Education News

Spring 2010 Research Assistantships

2010-01-26

Each semester, the Earth Institute offers a variety of undergraduate research assistantship opportunities for Columbia and Barnard students to work closely with the Earth Institute faculty and researchers on a range of sustainable development projects. The program gives students a valuable chance to collaborate on substantive matters of inquiry and gain meaningful insight into their field of study as well as to the research process as a whole. Research assistantships offer students a unique educational opportunity to participate in all phases of research under faculty guidance. Students receive invaluable exposure to cutting-edge research as well as gain applied knowledge in the field.

Please see below for 11 undergraduate research assistantship descriptions. Only full-time undergraduates are eligible to apply for research assistantships. Typically, research assistants work 10 hours per week for 12 weeks at $15 per hour. These research assistantships end on May 19, 2010. To apply, students must provide a cover letter stating their interests and abilities along with a resume. Please submit application materials to Monika Kowalczykowski, program coordinator, at monika@ei.columbia.edu by noon on Friday, February 12th.

  1. Anthropogenic Radionuclides in the Atlantic Ocean
  2. Reconstructing Past Ocean Circulation With Neodymium Isotopes on Microfossils
  3. Non-Point Sources for Enterococci at 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville
  4. Local Climate Change and the Carbon-Use Efficiency of Native Evergreen Plants
  5. Land Use and Avian Social Behavior: The Effect of Overgrazing on the Mating System of Cooperatively Breeding African Starlings
  6. Drought in Western North America and Internal and Cross-Border Migration
  7. Vegetation Recovery Following a Massive Tundra Fire on the North Slope of Alaska: A Remote Sensing-Based Study
  8. The Conservation Ecology and Population Dynamics of Endangered Cetacean Populations in the Coastal Waters of Madagascar
  9. The Bamboo Bike Project
  10. Bacteria and Virus Transport in Bangladesh
  11. USGS National Biological Information Network (NBII) Program

1. Anthropogenic Radionuclides in the Atlantic Ocean

The proposed study will focus on determining the total concentrations of the anthropogenic radionuclides 239Pu, 240Pu, 237Np and 137Cs in selected full-depth profiles from the various Atlantic GEOTRACES cruises occurring in 2010 (United States, Netherlands and Germany), which will allow the broad brush characterization of the anthropogenic radionuclides some 37 years after GEOSECS. The isotopes of interest, in addition to being transient tracers, exhibit a range of Kd values (sediment water distribution coefficients, Pu>Np,Cs) and geochemical behaviors as well as provide a means to resolve different sources of radioactive contamination. This will allow us to address processes such as advection (new water mass tracers), sources and sinks (characteristic isotopic signatures), as well as processes related to scavenging and particle dynamics across a range of contrasting regions.

Job Description:

If this project is selected, a research assistant can expect to gain solid experience in and provide valuable assistance with several phases of water sample collection, processing and analysis. Acquired analytical techniques would include separation and purification techniques and preparation of samples for our ICP-mass spectrometer and gamma spectroscopy for the analysis of natural and manmade radionuclides, as well as data processing and interpretation. It would be useful if the student is willing to summarize the data and methods he or she works on in the form of concise written reports, and students would be integral to the published manuscripts from this research. There may be some local field work as well as some analytical method testing and development.

Desired Skills:

Common sense, good laboratory skills, being mechanically inclined, and a willingness to work carefully and hard. Some data analysis background would be helpful, but is not necessary. All of the analytical work will take place at the Lamont Campus and entail working with Professor Timothy Kenna.

2. Reconstructing Past Ocean Circulation With Neodymium Isotopes on Microfossils

Approximately half of the anthropogenic CO2 added to the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning is absorbed by the ocean and transported to its interior. Currently the single most important pathway for ocean uptake of CO2 is the formation of water masses in the Antarctic Ocean. (These are called Subantarctic Mode Waters (SAMW) and Antarctic Intermediate Waters (AAIW)). Evidence is growing that past changes in the formation of these water masses had important affects on the climate system, particularly during transitions between ice ages and warm ages. It is important to understand the mechanisms and driving forces behind these past changes if we are to produce accurate future climate change predictions. This project uses new tracers in microfossils (plankton) in deep sea cores that are now becoming important tracers of past ocean circulation. This new state-of-the-art ocean circulation tracer (neodymium isotopes in plankton) is under development at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory as a part of Leopoldo's postdoctoral research project.

