From collaborative research to a Ph.D.

February 19, 2024

Two M.S. in Environmental Science grads are taking what they learned working with Professor Jacob Napieralski into prestigious doctoral programs.

Professor Jacob Napieralski and his graduate students pose for a photo
Jacob Napieralski, far right, and his students at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in Denver in 2023. From left: Atreyi Guin, graduate student Renato Marimon, undergraduate student Audrey Taylor and Cat Sulich.

When Professor of Geology Jacob Napieralski published a new study last month, it grabbed headlines in a host of local and national outlets, including Bridge Detroit, Michigan Radio and Next City (stay tuned for that one). But there is another notable aspect to the project, which examined the impact of buried “ghost streams” on flooding in Detroit’s historically redlined neighborhoods: Napieralski’s co-authors — both master’s students at the time — are currently pursuing doctoral degrees. Napieralski, who chairs the M.S. in Environmental Science program, says the program primarily attracts working students who stay in their fields after graduation. But not only did Cat Sulich and Atreyi Guin both decide to continue their studies, their interests dovetailed so well with Napieralski’s work that the three became a research team.

Sulich and Guin took very different paths to the master’s program. Sulich completed her undergraduate degree in biology at Madonna University. She works as a clinical research coordinator at Michigan Medicine, and U-M’s generous tuition reimbursement, plus a partial match from UM-Dearborn, made pursuing her master’s at Dearborn a no-brainer. Going on for a Ph.D. didn’t take a lot of deliberation either. “It had been my childhood dream,” Sulich says. “I remember the first time I sat down with Jacob, I told him that, and he was, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can get you set up.’ He was very encouraging.” She is pursuing her doctorate in public health with a concentration in environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Guin came to UM-Dearborn as an international student after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in biotechnology from Mount Carmel College in Bangalore, India. “I don't think I ever thought that I'd do a Ph.D.,” she reflects. “But then, through the course of this program and working with Dr. Napieralski, I realized how much I really liked it. So I think a Ph.D. was automatically the next course of action for me. I just wanted to stay in this field longer and do more research.” She is pursuing her doctorate in geographical sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Sulich and Guin’s research interests were, naturally, influenced by Napieralski, who was their advisor. But they proved a perfect complement to his ongoing work as well. “Cat and I published a paper where we looked at surface water inequities in Phoenix and there were lots of different concepts and data that were brought into that. One of them was redlining, which fascinated us,” Napieralski explains. “My previous research focused a lot on the Rouge watershed, and Atreyi’s thesis focused on comparing flood risk from different models. So our collaborations came from overlapping projects and required the integration of collective expertise, creativity and persistence.” 

The project the trio worked on together used historical maps to identify once-active, now-buried waterways in Detroit. They then correlated those waterways with flood risk data and historic Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps that graded neighborhoods on perceived financial risk, a now outlawed, highly discriminatory practice known as redlining. The team confirmed that flooding disproportionately impacts historically redlined neighborhoods and that the buried waterways contribute to flooding risk. They published their results in the January 2024 issue of City and Environment Interactions.

Their hope is that their research will be used to direct resources to the communities that need them the most. “Cities should begin mapping their ‘hidden hydrology’ so that residents know they are at increased risk of flooding and can make informed decisions and prepare,” Napieralski says. “We need to step back and evaluate how we manage water in urban environments, and also think about the people and history and mitigating factors that we invest in one community and not the other. All these things add up and people who have the least bear the greatest burden.” 

Professor Jacob Napieralski squats next to the Rouge River on a late winter day
Professor Jacob Napieralski poses for a photo on the banks of the Rouge River in Lola Valley Park, Redford, Michigan.

The process leading the group to look at ghost streams was iterative. “Anytime you map real world entities, you can always learn something new. And then that leads to further questions,” says Napieralski. “If you have people like Cat and Atreyi, who are smart, ambitious and have creative ideas, you just lay it out on the table. We would have a number of brainstorming sessions where we would just flesh out the key ideas. For many students, that works better than me telling them what to do, just because you never know what ideas someone else has that could be really valuable.”

Sulich and Guin both say their UM-Dearborn research experiences prepared them well for their next academic step. “If you want to know which parcels flood more, if they're redlined or not, you can't just open Google and search it. You have to just solve the problem yourself,” Sulich observes. ”That was what my master's thesis was like. Whenever there was a problem, because it’s original work, you can't just look it up. You have to find a way to solve that. And that's literally what a Ph.D. is.”

Guin says the research project helped her become more selective — a key skill for an academic. “All the work that we did during the research, we did not present all of it,” she observes. “To understand what to choose and what not to, what would be the most important thing to tie into this paper, that was also a big takeaway for me.”

Napieralski says he learned from Sulich and Guin as well. “I can just sit around at home and spitball great ideas, but it takes a team to see it through,” he explains. “I don't know if I ever saw it as mentoring so much as just collaborating. It was always sharing ideas and tasks, and we all had the same final goal. It wasn't for a grade, it was, ‘Let's get this published. Let's go to a conference and present this.’”

Napieralski has a long history of involving his students in his research, and he’s found they tend to form strong bonds. “There's a connection that lasts much longer,” he says. ”I don't like it when students just pack up and leave and I never see them again. I think it's healthy for faculty members to lean heavily on talented students and then also have that long-term partnership that lasts well beyond this stay on campus.” 

Proving that point, Sulich recently enlisted her former advisor as a collaborator in her doctoral research. “I get to sit on the other side of this,” Napieralski reflects. “Just like our research evolves, so does the partnership that I share with them.”


Article by Kristin Palm