Meet Ann Willis - Recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Ann Willis - National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

Grad program: UC Davis Civil and Environmental Engineering (PhD) - already completed my master's in the same program
Undergrad: University of Southern California - English and Print Journalism
Hometown: Rye Brook, New York
Advisor: Jay Lund

Interview Questions:

  1. How does it feel to earn an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship?
    Like an amazing privilege and responsibility. It makes me thrilled for all the teachers and mentors who nurtured my professional growth, as well as keenly aware that I'm in a strong position to do the same for others. I want to do as much as I possibly can with this opportunity.
  2. What will this award allow you to do that you might not have done without it?
    The freedom to pursue novel scientific concepts independent of other funding. Sometimes the easiest way to get people on board with a new concept is to show them, not tell them, why it's so important. But persuading them to fund you to show them something they're skeptical about is challenging.
  3. What will you research and how might it benefit the world?
    I'm researching how to reconcile human water use with the environment without eliminating people from the equation. 90% of aquatic habitat is now located in developed lands. On a large scale, restoring it by removing human activity is unfeasible, and plays into this concept that humans are pollutants of nature. We're part of nature, and I want to show how we can reconcile our activities with the way streams and their ecology function.
  4. What sparked your interest in your research, or science in general?
    Whitewater rafting. It was the first time I felt fully engaged with streams, how they move, what lives in them, where the water goes, and how flows are regulated. My recreational activities made me want to develop a career that focused on water. I considered focusing on policy, but realized that without a strong technical foundation, all I'd ever be was an advocate with a weak position. Digging into the technical workings of streams has allowed me to develop confident opinions about constructive ways to manage them, without being limited to a single solution.
  5. What advice do you have for people wanting to follow a similar path in science like yours?
    Build your confidence by starting wherever you need to. For me, that was taking introductory science and math classes at Butte Community College. Succeeding there gave me the confidence to keep trying the next thing, whether it was advanced mathematics, fluid mechanics, and ultimately, my master's program at UC Davis. Everyone has a valuable contribution to make, and finding the path that helps you build your strengths is the best way to make discoveries you were uniquely suited to achieve.