river guide is a fan of the hunting, fishing, boating and other outdoor recreation in Montana. He's a fan of Glacier National Park and Le Petit Outre bakery and espresso shop in Missoula, and he's pleased to find himself and his wife feeling more integrated in the local community.

"We love the trails and just love the local businesses," Chaffin said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian