Undergraduate researcher models global river networks

Brennan Bean

Brennan Bean, a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, stands on a bridge overlooking the Santa Ana River Scale Model. During his summer internship, he modelled global river networks. (Photo courtesy of Austin Crabtree and Chuck Wehr, interns at the U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center)

From starting an internship, to preparing for graduate school, to planning a marriage, Brennan Bean’s summer has been a whirlwind. Bean, however, described it as “stressful in the best way” and relished the chance to dive into research as a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program.

This program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S. The opportunity to research for the federal government appealed to Bean, who wanted to experience a research setting outside of academia.

From the start, Bean’s internship at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a completely new experience in terms of both culture and research.

His main focus was the modelling of global river networks that could be used for flood prediction. The ability to predict floods would help mitigate the damage they cause. Using his bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, Bean wrote code and scripts for the model of North and South Korea’s river system. North and South Korea were chosen primarily because of their smaller size and separation from the continent; however, Bean’s brother lives in South Korea, which made him more invested in the project.

Having grown up in an agricultural region, Bean remembered being acutely aware of the role water played in the environment around him. “As a child, I loved watching the water running through the irrigation ditches and canals that cover the southeastern Idaho landscape,” he said. This background positioned him to consider irrigation allocation as a potential benefit of the model.

“In my mind, if the model could be refined to accurately predict stream flows in a river network, then the local water conservation agency could take those flow predictions to better determine how much water each farmer had a right to use in a given growing season,” Bean explained.

Bean said he was happy he chose to pursue the internship. “The program opened my eyes to a formerly unknown world of research and helped ease the transition from undergraduate to graduate school,” he said.

“For me, the most important take-away was to hear all the stories of the people I worked with,” Bean recalled. “I especially enjoyed hearing about how others developed in their careers. These stories gave perspective to my own experiences and encouraged me to continue exploring my interests in research.”

Overall, Bean said he was encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive reception he received from coworkers. “People wanted me to be there and valued my opinion,” he said.

Bean also said he was surprised by the range of options and projects he ultimately became involved with. What he first viewed as disorienting, he came to recognize as part of a broad exposure that helped him accomplish his personal goals for the summer. For future participants, Bean stressed the importance of being open to trying new things, even if they are outside of their comfort zone.

As for his future plans, Bean will be pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics at Utah State University shortly after completing another big task – getting married. He hopes eventually to teach and continue to pursue research at a liberal arts college.

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.