Education News

Current Student Research Involvement: Research Assistants, Interns and Graduate Workshops & Studios


The Earth Institute at Columbia University provides an environment rich with educational opportunity for graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in studying the Earth and its sciences.

One of the Earth Institute’s strengths is the breadth of research opportunities that it provides for Columbia students. This spring 2008, the Earth Institute has offered a combined total of twenty paid internships and research assistantships to both graduate and undergraduate students. These opportunities allow Earth Institute researchers to engage students in their cross-disciplinary research projects. “The RA and internship programs provide students with invaluable hands-on work in research fields that would be otherwise hard to access,” said, Louise Rosen, Earth Institute Director of the Office of Academic and Research Programs.

Through these internship and research assistantship programs, undergraduates from programs at Barnard, Columbia College and The School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) have become engaged in cutting-edge research with influential members of the science community. This year, Columbia College freshman Mackenzie Yang is engaged in work with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) to find areas of high magnetic susceptibility in cores with well-dated ash layers. The LDEO’s Borehole Research Group has also selected Brian Lambson, a SEAS student, to assist in enhancing borehole logging tools. These tools are used in the acquisition of in-situ measurements to study sediment and physical property changes in marine and terrestrial environments, which are critical to understand the history of Earth’s past climatic and oceanographic changes. Additionally, Barnard sophomore Acadia Roher will be studying water mass distribution in the South Atlantic during the last glacial maximum. This project will use sedimentological and isotope techniques and the use of isotopes as a tool for the reconstruction of past ocean circulation changes.

The Earth Institute also provides opportunities for graduate-level research, opening doors for graduate students who seek professional level experience. The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) is currently working on a World-Bank funded Poverty Mapping project and has employed School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA )student Janel Gabriel in this project. Gabriel is working on data analysis with Maria Muniz to continue the compilation of a state of the art dataset of georeferenced sub-national poverty and inequality measures. Ashley Mercer, also a SIPA student, is working this summer with Professor Peter deMenocal from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. She is analyzing several new sediment cores that have been collected off the west coast of Africa to reconstruct and investigate the latitudinal range of a dramatic change in North Africa that occurred between 10,000 – 5,000 years ago. Mercer explains that her appreciation about the research internship program “is twofold, I have access to engage and learn from top researchers and I am being remunerated for my experience, which qualifies my worth as a researcher in my own right.” The Earth Institute is also initiating a comprehensive project with the aim of understanding the dynamics of groundwater use in India as a whole. SIPA Graduate student Victor Vazquez will be studying the groundwater economy with Tobias Siegfried in Andhra Pradesh, India with Earth Institute Fellows.

In addition to paid research assistant and internship opportunities, the Earth Institute works with several affiliated programs where students undertake workshops and studios to develop the practical use of environmental interests. Like the RA and intern research work, these programs are geared toward more than textbook learning. Through the workshops and studios, students are brought into relationships with actual clients in government and non-profit organizations. Professor Sara Tjossem teaches the summer course on Environmental Policy in the summer term to all Environmental Science and Policy students and has worked this year with her workshop group on evaluating the greenhouse gas implications of using biofuel for the New Jersey Department of Environment. Professor Tjossem says that “it’s a delight in the spring to work closely with just a dozen students as they apply their whirlwind year of coursework and experiences to the consulting project of the Spring Workshop.” Students examine data, investigate existing programs, and develop workable solutions that can then be put to use by clients. They learn to think creatively, interact with the world around them, and turn theoretical concepts into practical solutions.

SIPA spring semester workshops include the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy Workshop in Applied Earth Systems Management, which undertakes analytic projects for actual management problems faced by certain clients; the Economic and Political Development (EPD) Concentration Workshop in Applied Development, where students participate in teams on assignments in international development; the Environmental Policy Concentration (EPS) Workshop, which consists of a group of eight to ten graduate students work closely with a client on a significant issue in environmental policy; and the International Energy Management and Policy (IEMP) Workshop, where second-year IEMP students assist clients on energy-focused assignments. The three graduate level studios engage students in real world work a similar way. The Urban Design Lab is the organizational mechanism used by the Earth Institute to connect hundreds of the University’s experts and dedicated students to communities in New York City and elsewhere to conduct projects for community-based and other stakeholder organizations attempting to shape development in their home neighborhoods. Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation student Gabriella Forlina will be providing research support to the Urban Design Lab working under Richard Plunz. Similarly, the Urban Ecology Studio works with students and faculty in the investigation of specific urban issues for the development of sustainable cities. The Environmental Law Clinic builds on students’ litigation skills with local, regional, and national environmental and community organizations in order to address environmental issues including clean water, wetlands preservation, endangered species, environmental justice, "smart growth," and clean air.

Through these programs, the Earth Institute aims to actively engage undergraduate and graduate students in current environmental issues and research. Columbia University has developed an educational environment geared toward prolific and relevant student opportunities to participate in more than just classroom learning.