Education News

Spring Research Assistant Announcement

2008-12-23

The Earth Institute is pleased to offer ten paid undergraduate research assistant positions for Spring semester 2009. During the twelve-week period students will work ten hours a week earning $15 an hour. Please find the descriptions and application information below.

The research assistantships are open to full-time Columbia and Barnard undergraduate students. If you would like to apply, please send your resume and cover letter to Amanda Christie at arc2140@columbia.edu. You may apply to all the positions of interest to you; however please include a project- specific cover letter for each application. Applications are due by 12:00 PM, Friday, January 30th.

  1. Rationalizing Pesticide Policy in Developing Countries
  2. Solution for the Farmer, the Electric Utility and the State in India by Providing a Direct Cash Subsidy
  3. Understanding Reef Resilience: Characterizing Fine-scale Ecological Succession Related to Coral Recruitment
  4. Effects of Urbanization in New York on Carbon Sequestration of Quercus Rubra L.
  5. Exotic Oceanic Ejecta in a Bog-core: Are they from Tsunamigenic Impacts?
  6. Improving Crop Choice Water Use through Targeted Commodity Price and Climate Forecasting
  7. 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville
  8. South American Dust Bowl of the 1930s
  9. Urban Design Lab
  10. Mapping Mining Activities and Population Density in Peru

1. Rationalizing Pesticide Policy in Developing Countries

Since the mid-1980s, many governments have made progress in dismantling pesticide subsidies. As a result of structural adjustment, explicit price subsidies and preferential exchange rate regimes have largely been eliminated. However, other distortions persist. Agricultural credit linked to pesticide use is still fairly widespread. Several African countries receive foreign aid grants in the form of subsidized pesticides. Far from imposing externality taxes on pesticides, almost all countries in this study exempt pesticides from value-added or sales taxes. In addition, most countries charge exceptionally low import duties on either finished pesticide products or their component ingredients.

The research assistant will be involved in updating a working paper on this topic by a) reviewing the literature on the economics of pesticides to include important new contributions made in the past six years; b) collecting primary information from local governments' plant protection organizations, NGOs, etc. in order to perform an accurate assessment of the current state of pesticide policy reform. The output would be a paper to be submitted for publication in a development policy journal. The student would have the opportunity to be a co-author of the article.

top

2. Solution for the Farmer, the Electric Utility and the State in India by Providing a Direct Cash Subsidy

In an effort to boost rural economic growth in India, the government indirectly subsidizes inputs to agricultural production. For example, in many states, energy to pump groundwater for irrigation purposes is provided at flat tariffs. The way this public policy is currently set up leads to groundwater depletion as well as wasteful energy use and is not financially viable for the energy utilities and the state governments. However necessary it is, changing the current system is not trivial because a large fraction of farmers resist any change in policy that would adversely affect their income.

The project will investigate how improved electricity supply / metering of agricultural energy consumption plus the introduction of an opportunity cost for pumping groundwater affects the a) choice of irrigation technology, b) electricity demand and c) farm incomes. The core of the idea is to stimulate production and energy efficiency by offering the farmer a monetary compensation for unused energy credits below a certain threshold level. We anticipate that this compensation scheme is attractive since it helps to reduce the increasing income uncertainty for farmers which stems from falling groundwater tables and the continuing dispatch of mistimed low-quality energy to the agricultural sector.   

The RA will be directly involved in the development of an instrument to econometrically measure the effects of such a policy change and will be working in close collaboration with an interdisciplinary team at The Columbia Water Center. We anticipate a trial run in a selected region in India to start as of spring 2009. The RA should have strong quantitative skills and be familiar with issues related to sustainable agricultural production / rural development. A background in water resources management and/or energy is a plus. Programming skills with SPSS, S-Plus, WinBUGS, Matlab are required (knowledge of all programs not necessary, but RA must know at least a subset of these development / programming / analysis tools).

top

3. Understanding Reef Resilience: Characterizing Fine-scale Ecological Succession Related to Coral Recruitment

Although the recruitment of juvenile corals is a key component of reef resilience (i.e., the ability of reefs to recover from disturbance), relatively little is known about how recruitment interacts with other ecological processes that also contribute to ecosystem-level resilience. In particular, the types and intensities of interactions between fish communities and coral recruitment remain unclear, largely because of the limited research on reefs with intact fish communities. To help fill this gap, we have initiated studies of recruitment and related processes on Palmyra Atoll in the northern Line Islands of the central Pacific. Due to its isolation and history free from substantial human populations (with the exception of occupation during World War II), Palmyra Atoll supports fish communities that are considered to be relatively intact and pristine, with large numbers of apex predators such as shark, snappers, and jacks. This research assistantship will focus on computer-based image analysis of the assemblages of macroalgae and marine invertebrates growing on these plates. Specific issues to be investigated could include the role of site and depth in assemblage structure over time, and how assemblage structure influences coral recruitment and growths. In addition to introductory coursework in ecology and statistics, interest in and experience with marine biodiversity (especially algae and invertebrates), graphics software, and image analysis will be useful, though not required. Training will be provided in the identification of organisms from digital photos and use of image analysis software.

