While an uptick in rainfall may have dampened some students' summer plans, one student used the downpour to kick-start her career.

This summer, Brandy Manka, undergraduate research assistant for the graduate and doctoral students of John Schwartz, contributed to a project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Assisting with measuring rates of sediment and nutrients in runoffs from storms on bioenergy switchgrass plots near Sweetwater, Tenn., Manka tried to improve the quality and precision of pre-existing data.

"I was trying to better the collection of data and runoff samples from the storm in a field of switchgrass," Manka, sophomore studying civil and environmental engineering, said.

Drawn to the challenge, Manka soon discovered a fascination with weather patterns.

"Over the summer I became a bit of a 'weather addict,'" she said. "What I was working on for the project was based on runoff from storms, so I was constantly checking the weather to see if there was a chance of rain so we could test the machines. We were often out in the field in the rain, but it was actually a lot of fun."

Manka's primary role was to improve the machines used to test the water.

"Brandy's contribution was figuring out some technical issues we were having with our field-deployed automatized water samplers," said John Schwartz, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "She worked in the Civil Engineering Hydraulics Laboratory, built a pilot scale flume and tested equipment. Her contribution to the project was excellent, and successfully improved our field site sampling performance."

Designed to attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, UT's Research and Instructional Strategies for Engineering Retention program encouraged Manka to find work opportunities.

"Our idea was to get (students) engaged in research to show them how important engineering was to society and how important their chosen field is," said Claudia Rawn, joint faculty assistant professor in material science and engineering. "The majority of the young women we have recruited through the RISER (program) are outstanding. I have had so many compliments from their research mentors about how smart they are, how hard they work and how independent they are."

Manka attributes the opportunity to work with the USDA as reaffirming to her career goals. Using the research she conducted while working with the USDA, Manka won the RISER program's poster session contest and will go to her first professional conference this year.

"I really enjoy what I do," Manka said. "I am grateful that I was provided with this opportunity so early in my college career. This opportunity solidified my desire to be an engineer, and I look forward to continue learning and participating in research."

After graduation, Manka plans on continuing her research and pursuing her master's degree while possibly joining the Peace Corps.