Nevada’s 60-year-old Desert Research Institute continues expanding its scientific exploration


On a sunny afternoon last autumn, the Boulder City location of Desert Research Institute opened its doors to the public. For a few hours, community members nibbled on snacks as they explored a sort of science fair on steroids. DRI faculty and researchers displayed and explained their projects. Children and adults oohed and ahhed.

“We just want to remind people that DRI is a big part of the community, even though we don’t grant degrees [and] we don’t have a football team,” says spokesperson Justin Broglio. Often misunderstood, DRI is part of the Nevada System of Higher Education. It facilitates environmental research, and faculty members must secure their own funding.

At the event, an archaeology team explained how it’s helping to preserve Southern Nevada’s Lost City using drones. An eco-hydrology expert spotlighted efforts to find water in desert soils, while an environmental chemist discussed issues related to the Southern Nevada watershed. A rosy boa snake slithered on its handler. Visitors flocked to the Science Alive program’s virtual reality glasses demo, viewing an educational and experiential video about NASA space training.

The biggest draw at the open house was the chance to tour the underground lysimeter. Soil physicist Markus Berli led tour groups to a seemingly unremarkable spot of desert just beyond the DRI facility, and then into a metal-lined tunnel that went about one-story underground.

There, vast metal tanks—somewhat resembling giant tanks for brewing beer—measure the desert soil from below. They’re part of the SEPHAS Program (Scaling Environmental Processes in Heterogeneous Arid Soils), which studies what happens naturally with soil that receives fewer than 10 inches of rain per year. According to a handout, “The SEPHAS program gives Nevada the extraordinary capacity to address basic scientific questions and practical problems unique to Nevada and other arid regions worldwide.” Right now, research is being conducted on how to restore arid soil, how water evaporates and/or infiltrates arid soils and more.

In March, DRI will conclude its 60th anniversary year. Public events like this one have been part of a year’s worth of outreach, which have included STEM events with the Girl Scouts, a Science Distilled podcast, a Day at the Nevada State Legislature and more. As some Americans become skeptical of science, DRI keeps the flame of knowledge burning.

DRI by the numbers

Continents where DRI research is conducted

100 Ph.D. faculty members

758 Nevada K-12 science teachers trained

40 Specialized labs

300 Ongoing research projects

$31 million Total sponsored research

$6 million Shared grant money from a National Science Foundation 2018 award for genetic research

Making an Institution

1959 The Nevada State Legislature creates a research division for the University of Nevada, and the Desert Research Institute is born.

1961 DRI begins studying groundwater in Nevada.

1967 DRI creates a Basque Studies Program for the preservation of Basque culture and history. The program is now part of UNR.

1977 In response to drought, DRI leads Nevada’s first Emergency Cloud Seeding Project.

1986 The Western Regional Climate Center, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, makes its home at DRI.

1988 To put Nevada on the map in the scientific community, DRI begins giving out the Nevada Medal, an annual, national science award.

1992 The Southern Nevada Science Center, at 755 E. Flamingo Road, becomes home to the Las Vegas faculty of DRI.

1997 The Science Box Traveling Kits Program launches, helping to educate more than 23,000 Nevada students annually.

1999 DRI takes over program operations at the Community Environmental Monitoring Program—which measures the conditions downwind from the Nevada National Security Site—after nearly 20 years supporting the operation.

2005 DRI helps to monitor Nevada’s desert tortoises.

2016 DRI launches the Science Distilled lecture series, which stages six annual community talks.

Key Projects

DRI researchers are at work on a vast array of projects all around the world. Here’s a sampling.

Rooting out microplastics. Tiny pieces of plastic trash are polluting the Las Vegas Wash and Lake Tahoe. DRI researchers are investigating and working to reduce microplastics in aquatic ecosystems.

Treating tumors with math. How can cancer drugs reach their destination if blood vessels are impaired by cancerous tumors? DRI researchers are using mathematical models to find the best solution.

Learning about early Nevadans. DRI archaeologists and microbiologists have teamed up to study the remains of plants consumed by indigenous Nevadans who lived 350-980 years ago and sequence their DNA.

Calculating the impact of fire on soils. When managing nature, prescribed burns are a common tool to prevent more harmful wildfires. But DRI research has found that these “low-severity fires” still damage the soil.

Revealing traces of ancient civilizations. A team that included DRI researchers measured lead pollution in the Greenland ice sheet to gain insight into Iron and Middle Age European economies, ancient Rome and more. Discover magazine named it one of 2018’s top discoveries.

Helping prevent wildfires. Fire managers in the desert Southwest will be better able to predict periods of likely wildfire thanks to DRI scientists’ research into monsoon weather patterns.





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