top

4. Effects of Urbanization in New York on Carbon Sequestration of Quercus Rubra L.

To study effects of urbanization on plants, an urban-to-rural transect from New York City to the Catskill Mountains was set up.  Quercus rubra (red oak) was selected as the experimental species, because it is a native and dominant tree species throughout the New York region.  Plants were grown at four field sites as well as in growth chambers to determine the most important variables.  During the summer of 2008, measurements of biomass, photosynthetic and respiratory rates, and chlorophyll fluorescence were taken on plants at each site on a weekly basis.  In addition, leaf tissue samples were dried or frozen for future chemical analysis. Here we propose to analyze these frozen samples.

Preliminary results show that Quercus rubra seedlings grow about twice as fast in the city compared to surrounding rural areas.  A mechanistic understanding of this observation is crucial in order to accurately predict the future impacts of urbanization on plant and ecosystem function.  Plant growth is equal to the difference between total photosynthesis and respiration.  Since no difference in photosynthetic rates of red oak seedlings between the urban and rural sites was found, the research is now focused on respiration.  The goal is to gain a better understanding of the biochemical mechanisms that regulate respiration and the environmental variables influencing these mechanisms.

The research assistant will work 5-10 hours/week in the laboratory at Lamont.  The work will consist primarily of protein assays and Western blots.  Some time will be devoted to analyzing the data generated. At least one year of Biology is required, students with laboratory experience preferred.

top

5. Exotic Oceanic Ejecta in a Bog-core: Are they from Tsunamigenic Impacts?

A research group has verified the presence of nannodiamonds (lonsdaleite) in perfectly round carbon spherules from a 2300 B.P. tsunami layer in the Hudson River.  Lonsdaleite is unique to impact ejecta and meteorites.  Thus, the finding confirms that the tsunami in the Hudson was produced by an extraterrestrial impact.

Six layers of exotic material in a bog core were found from Black Rock Forest. In three cases, the layers contain marine microfossils, fresh glass, impact ejecta, and unusual minerals in an assemblage suggesting a remote source that is over 5000 km away.  Two of the layers can be linked to dated tsunami deposits in the Atlantic and to mineral and faunal assemblages from the Atlantic.  One layer may sample the source area of a tsunami in Great Britain in 1014 A.D. that was previously proposed to have a cosmic source.  During reconnaissance, we found one suitable carbon spherule in the ~1014 A.D. layer.   Because multiple spherules increase the chances of success in finding impact diamonds, it is necessary to look for more carbon spherules. The spherules will then be tested for the presence of impact diamonds.  In addition, the project will search for more impact glass and more marine microfossils to better constrain the tsunami source area.

The research assistant will be taught how to wet sieve samples and how to look for impact ejecta, marine microfossils, and impact glass.  The research assistant would spend one day a week at Lamont working with samples, and would also examine historical accounts and dated deposits of tsunamis to look for links with our dated layers.

top

6. Improving Crop Choice Water Use through Targeted Commodity Price and Climate Forecasting

Unfortunately, irrigation practices are often highly inefficient and crop choices are suboptimal. In places like China, India, Australia and the United States the result is significant groundwater depletion, and environmental degradation. The goal of this project is to see if there are ways by which regional commodity prices and wet season can be better anticipated through statistical forecasting so as to guide decisions that lead to better investment by farmers and corporations (seed, fertilizer, agro-retail and wholesale food processors) in agricultural inputs including water and crop choices that appropriately preserve the water for the future, while at the same time increase and stabilize farm incomes. The associated decisions may include a strategy for choosing a potentially high cash value crop in the mix that uses less water, and then insuring against both climate and price exigencies.

The initial steps of this project entail formulating and testing appropriate models for commodity price forecasting that use suitable climate, commodity market, remote sensing, crop biophysics and financial information to develop commodity price /demand forecasts at specified lead times for some test markets. The project will entail literature review, interviews, data collection and statistical modeling. The research assistant must be a bright and motivated student from Engineering, Mathematics /Statistics, Economics or related disciplines with a passionate interest in becoming a whiz on the commodity markets while addressing sustainability questions. Interest in climate, hydrology and agriculture a plus.

top

7. 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville

Previous studies at 125th Street (in part funded by the Earth Institute) have shown that the combined sewer overflow (CSO) is not the only source of enterococci. Non-point sources of enterococci may also be a major contributor but this must be confirmed. Using new, EPA-approved lab methods, water samples from the Hudson River near the 125th Street CSO have been tested for the presence of enterococci bacteria. Significant contamination has been found and, while the CSO is clearly implicated during periods of heavy rain, the spatial and temporal factors that govern this contamination are still unclear. Other factors are clearly involved. Continued sampling will allow expansion of the data-base during periods of heavy rain and no rain to include non-point sources flowing into the river at 125th Street.

