Education News

Research Assistant Studies Atlantic Ocean

2010-04-23

This spring, students working as research assistants at the Earth Institute have been providing valuable assistance to Columbia researchers and programs focusing on climate change and sustainable development. Holly Menten-Weil is one such student. She has made her experience working with sophisticated technology in cutting-edge climate change research the focus of her academic and professional development.

With her senior year coming to a close, Holly will graduate in May 2010 with a degree in environmental science from Barnard College and over a year of experience in her chosen field under her belt. As an Earth Institute research assistant, Holly has worked for the past year and a half studying the composition of the Atlantic Ocean, collecting data on anthropogenic radionuclides under the guidance of Adjunct Assistant Professor Timothy C. Kenna. Including both intensive field and laboratory research, Holly’s work was instrumental in helping her identify a topic for her senior thesis, a hallmark of the Barnard College Environmental Science program, and narrow her field of interest as she looks beyond graduation to her career.

The Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is involved in the GEOTRACES data collection project, which seeks to gather information on the content and properties of metals in Earth’s oceans. Holly worked to determine the total concentrations of anthropogenic radionuclides from data gathered in GEOTRACES cruises in 2010. The isotopes Holly has been studying exhibit geochemical behaviors, act as transient tracers and provide a means to determine different sources of radioactive contamination in our oceans. The goal of GEOTRACES cruises is to examine the processes in the cycles of trace elements in the oceans so that the scientific community can predict the response of these cycles to global change and better understand their impact on the carbon cycle and Earth’s climate.

“My work as an RA has been a true learning experience and I feel very lucky to have found the researcher I work with. My work with Tim Kenna over the past year and a half has afforded me the chance to be involved in such an array of projects, from ice core research to sediment analysis to ocean water testing. It is a constant learning experience and it’s hard not to enjoy a chance to slip out of the city every week and breathe slightly cleaner air,” says Holly of her experience.

By providing valuable assistance to the research project, Holly has gained experience in several phases of water sample collection, processing and analysis. She has become familiar with sophisticated analytical techniques, including separation and purification techniques, preparation of spectrometer samples, and gamma spectroscopy to analyze natural and manmade radionuclides. Holly’s work in the laboratory and the field has given her invaluable experience and a chance to make a vital contribution to an important project. When she graduates in May, she will leave the environmental science program with the confidence and ability to continue contributing in her chosen professional field.