Spring 2013 Undergraduate Research Assistant Positions

by | 1.4.2013 at 5:13pm
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The Earth Institute, Columbia University is offering 12 research assistant opportunities for undergraduate students during the spring 2013 semester. Undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard will be able to serve as research assistants on exciting research projects related to sustainable development and the environment with distinguished faculty and researchers at the cutting edge of this burgeoning field.

While research assistant positions at Columbia are generally awarded to graduate students, this program instead aims to present undergraduates with a unique opportunity to be involved in research at a high level and to gain valuable experience and skills for their future academic and professional careers. Relevant research projects will be led by faculty, and the admissions committee will match students with projects based on their interests and abilities.

Successful applicants will work directly with faculty on these projects on a part-time basis. These research assistant positions are funded at a rate of $15/hr for 10 hours per week and up to a maximum of 120 hours for the spring 2013 semester.

This spring, the 10 research assistant positions are:

  1. Climate Change Impacts on forest biodiversity
  2. The role of climate change and hypoxia in the sudden emergence of blooms of the dinoflagellate Noctiluca miliaris in the Arabian Sea
  3. History and policy in global malaria control: understanding the history of malaria control efforts to design better public policies
  4. Arsenic mobilization from bedrock to groundwater
  5. Climate information for public health: the role of the IRI climate data library in an integrated knowledge system in Africa
  6. Effect of climate change on regional crop insurance
  7. A climate and health partnership to inform the prevention and control of meningoccocal meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa: the MERIT Initiative
  8. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th St.: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville
  9. Anthropogenic radionuclides in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  10. Developing Methods for Laser-Based C14 Analysis
  11. 2011 Mississippi Floods: Understanding the climatic context and the disaster response
  12. Analysis of how alternative means of visualizing climate and epidemiological data affect the decisions of malaria makers

To Apply:

To apply for these positions, please complete the online application available here by Jan. 31 at 11:30 p.m. While you may apply for more than one position, you must submit separate applications. Note that only undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard are eligible to apply. Decisions will be made shortly after the deadline.

Students who are awarded research assistantships will be expected to participate in the Earth Institute Student Research Showcase, which takes place in spring 2013.

Contact us at nrudder@ei.columbia.edu with any questions.

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1. Climate Change Impacts on forest biodiversity

Department/Center: Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology (E3B)

Project description:

Global change science has not generated reliable forecasts of climate impacts on forest biodiversity because field studies cannot be directly related to one another, assumptions are hidden in models used to make predictions, and these predictions are often unchallenged by data. Using data from a dry forest site in the Guanica State Forest, Puerto Rico http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu%C3%A1nica_State_Forest, we propose to examine variation among tree species in demographic vulnerability to climate.  Using this approach, we aim to determine which tree species are at risk and to evaluate the consequences for biodiversity in predictive distributions.

Research assistant tasks:

The research assistant will work with tree ring cores from several species in this dry forest to:

  • Examine links between annual climate variation and tree growth
  • Use isotopes to investigate how tree water sources change under variable precipitation levels. Tree ring analyses facilities are available at the Lamont-Doherty campus: (http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/tree-ring-laboratory/)

It is expected that the research assistant will enrich his/her knowledge on bio-physical models, math and statistical approaches and numerical programming

Skills Required:

  • Experience with microscopy and/or dendrochronolog research is desirable but not essential

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2. The role of climate change and hypoxia in the sudden emergence of blooms of the dinoflagellate Noctiluca miliaris in the Arabian Sea

Department/Center: Biology & Paleo Environment, Marine Biology

Project description:

Noctiluca miliaris is a heterotrophic dinoflagellate that houses a large population of small endosymbiotic phytoplankton within its cell. N. miliaris has become a dominant bloom-forming species during the winter monsoon in the northern Arabian Sea since the late 1990s, and field and preliminary shipboard studies have shown that it can more effectively photosynthesize under reduced dissolved oxygen concentrations than its purely autotrophic phytoplankton competitors (e.g. diatoms). Our earlier studies show that warming of the Eurasian land mass due to climate change is causing a land-ocean thermal gradient favorable to stronger summer monsoonal winds which increase upwelling and consequently biological production. Our recent work comparing the historic dissolved oxygen content of waters in the northern Arabian Sea with recent measurements show that dissolved oxygen continues to decline, leading us to expect further increases in blooms of N. miliaris. This project anticipates utilizing laboratory experiments and cultures to investigate how N. miliaris maximizes photosynthesis under hypoxic conditions and the potential effects of those conditions on heterotrophic feeding versus utilization of endosymbiont-derived products of photosynthesis. As such, anticipated tasks for a research assistant include: culture maintenance and manipulation, planning of growth rate and grazing experiments, and utilization of different instruments and techniques including dissolved oxygen sensors and titration, FlowCAM (a cell imaging system), static and fast rate repetition fluorometry. Additionally, the assistant will be exposed to the statistical analyses of results from such replicated experiments. This project received Climate Center funding from LDEO in 2012 and in that application we specified that it would be appropriate for an undergraduate intern. However, we were unable to include stipend support for an intern in that budget.