In this project, a student will participate in Leopoldo's research and help to further develop the tracer. The student and Leopoldo will receive supervision and mentorship from Professor Goldstein. The student will have the opportunity to work with deep sea sediments recovered at several locations around the world (i.e., Mediterranean Sea, South Africa margin, New Zealand) in order to study past ocean circulation changes in those regions. He or she will process samples in the lab, identify and separate the microfossils with a microscope, and measure the isotopic compositions. We will also encourage the student to obtain deeper insights into the project by reading key literature, as well as by frequent scientific discussions.

We seek a strongly motivated student willing to learn and interact with the research staff at the Observatory. He or she will have the opportunity to work in a unique multidisciplinary environment. It is preferable for the student to be a science major. Previous experience working in a laboratory is desirable, but most important is a desire to learn.

3. Non-Point Sources for Enterococci at 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville

Project Description:

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. The creation of a new waterfront park at 125th street has now been largely completed and community access to the Hudson River has been considerably enhanced. Many people fish routinely from these piers. Plans for expansion of the Columbia campus into Manhattanville are well known. Still, many environmental issues and opportunities concerning these developments need to be more carefully explored. Our studies have shown that one of the most significant issues is the raw sewage released from the combined sewer overflow (CSO) at 125th street during periods of heavy rain. Our studies have also suggested that non-point sources of enterococci contamination may be just as significant, but this issue needs further study.

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 database during periods of heavy rain and no rain to include non-point sources flowing into the river at 125th street. Samples will be taken and tested for enterococci and also for fecal and total coliform using another new EPA-approved technique. Three different techniques will thus be compared. The sampling plan also includes the use of the research vessel Seawolf as well as vessels from the Hudson Riverkeeper and NRDC’s New York Harbor Program.

This project offers the unusual opportunity for an undergraduate research assistant to work with environmental scientists in the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College, at the Lamont-Doherty Earth 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 assisting 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. Peter Bower, senior lecturer, will be the supervisor.

4. Local Climate Change and the Carbon-Use Efficiency of Native Evergreen Plants

There is little doubt in the scientific community that greenhouse gases released by anthropogenic sources, such as carbon dioxide, are at least partially responsible for climate change. While there is tremendous focus on the global consequences of climate change, for most people, the immediate effects will be local and understanding how local ecosystems respond, the consequences of these responses and any potential for mitigating negative effects should be top priority. New York State is home to nearly 19.5 million people and the local effects of climate change may be dramatic. Among the potential effects, the response of the native vegetation to projected change should be a high priority as the physiological processes of these plants have primary control over the ecosystem services New York residents rely on.

Plants are both a major source and sink of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: Plants sequester 120 Pg carbon per year through photosynthesis and release 64 Pg carbon per year through respiration, compared to 8 Pg carbon per year released by fossil fuels. Thus, even small changes in the processes of photosynthesis and respiration have a large effect on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These two processes are sensitive to changes in temperature, light, nutrient availability and the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, all of which are changing on local and global scales. Unfortunately, there are still large gaps in our knowledge of these processes, particularly in regards to the native plants of New York. A better understanding of the mechanisms that control photosynthesis and respiration is imperative to accurately modeling climate change and thus potential mitigation strategies

We propose to study if, and how, the photosynthetic and respiratory rates of native evergreen species (e.g., Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern), Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel), Tsuga canadensis (eastern hemlock)) fluctuate at low light levels in response to varying environmental conditions. Containerized seedlings will be grown under controlled conditions in growth cabinets at LDEO. An infrared gas analyzer will be used to measure photosynthetic and respiratory rates at low light levels. Gas exchange measurements will be made at different temperatures and under different oxygen partial pressures to examine the extent to which respiration, which relies on oxygen, affects the efficiency of photosynthesis. These measurements will be carried out at 15 C, 20 C, 25 C and 30 C to see the extent to which the Kok effect is dependent on temperature.

We hope to gain a fuller comprehension of the carbon-use efficiency of native evergreen species at low light intensities. A more nuanced understanding of photosynthesis and respiration, two processes that have enormous consequences for the future of our climate, is required to fully understand the carbon cycle of our planet. It is necessary to study the mechanisms underlying these dynamic processes to accurately predict the role plants will have in the coming climate. Professor Kevin Griffin will be the supervisor for this project.

Lab Work and Data Analysis:

The student will work five to 10 hours per week in the laboratory at Lamont. The work will consist primarily of gas exchange analyses. Some time will be devoted to analyzing the data generated.
Prerequisites:

  • At least one year of biology required
  • Basic computer skills, including Microsoft Word and Excel
  • Lab experience preferred

5. Land Use and Avian Social Behavior: The Effect of Overgrazing on the Mating System of Cooperatively Breeding African Starlings

This study represents an interdisciplinary project combining ecology, behavior, conservation biology and molecular genetics. Numerous studies in Africa and elsewhere have examined the implications of overgrazing and habitat degradation on birds, but most tend to focus only on bird abundances or species diversity. The research shows that overgrazing could have much more subtle effects on avian populations, including altering the mating system and levels of extrapair paternity. A novel hypothesis will be tested relating social behavior to habitat degradation in cooperatively breeding African starlings.

