Every semester, the Earth Institute has provided funding for research assistantships that offer undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard a unique opportunity to be involved in research projects related to sustainable development and the environment. At Columbia, research assistantships are typically reserved for graduate students, which makes this Earth Institute opportunity for undergraduates particularly unique.
During the fall semester of 2010, there were 11 research assistantships offered covering a wide range of projects, from the extremely local “Non-Point Sources for Enterococci at 125TH Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville” to the more remotely-oriented projects such as “Assessing the Impact of Palm Oil Cultivation on Soil Microbial Diversity and Function in the Malaysian Tropical Rainforest” and “Agricultural and Environmental Impacts of Local to National Scale Fertilizer Subsidy Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. “ Using Earth Institute funds, students work directly with faculty on a part-time basis for 12 weeks and are compensated for their work. According to Eva Asplund, Barnard ’12, a computer science major who currently works to pay her own college tuition and board, the pay that is offered by the Earth Institute is actually higher than a lot of the private sector jobs that she had been offered and the work is more intellectually stimulating. “It was my top choice among all the work opportunities I was offered.”
Asplund is working with professor Claire Monteleoni at Columbia’s Center for Computational Learning Systems on a research opportunity in the field of Climate Infomatics, an attempt to connect the cutting edge branch of computer science and statistics research called “Machine Learning” with climate science research in an effort to accelerate progress in finding answers to critical climate questions.
Monteleoni, who received more than 10 applications for the position, realizes that having an enthusiastic research assistant like Eva has its advantages: “Eva’s curiosity has caused me to explain the algorithms more thoroughly, which could ultimately lead to new insights."
Although Eva could be doing a lot of the work required for the research assistantship on her own computer in the library or in her dorm room, she enjoys going into the lab and finds it “cool” to be around the graduate students who are working there. For Eva, working with the climate-related applications of machine learning has been, “good motivation for me to select classes that I otherwise would not have taken. I have decided to take an advanced programming class because now I know that it will lead toward a chance for me to do more interesting work.” Another great bonus for Eva is that she will be listed as a co-author in a journal article that will appear in the Geophysical Letter of Reviews.
Pooja Reddy, a junior at the Columbia School of General Studies, is also an Earth Institute research assistant, working at the Columbia Water Center with an interdisciplinary research team on a project called “Improving Rural Water and Livelihood Outcomes in India.” The project is aimed at, “developing, testing and proposing a series of high-impact sustainable water activities to find lasting solutions to the growing water crises in low-income agriculture based regions of India.” The work that the research assistantship was designed to participate in includes: assessing current trends, testing and developing water accounting, assessing the economic and social aspects for possible intervention strategies using modeling tools and developing viable strategies for supply augmentation.
Reddy is excited because the work she is doing lies at the heart of the project. She notes that the kinds of jobs that are often offered to students to assist professors are those tasks which the professors themselves do not want to do, but that her Earth Institute Research Assistantship is different in that it feels like genuine scholarship. She feels nurtured by Shama Parveen, her supervisor and mentor in the research assistantship. Says Reddy: “Shama wants me to take ownership of my contribution to what we are trying to do. She has encouraged me to write things down as I think of them.”
Pooja plans on continuing her education with graduate study following her matriculation from Columbia in 2012, and believes this project is perfect for her near-future goals. Pooja pointed out that, “I wanted to see the life cycle of a research paper. It is a huge process and I wanted to make sure I can do every stage.”