Shannon Dillard

PhD student, Geography

Faculty advisors: Christian Andresen and Erika Marín-Spiotta

Shannon DillardShannon is a PhD student in geography, originally from Wind Lake, Wisconsin. Her research uses remote sensing techniques such as satellites, drones, and airplanes to monitor the spatial distribution of thawing permafrost.

“Alaska is the fastest warming place on the planet,” Shannon said. “While climate change disproportionately impacts Arctic regions, these areas of the world present unique challenges [for research] due to their remoteness and their harsh environments.”

Shannon and her collaborators map Alaska’s watersheds in high resolution using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) systems. They use these maps to identify the signatures of thawing permafrost, then visit those locations to collect samples for further analysis. Shannon’s work helps to improve the U.S. Department of Energy’s global climate model and contributes to researchers’ knowledge of thawing permafrost and its effects in the arctic region.

“Arctic soils are very high in organic carbon stocks – they store twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. Therefore, the global warming potential of the Arctic is huge,” Shannon said. “In many cases, little is understood about the potential timing and magnitude of carbon release to the atmosphere, and we are trying to learn more about the factors that contribute to carbon storage or release.”

Shannon received a University Fellowship in 2019-20, her first year of graduate school. Since then, she has been awarded the Los Alamos National Laboratory Graduate Research Fellowship to contribute to the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) Arctic project, funded by the Department of Energy. Shannon’s research and her contributions to the NGEE Arctic project aim to understand the processes of permafrost thaw to improve predictions for the future.

“The University Fellowship has allowed me to focus my efforts on research, writing manuscripts, and designing experiments. Without this fellowship, I would be spending up to 20 hours of my week teaching. While teaching is hugely influential and admirable, it is also a serious commitment that leaves less time for research endeavors,” Shannon said. “The University Fellowship gave me the time and flexibility to design a well-structured research program that ultimately won me another fellowship with Los Alamos National Laboratory.”

Shannon also said that she is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue her studies.

“I am a first-generation college student, and I would not be able to pursue a PhD program without generous funding sources from donors who believe in the success of UW–Madison graduate students,” she said.