The research examines the evolutionary causes and consequences of family-living in animals. For much of the past decade, I have studied cooperative breeding in African starlings. The field research focuses on a socially complex species, the superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus), in Kenya. Superb starlings have one of the most complicated lifestyles of any bird in the world. Within each social group of up to 30 individuals, multiple breeding pairs build nests. Non-breeding helpers aid to raise others’ offspring, sometimes at multiple nests simultaneously.

In addition to having one of the most complicated social systems of any bird, superb starlings also have a complex mating system. Extrapair paternity rates, or promiscuous matings outside of the pair-bond, are relatively high, and females adopt two distinct extrapair mating strategies. Females with few helpers mate with subordinate extrapair males from inside the group to recruit them as helpers, essentially trading sex for help. In contrast, females that have plenty of helpers, but happen to be paired to genetically inferior pair-bonded mates, choose genetically superior extrapair mates from outside the group to produce more genetically diverse offspring.

Despite the two types of potential benefits to females for seeking extrapair mates, not all females mate promiscuously. Over the past few years we have found that extrapair paternity rates vary systematically among groups in relation to the environment. Extrapair paternity rates are high on territories with little vegetation and few insects (low quality), but low on territories with lots of vegetation and insects (high quality). These patterns are very strong and have important implications for understanding how habitat degradation can have subtle effects on avian behavior and demography beyond most typical studies of abundance and species diversity.

Project Description:

The area where I work in Kenya contains a mosaic of private game and cattle ranches interspersed with communal ranches. Wildlife is virtually non-existent on many of these communal ranches, as they suffer from intense livestock overgrazing. Given the strong, natural pattern we see of increased extrapair paternity with decreasing habitat quality, I plan to compare extrapair paternity rates on communal ranches to those on private game ranches. I hypothesize that the intense overgrazing on communal ranches will lead to a complete breakdown of the natural superb starling mating system. I expect extrapair paternity rates on overgrazed ranches to be among the highest ever recorded for this species and social system.

This work will provide preliminary data for a larger, landscape-level comparison across the ecosystem that will eventually incorporate other factors (rainfall patterns, fire regimes). It is well suited for an undergraduate assistant, as all of the molecular tools and samples are in place.

Most lab work will be completed in E3B, but genotyping will occur at the American Museum of Natural History. Thus, this study represents the beginning stage of a long-term research project, and my goal is to have an undergraduate student continue working in the lab for multiple years as I seek external funding for this research and expand the project’s size and scope.

Student Skills and Interests:

Experience with basic molecular techniques (e.g., pipetting, PCR, gel electrophoresis) is preferred, but not necessary. Student should have an interest in ecology, behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology. Professor Dustin Rubenstein will be the supervisor for this project.

6. Drought in Western North America and Internal and Cross-Border Migration

Southwestern North America, that is the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, experiences severe multiyear droughts at the rate of a few per century. These are caused by small and persistent changes in tropical Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperatures that reorganize the global atmospheric circulation and hydrological cycle. The 1930s Dust Bowl drought led to the migration across state borders of about half a million people. Other droughts, in the Southwest and Mexico in the 1950s and then again after 1998 potentially had an impact on migration, even if less dramatic, but these have yet to be clearly researched and documented.

It is proposed to begin by studying the 1950s drought, one of the worst that Mexico has experienced. Records will be examined for any evidence that this led to a migration of the agriculture-based population in Mexico either to other regions of Mexico or into the United States, which was still operating the bracero program at the time. The research will continue with an examination of the impacts on internal and cross-border migration of the drought that began in Mexico in the mid- to late 1990s and continues to date. Mexico is projected to dry in the current century as a consequence of rising greenhouse gases, and the research proposed will aid in analyzing how climate change will impact future migration. Senior research scientists Richard Seager and Yochanan Kushnir will be the supervisors.