Research assistant tasks: Many of the techniques specific to the project will be taught in the context of the work.

Skills Required:

  • A basic set of analytical lab skills (e.g. keeping a sterile environment, precise measurement of liquids and solids, general lab safety) is required
  • A basic understanding of cellular biology (e.g. cell structure, processes of photosynthesis, respiration, etc.)
  • Basic computer skills are also an asset.

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3. History and policy in global malaria control: understanding the history of malaria control efforts to design better public policies

Department/Center: CNHDE/CGSD

Project description and Research assistant tasks:

The research assistant will work with the Director of the Malaria Program and his staff in conducting extensive literature review of secondary sources for the interpretation of international public health efforts for malaria control in the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty first century. The research assistant will also be involved in the identification and analysis of primary sources on specific malaria control programs or projects in the New York area. In addition to the historical research, the research assistant will also conduct grey literature review of current national malaria control policies in different regions of the world, or in specific countries as requested by the Director of the Malaria Program.

The research assistant will contribute to the discussion and analysis of malaria control strategies and policies from the past and present, and will help in drafting concept notes and review papers, as well as assisting in the drafting of chapter for a book project on the history of global malaria control. She or he will maintain a bibliographic database on the history of malaria and the efforts to control and eliminate it.

Skills Required:

  • Strong analytical skills
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Proficiency in bibliographic software
  • History or public health concentration preferred

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4. Arsenic mobilization from bedrock to groundwater

Department/Center: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Geochemistry division

Project description:

Arsenic contamination in groundwater poses approximately 103,000 people at risk in eastern New England, where the percentage of people relying on private wells drilled into bedrock aquifers is the highest in US. Although extensive researches have been conducted to understand the mobilization mechanisms in sedimentary aquifers, these mechanisms are incompletely understood in fractured bedrock aquifers. This study explores the source mineral and mobilization processes from bedrock cores collected from two boreholes in central Maine.

Research assistant tasks: The research assistant will conduct a series of hand-on experiments as well as sample analysis and data reduction under supervision. Workload will be 120 hours in total, 8-10 hours per week.

  • Dissolution of selected rock samples by reductive/oxidative leaching and total digestion
  • Lab incubation of rock samples
  • Analysis of the leachates/digests and dissolution solutions on ICP-MS
  • Data reduction
  • XRD analysis of rock samples for mineralogy

Skills Required:

  • Some geochemistry lab experience
  • Basic knowledge of mineralogy and aqueous geochemistry

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5. Climate information for public health: the role of the IRI climate data library in an integrated knowledge system in Africa

Department/Center: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Project description:

The Climate Information for Public Health Action initiative at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) is designed to increase the public health community’s capacity to understand, use and demand appropriate climate data and climate information to mitigate the public health impacts of the climate. Significant challenges to building the capacity of health professionals to use climate information in research and decision-making include the difficulties experienced by many in accessing relevant and timely quality controlled data and information in formats that can be readily incorporated into specific analysis with other data sources.

Research assistant tasks:

  • Work with the IRI Data Library Team to create new climate-health research products of relevance to the public health community with a priority focus on Africa and malaria and meningococcal meningitis in discussion with Madeleine Thomson
  • Build Data Library Maproom(s) to deliver products to a specified user community
  • Annotate Maproom with appropriate text and links

Skills required:

  • Analytical skills and familiarity with data analysis software
  • Superior organizational skills, attention to detail and the ability to work in a team.
  • Excellent written, verbal communication and presentation skills
  • Familiarity with the IRI Data Library an advantage

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6. Effect of climate change on regional crop insurance

Department/Center: Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR)

Project description:

Crop insurance can play an instrumental role in providing a safety net for agricultural development, and is based on statistical assumptions that may or may not be valid as climate change continues to affect regional climate and crop prices.  The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) is a major effort of the international agricultural impacts community to understand climate impacts on the agricultural sector, and is run out of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research (Dr. Ruane is Climate Team Lead and Science Coordinator).  The proposed EI Intern will work with data produced by AgMIP that can shed light on the viability of current crop insurance practices under future climate conditions.

Research assistant tasks:

  • Perform a literature review to determine the current prevalence and types of crop insurance in farming systems around the world, including both developed and developing countries.
  • Determine the key statistical metrics currently used in setting crop insurance rates and payout criteria in various farming systems.
  • Examine AgMIP projections of shifts in production and yield reliability in various crops and regions to determine areas where crop insurance practices will no longer be viable.
  • Calculate changes in key statistical metrics and evaluate the potential for new crop insurance regimes in vulnerable areas.

Skills Required:

-        Strong written and verbal communication skills required

-        Ability to work independently as well as in collaboration with a team of researchers in diverse disciplines

-        Comfort with statistics and data processing

-        Familiarity with developing country environments

-        An interest in agricultural systems and agricultural economics

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7. A climate and health partnership to inform the prevention and control of meningococcal meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa: the MERIT Initiative

Department/Center: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Project description:

The MERIT Initiative was launched in 2007 as a multi-sectorial partnership to provide a platform for enabling health specialists (public health specialists, epidemiologists, immunologists, microbiologists, demographers, etc.) and climate and environment specialists to work together to help solve a pressing health problem. The main objective of the initiative was to address meningococcal meningitis epidemics in Africa in the context of perceived environmental, biological, economic and demographic influences. The effort is designed to create new knowledge that can be used to improve the current (reactive) and future (preventive) vaccination strategies.