This project offers the unusual opportunity for an undergraduate research assistant to work with environmental scientists in the Dept. of Environmental Science at Barnard College, at the Lamont Observatory, and from the Hudson Riverkeeper and the NRDC’s NY Harbor Program as well as many individuals from different walks of life (including the local community board and the North River Water pollution Control Plant) who are intimately involved with the Harlem waterfront and the Manhattanville area. The student research assistant will have major responsibility for sampling and analysis of enterococci bacteria, maintaining the newly developed enterococci laboratory, working with Ms. Young (who now works for the NRDC’s NY Harbor Program), assisting the Intro to ES laboratories (that have now become an important source of data), and assist in the writing of a report summarizing the results of this study and making public health and policy recommendations. Any student with a strong academic record may apply but special consideration will be given to an environmental science or environmental policy major, especially a student who would make this project part of a senior thesis.

top

8. South American Dust Bowl of the 1930s

The North American Dust Bowl of the 1930s is well known for the appalling drought, crop failures, dust storms and massive human migration. Less well known is that during the same years there was also an episode of drought and dust storms in mid-latitude South America.  It is known that the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains was ultimately caused by variations in tropical sea surface temperatures (SSTs) that forced changes in global atmosphere circulation.  Was the South American drought of the 1930s caused by the same SST anomalies?  What is the long term history of drought in mid-latitude South America?  Is it, like North America, strongly controlled by tropical SST variations or are other mechanisms involved?  How well do climate models simulate hydroclimate in this area?  How is hydroclimate expected to change in this area?

These are important questions given the expansion of agriculture in southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, the vulnerability of this area to drought and the risks that human-induced climate change pose for the future of water resources and agriculture in the region.  The project will examine these problems using observational climate records and model simulations.

The research assistant must be familiar with basic methods of statistical analysis, such as correlation and regression, be comfortable working with computers for making calculations, mapping data etc., have some knowledge of meteorology and climate sciences and also have a good reading comprehension of Spanish.

top

9. Urban Design Lab

The region of the Upper Delaware is being threatened with environmental issues affecting the landscape of this predominantly rural area. Past UDL studies for this area, made in collaboration with the Urban Design Research Seminar in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the Upper Delaware Preservation Coalition, concern proposals for invasive new power line distribution corridors, and residential land subdivision. This coming Spring 2009 semester, a similar initiative will focus on the extraction of natural gas from the vast Marcellus shale geologic formation that underlies the entire region. The extraction process is known to be detrimental to the environment. The UDL and related seminar will study the physical planning issues related to gas extraction. In addition to the Upper Delaware Preservation Coalition, the UDL collaborators in this study will include the Open Space Institute, the National Resources Defense Council, the Hudson Riverkeeper, the Delaware Riverkeeper, the Catskill Mountainkeeper, Earth Justice, and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, and the DamascusCitizens.org. Also engaged will be the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic. The Urban Design Lab will work closely with the legal team in responding to SEQR requirements for permitting gas wells. The candidate will assist the UDL director and project manager with organizing the project between the research seminar graduate students, researchers, and consultants.

Candidate must display strong verbal and writing skills and be able to aid in public presentations. The candidate will assist in preparing materials and equipment for the class seminar as well as archiving and categorizing accumulative research data. Computer skills should include basic knowledge of the following PC software application: Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Adobe Photoshop. Also useful will be Adobe Illustrator, Adobe In-Design, Adobe Acrobat Professional and Graphic Information System (GIS).

top

10. Mapping Mining Activities and Population Density in Peru

The overall goal of this project is to reduce the exposure of villagers in the Peruvian Andes to toxic emissions or discharges from nearby mining or smelting operations without burdening the industry to the point where the operation becomes uneconomical and many jobs are lost. An intervention at the village-scale will eventually rely on distributing field kits and teaching local residents to use them. The hope is that this will lead over time to an improved relationship whereby a mining or smelting company will make a serious effort to limit discharges or emissions while local residents can determine themselves that they are not unwittingly exposed.

The first fact-finding phase of this project is supported under the Cross-Cutting Initiatives of the Earth Institute. An MPH student is currently compiling available information on the type, location, and size of mining and smelting operations.

An undergraduate student with good Geographic Information Systems skills (e.g. Arc GIS) is needed to help create maps of this information and overlay existing population data from CIESIN’s Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project (http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/gpw/). Reading skills in Spanish are helpful but not a requirement. The project could be extended to participation in a survey of the literature on the environmental and health impacts (emissions and discharges) of mining and smelting operations, with a focus on the type and scale of activities in Peru. There may also be an opportunity to participate in a field-trip to Peru in June 2009.

top

To apply, please email your resume and cover letter(s) to Amanda Christie at arc2140@columbia.edu. Applications are due by 12:00 PM on Friday, January 30th.