DEC 23, 2022 6:00 AM PST

Grad Student Highlights: Abbie Sandquist (University of Nevada, Reno)

This interview series is focused on the graduate student experience across all STEM fields that allows them to get their research, or corresponding graduate coursework, out in front of a large global audience and share their experiences in graduate school. Our goal is to inspire the next generation of STEM students to pursue graduate studies for a myriad of disciplines, and we hope you enjoy reading these amazing stories! If you'd like to be featured in this series, feel free to send an email to, Subject Line: Grad Student Highlights Interest!

Abbie Sandquist is a 2nd-year Hydrology PhD student in the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). This comes after earning a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Fresno State University in 2017, followed by one summer at NASA Ames Research Center as an Aeromechanics Intern and then as a Mechanical Engineer with the US Navy in an ocean engineering group at Port Hueneme, CA. She says her decision to pursue hydrology for graduate school was led by both the complex nature of water and the effects that water management has on ecosystems and communities.

Hiking by an alpine lake near Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierra. (Credit: Abbie Sandquist)

“I have often been drawn to water throughout my life,” she says. “I competed on my high school dive team, I love to ski and kayak, and I worked as a white-water river rafting guide in college. My interest in the importance of water grew in 2016 when I learned how the lead and pollution present in the mismanaged water sources in Flint, Michigan affected my colleagues and their loved ones while working at an internship less than 40 miles away. It grew again in 2018, as I spent a month traveling and volunteering in rural agricultural communities in Cambodia. Many of these villages faced unique sustainability and water-related challenges, some of which were due to residual impacts from the Khmer Rouge brutality.” Sandquist notes the innovative solutions undertaken by local communities to combat the crisis.

Fall kayaking at Convict Lake near Mammoth Lakes, California. (Credit: Abbie Sandquist)

“These experiences led me to recognize that the necessity of water for life knows no social or geopolitical boundaries,” she says. “It is vital to all people that we understand our water systems well.  My engineering experience also suited pursuing this field well – I have strong background in core math and sciences and critical thinking and have worked with fluid mechanics and dynamics. Hydrology is also a fairly broad field – there is an opportunity to continue to learn about new subsections of the field throughout my life, which is exciting.”

Sandquist says she was drawn to attend grad school due to the research and development work she conducted as an engineer, noting that her career trajectory would involve more project management roles and less science. Wanting more of a research-based career path, Sandquist made the decision to pursue graduate studies, as she is drawn to being continually challenged, along with taking part in research that can have positive impacts on both the planet and the people who live here.

Hiking under storm clouds at Millerton Lake near Fresno, California. (Credit: Abbie Sandquist)

“Grad school can definitely be challenging, so I am glad I worked for a while before starting a graduate degree,” she says. “This allowed me time to experience working outside the world of academia, and to explore many interests and types of work. This gave me time to be more certain about the direction I wanted to go with my graduate study and career. I was also able to save money and have a little more financial security during my years as a grad student.”

Throughout the application process, Sandquist spoke with her current advisor, Dr. Scott Allen, several times via Zoom, and determined it would be a good fit for her. Sandquist stresses the importance of selecting a good advisor for graduate school, noting Dr. Allen was thoughtful, humble, and encouraging.

Transplanting banana tree stumps to higher ground to prevent flooding during monsoon season at a local farm near Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia. (Credit: Abbie Sandquist)

“In addition to a great advisor and an interesting research project, I was also drawn to UNR because of its location,” she says. “I love the mountains in the western US, and I wanted to live closer to them. Reno is a beautiful location, and a great place to study water as it is surrounded by both mountain and desert ecosystems. I also liked the multidisciplinary nature of the Graduate Program of Hydrological Sciences at UNR – people are studying a huge range of different topics related to water in the program, so there is an opportunity to learn about a broad range of potential paths in hydrology and gain wide breadth of understanding of the field.”

Sandquist says that adaptability and proper data usage are two of the most important challenges facing graduate students in her field, noting that much like the climate, the methods that professionals in her field conduct research are constantly changing.

“Current students in hydrology will also have to be careful with how we use data and models,” she says. “There is a lot more data available now than there was a few decades ago, thanks to developments in ways we can collect and share data. This data can provide an opportunity to learn a lot about water systems, but the nature of hydrological data often includes large uncertainties. If we use data and models without being careful to track accuracy and communicate the uncertainty involved, there is possibility that our work can lead to sharing of misleading conclusions or misinformation. This is especially important as our digital media platforms allow information, whether it is accurate or not, to spread incredibly rapidly.”

Learning about fishing ponds and sustainable irrigation plans at a local farm near Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia. (Credit: Abbie Sandquist)

Sandquist says that after earning her PhD, her goal is to pursue a career in applied research, noting the United States Geological Survey, Department of Energy, and the Desert Research Institute as possible landing points. She says that within 5-10 years, she wishes to conduct research that can help us better understand how we interact with daily water systems, along with ensuring access to safe water for everyone.

“I hope to use the research and data skills I’ve developed in grad school to actively work on research,” she says. “I also hope to use the writing and science communication skills I am developing to translate the research work into a format that is interpretable and applicable for actual management of our water systems – I want to do work that spans the gap between academia, industry, policy, and public spheres so that all people are well informed about their water systems, and communities can make water decisions that are just and sustainable.”

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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