Education News

Earth Interns Prepare for Summer Research Projects at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

2009-02-17

From examining the effects of asteroid impacts to investigating the relationship between ice formation and carbon dioxide release, Earth Interns participate in exciting and groundbreaking research projects. The Earth Intern Program, coordinated by Dallas Abbott, Adjunct Research Scientist of Marine Geology and Geophysics at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, offers paid summer internships to undergraduate students. “There is a unique synergy between the Earth Intern Program and undergraduate involvement in research at LDEO,” Abbott explained.

The program is based in Palisades, New York, at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), where scientists investigate the Earth on every level, from the core to the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Throughout the ten-week program, rising junior and senior students, with majors ranging from ecology and math to engineering and urban studies, attend lectures, go on fieldtrips, and work closely with LDEO scientist mentors on research projects. In the past, students have analyzed core samples from possible ancient asteroid impacts, researched the physical and human factors affecting the levels of carbon dioxide released from the Hudson River, and studied ice formation in conjunction with gas release in order to help the scientific community develop responsible carbon budgets.

The environmentally and globally pertinent work students do as Earth Interns continues past the end of the summer. Past Earth Interns have gone on to continue research with the LDEO, present their work at national meetings, write and publish their projects in senior theses, and gain a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship. Over the past six-and-a-half years, the Earth Intern program has provided internships to over seventy students, some of whom are supported by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a nationally advertised program which promotes active undergraduate participation in research.

This past summer, Sam Thomas, a junior pursuing a double major in Environmental Biology and Jewish Thought through Columbia University’s General Studies program and the Jewish Theological Seminary, interned with Kevin Griffin of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Sam studied plant eco-physiology with Professor Griffin to determine the connection between plant respiration and temperature and the effects of urbanization on plant growth. Throughout the summer, they investigated photosynthesis and respiration rates of red oaks in four sites at increasing distances from New York City. “Preliminary results show that the trees grow larger in and near to the city,” Sam says, “though the cause of this is still unclear.” To clear up the uncertainty, they are currently planning follow-up research.

This winter, Sam is traveling to New Zealand to perform field research in for his senior thesis. “The opportunity was born out of the Earth Internship,” Sam says. “I will be working with Stephanie Searle, who is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand [and also a former LDEO Earth Intern]. Stephanie and I worked together while I was an Earth Intern in Kevin’s lab.”

Morgan Hardy, a Columbia College graduate of 2008, who majored in philosophy-economics and concentrated in mathematics, was an intern at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in summer of 2007. Morgan worked with James R. Cochran, a senior research scientist in marine geology and geophysics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Together, they studied seamount distributions along a divergent tectonic plate boundary in the Southeast Indian Ridge (SEIR) on the Indian Ocean seafloor, investigating crustal thickness and geochemical data in relation to temperature. Morgan’s research supported claims that linked the rate of ridge spreading processes to the presence of subterranean magma chambers and suggested that the Australian Antarctic Discordance actually extends 700 km farther west than was previously thought.

Following her internship, Morgan flew to Orlando, Florida, and presented her research at the ASLO Oceanic Sciences Conference. At the conference, Morgan met and talked extensively with Charles Hall, a professor at Syracuse University who studies biophysical economics. Now, Morgan is working as a research assistant to David E. Weinstein in preparation for economics graduate school. “The experience I had at Lamont was a good one for me because it got me interested in research,” says Morgan, “I never would have gotten this job if it weren’t for the internship. It made me sure that I want to go to graduate school because I want to study economic development, and I believe that understanding earth science is an important aspect of understanding an economy, especially a developing one.”

Andrew Juhl, a Doherty Associate Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has worked with interns for the past few summers. “My intern this last summer, Liz Suter, was particularly productive,” says Andrew. Liz Suter, a Hunter College senior studying environmental science and mathematics, interned with Andrew as a part of a larger project on water quality in the Hudson River. They studied the indicator bacteria, Enterococcus, which is commonly used to gage the level of sewage contamination in rivers. Although general knowledge asserts that the bacteria do not remain alive long after entering the natural environment, the research that Andrew and Liz performed over the summer indicates that many factors, such as temperature, organic matter concentration and UV-light exposure, affect Enterococcus growth and decay rates. In places with lower UV-light exposure, high organic matter concentration, and optimal temperatures, Enterococcus can persist and even grow.

Some areas in the Hudson River with high turbidity and organic matter concentrations provide growing conditions for the bacteria, so Liz and Andrew’s research has been especially helpful to Riverkeeper, a member-supported environmental organization, in monitoring the contamination levels in the Hudson River. Following their summer research Andrew and Liz went to the annual America Geophysical Union meeting, where they presented their findings. “Liz was the primary author of the presentation,” relates Andrew, “it was based entirely on her work as an intern.” The research that Liz did with Andrew has helped Riverkeeper, a member-supported environmental organization, in monitoring the contamination levels in the Hudson River. “My interns have been very productive, so I’m happy to support the program” explains Andrew.

“As a result of the Earth Intern program, at least 15 undergraduate students are active participants in research projects at Lamont during the academic year,” explained Dallas Abbott. “Before this program existed, one or two undergraduate students per year participated in research at Lamont.” The Earth Intern program presents a win-win situation, where undergraduates find the opportunity to actively participate in meaningful research, and research scientists benefit from the students’ enthusiastic and fresh minds.

For more information about the Earth Intern Program, please contact Dallas Abbott at (845) 365-8664 or dallas@ldeo.columbia.edu.