Requirements:

Skill in researching historical documents from U.S. and Mexican sources, fluency in Spanish, and interest in links between climate and history

7. Vegetation Recovery Following a Massive Tundra Fire on the North Slope of Alaska: A Remote Sensing-Based Study

The Anaktuvuk River Fire (ARF) of 2007 was ignited by a lighting strike in mid-July of 2007, which was an anomalously warm and dry summer in north central Alaska. The fire burned for almost three months, eventually burning an area greater than 900 km2 (>100,000 ha). It was the largest fire in all of Alaska in 2007, and the area burned is greater than the total area burned by all known fires on the North Slope since 1950. Seventy percent of the points assessed within the ARF’s burn scar this past summer were given moderate or high burn-severity ratings, with only 20 percent having low burn-severity ratings and 5 percent of points representing unburned inclusions. To put this into context, modern Alaskan tundra fires are quite rare, typically small and of low burn severity.

Several studies hypothesize that wildfires in tundra are expected to increase in both frequency and area burned throughout the Low Arctic region as global warming continues. In fact, there is strong evidence that this increase in wildfire is already occurring, and studies have already documented increases in extreme fire seasons in Siberia and North America. Yet, wildfires in tundra have been relatively unstudied in the past because they were considered rare and somewhat anomalous events. Although there has been considerable effort made to study burn severity (a measure of how much fire has affected an ecological community, such as a change in net primary productivity) in boreal forests adjacent to tundra, little effort has been spent on studying burn severity of tundra fires. Tundra-specific burn-severity studies are critical because tundra landscapes burn at different levels of severity than boreal forests because of differences in surface conditions and fuel loads and likely also recover from fires quite differently. Increased tundra burning will have broad impacts on physical and biological systems, including impacts on organisms at higher trophic levels.

Remote sensing is an ideal, integrative measurement technique that can be used to quantify differences and changes in ecological form and function rapidly, frequently and non-destructively over large spatial and temporal scales. Remote sensing is a particularly attractive measurement technique for Arctic-focused projects, as study sites are often remote. Because the fire ecology of adjacent boreal forest ecosystems is well-studied in comparison with tundra fires, there has been considerable effort made to study burn severity in boreal landscapes via remote sensing. However, because modern tundra fires are so rare, and those that do occur are typically small, little effort has been made to use remote sensing to study them. 

The proposed research assistantship would add to my current remote sensing-based study of the Anaktuvuk River Fire, extending the scope of my work to answer two unexplored questions: How does the level of burn severity impact the rate, amount and type of vegetation re-growth as the tundra recovers post-fire? And for how many growing seasons post-fire can satellite imagery distinguish between areas of differing burn-severity levels?

Data Analysis:

The student will work five to 10 hours per week at Lamont. The work will consist primarily of analyses of satellite imagery. Research scientist Natalie Boelman will be the supervisor.

Prerequisites:

At least one year of biology required. Basic computer skills, including Microsoft Word and Excel. Experience with ENVI remote sensing software or Matlab would be ideal, although not required.

8. The Conservation Ecology and Population Dynamics of Endangered Cetacean Populations in the Coastal Waters of Madagascar

Since 1996, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Global Marine Program has been actively conserving and investigating cetacean populations in Madagascar’s coastal waters. These charismatic and wide-ranging species face a variety of conservation threats in Madagascar, some better documented than others. They include: directed hunting of small cetaceans by local inhabitants; incidental by-catch of cetaceans in fishing gear, both artisanal and commercial; development of petroleum industry exploration and production, and the associated threats from acoustic disturbance and chemical pollution; development of the mining industry and the associated threats from coastal runoff, pollution and port development; logging and deforestation and associated runoff; and growing interest in the resumption of commercial whaling. Our newly formed WCS Ocean Giants Program works to combat these threats by providing other NGOs, the government of Madagascar and industry with sound, scientific research in order to inform and influence future policy and management decisions.

To date, our research on cetaceans in Madagascar has been focused on three significant areas. The first is Antongil Bay, located off the northeast coast of Madagascar. This is an important breeding and calving area for humpback whales, and a well-developed WCS site for Integrated Coastal Zone Management of natural marine resources. In the southwestern Toliara/Anakao region, WCS initiated field research in 2001 on cetacean biology and associated impacts such as unsustainable hunting. Boat-based surveys indicated that this area is a hotspot for cetacean diversity and our initial work established that traditional Vezo fishers from the villages along the Toliara Barrier Reef system regularly by-catch animals in artisanal fisheries and hunt coastal dolphins for local consumption and sale, including the vulnerable humpback dolphin. The northwest region of Madagascar, particularly in the vicinity of Nosy Be, has been identified by WCS scientists as having a resilient and healthy coral reef. Since 2008, WCS has conducted the first cetacean fieldwork in the Nosy Be region, encountering an abundance of coastal dolphins. Encounter rates for all dolphins observed in the Nosy Be region was greater than that in the Anakao region and six-fold greater in the case of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. These preliminary results provide comparative evidence for the impact of hunting in the southwest, particularly on Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, the most vulnerable of the targeted species due to its obligatory coastal distribution. These data also suggest that the populations around Nosy Be are relatively abundant and thus a potential indicator of a healthy ecosystem. This corroborates the findings of the coral reef work, as a healthy ecosystem is required to support healthy top-predator populations. 

In previous years, undergraduate students from Columbia University have contributed to the field research efforts as intern research assistants and as research interns in NYC working on data analysis. For the 2010 spring semester, the WCS Ocean Giants Program seeks a student research assistant from Columbia University’s undergraduate program to assist with analyses for these important studies on the dolphins off the two west coast research sites. The student will work closely with Howard Rosenbaum (director, Ocean Giants Program and E3B faculty member) and Salvatore Cerchio (research associate, Ocean Giants Program).

Work will involve the comparison of identification photographs using a custom computer-based photographic matching system, the development of a database and matrix to report all matches of individuals found in the dataset, the generation of estimates of abundance and population parameters using mark-recapture statistics, and the reporting of results in scientific literature and environmental policy formats. The research assistant will be involved in all phases of the project, especially the process of how we use scientific research to influence conservation.
The work to be undertaken by an undergraduate research assistant will be closely supervised by Cerchio and Rosenbaum, providing the student with a valuable learning experience while contributing substantively to a critical long-term conservation effort. The results generated by these studies will be used to inform policymakers, as conservation planning in Madagascar depends on sound scientific data to promote the sustainable use of natural resources, while protecting endangered species and their critical habitats and promoting the overall health of the ecosystem.

9. The Bamboo Bike Project

Anticipated Intern Tasks:

The intern will assist in the development of the implementation phase of the project, especially in the maintenance of communications through Web sites, blog articles, etc. The internship will involve participation in and promotion of the project, and may also involve assistance in the preparation of manuscripts for publication, including a potential book project. Professor John Mutter will be the supervisor.

Skills Required:

Communication and writing skills are essential. Should be conversant in Web publishing.

10. Bacteria and Virus Transport in Bangladesh

Anticipated Intern Tasks:

The student intern will work under a research team investigating bacteria and virus transport from surface sources to shallow drinking water wells used by the predominantly rural population in Bangladesh. The intern will perform water quality and soil analyses on returned samples from recent field expeditions, analyze data from our ongoing well and surface water monitoring program, and assist in the preparation of manuscripts for publication. The intern will attend weekly meetings with project investigators and will be supervised by a Ph.D. student working on the project. Professor Brian Mailloux will be the supervisor.

Skills Required:

Basic wet chemistry lab skills. Additional experience in more advanced techniques such as particle size analysis, flow cytometry and ion chromatography is helpful but not required. Must be familiar with data analysis in MS Excel.

11. USGS National Biological Information Network (NBII) Program

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) is seeking a research assistant for its USGS National Biological Information Network (NBII) program. CIESIN is the lead partner with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on the development and management of the NBII Northeast Information Node. The Northeast Information Node gives users, including educators, resource managers, researchers and the general public, easy access to the environmental and biological data resources and analysis tools they need to better understand, utilize and protect the natural resources of this region. Our scope is broad: from cataloging the health of New York City’s urban ecology to helping researchers and public officials build sustainable practices for the forests of Maine. We are currently engaged in partnerships with the National Park Service, the University of Connecticut, Wildlife Trust, and the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University, along with many other state agencies and nonprofit groups.

Anticipated Intern Tasks:

  • Gather species of highest priority from State Wildlife Action Plans for use in the development of species of interest Web profiles
  • Gather and implement RSS feeds into NBII NIN home page
  • Review/update content (text, links, maps) of theme sections: climate, ecology (flora, fauna), maps and geospatial data, water
  • Develop content (text, links, maps) of new section “Special Focus Areas” to include human dynamics, forests, rivers, species in need, invasives
  • Maintain catalog records and NIN linkages in compliance with Validator reports
  • Receive metadata catalog tool training
  • Review/update NIN Factsheet to reflect current activities
  • Produce maps from datasets currently in the NBII share

This position offers an exciting opportunity to discover the variety of environmental research being conducted in one of our nation’s most visited national parks, have direct contact with the scientist doing this research, and to be involved in the creation of an information system that makes the data and findings of this research available to a wide community of users. The assistant will attend meetings and seminars and conduct site visits to acquire information on programs, projects, datasets, metadata and publications, and then work with CIESIN staff to compile this information into the JBRMIN information management system. Professor Mark Becker will be the supervisor for this project.