Preliminary results of this research to policy and practice consortium have advanced the understanding of how climate-related information can be tailored to inform and where possible strengthen public health decisions.  Specifically, the MERIT experience to date indicates new evidence on the contribution that climate and environment make to the spatio-temporal distribution of meningococcal meningitis and demonstrates a multi-sectorial strategic approach to the creation of evidence, together with the development of a cumulative knowledge base.  The MERIT Initiative is establishing an effective means for the dissemination of new knowledge and provides a platform to facilitate access to this knowledge by public health practitioners.  These developments, along with an increase in the uptake of evidence in both policy and practice have the potential to impact health outcomes in vulnerable at-risk populations in Africa’s Meningitis Belt.

 

Research assistant tasks: New projects involving IRI and partners are under-development. A Research Assistant is required to:

  • Assist in the writing of research proposals review and edit research papers and translate research outcomes into appropriate language for communication on the IRI and partner websites, brochures etc.

Skills Required:

  • Excellent written, verbal communication and presentation skills including Microsoft Office are a requirement.
  • Superior organizational skills, attention to detail and the ability to multi-task needed.
  • Ability to work to tight deadlines
  • Knowledge of public health, infectious disease, Africa and advantage

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8. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th St.: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville

Department/Center: Dept. of Environmental Science/ Barnard College

Project description and anticipated research assistant tasks:

This project offers a student the unusual opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant 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 will have major responsibility for sampling and analysis of Enterococci bacteria, maintaining the newly developed Enterococci laboratory, working with other student research assistants, assisting the Introductory 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. The successful applicant will continue the project by collecting and organizing all the enterococci data; this includes measurements made during sampling (i.e., state of tide and current, weather conditions, salinity, temperature). When complete this data will be analyzed and interpreted.

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9. Anthropogenic radionuclides in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

Department/Center: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Geochemistry division

Project description: The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and is focused 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 2010-2012 (US, Netherlands, UK, and Germany), which will allow the broad brush characterization of the anthropogenic radionuclides some 37 years after GEOSECS. Other samples include those collected in the Pacific Ocean before and after releases from the Fukushima reactor incident in collaboration with Japanese researchers. We recently received funding to participate in the US GEOTRACES Pacific program. 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 scavenging and particle dynamics across a range of contrasting regions.

Research assistant tasks:

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 anthropogenic radionuclides, as well as data processing and interpretation.
  • 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 fieldwork as well as some analytical method testing and development.

Skills Required:

  • Mechanically inclined and willing to work carefully and hard
  • There is a significant amount of chemistry lab work, which requires careful note-taking
  • Some data analysis background would be helpful, but not necessary

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10. Developing Methods for Laser-Based C14 Analysis 

Department/Center: Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy

Project description: Regulating fossil‐based carbon is an important tool in reducing CO2 emissions and the oversight capacity of this emerging field is still limited. The carbon market relies on the ability to distinguish fossil‐based from bio‐based carbon, which can be done through measuring the fraction of radiocarbon present, from 0.1 to 1 part‐per‐trillion. The next generation of radiocarbon analyzers must meet the challenge of performing precise measurements on site, on‐line, and in real time.

Research assistant tasks:

Our project aims to develop a new, dramatically improved 14C isotope measurement instrumentation method. An undergraduate research assistant is needed operate and maintain an experimental prototype laser-based gas measurement system. The expected duties will include:

  • Operation and modification of a commercial class IV CO2 laser (11.8 μm wavelength, 50 mW output power)
  • Installation and maintenance of a sample gas handling system (leak-testing, fitting installation, tube bending)
  • Use of automated data collection software and subsequent analysis
  • The student will play a critical role in diagnosing any malfunctions and determining the viability of this new method for a given application. The outcome of the project is expected to consist of (1) a continuous sample measurement over two hours with high precision and (2) the experimental conditions required for repeatable operation at those conditions. The research assistant will work closely with the lead faculty on this project with daily supervision in the laboratory provided by the post-doctoral research associate.

Skills Required:

  • Basic troubleshooting experience
  • Basic mechanical and electrical aptitude
  • Basic data analysis
  • Laboratory safety training (provided)

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11. 2011 Mississippi Floods: Understanding the climatic context and the disaster response

Department/Center: Water Center

Project description:

The 2011 Mississippi Flood was notable in its size, both in terms of the region affected and the duration of the flooding. Such floods with long durations can have significantly larger impacts relative to short, flash floods. In addition, the rainfall needed to cause such flooding must be associated with climate states that lead to persistent rainfall in a similar region. Research at the Columbia Water Center has identified the atmospheric conditions that led to the long-term rainfall [Nakamura et al., 2012 and unpublished work], but the analysis of the rainfall and flood extent has not yet been performed.

In addition to the physical science behind floods, there is a human element as floods are one of the costliest natural disasters in the United States. As such, the Mississippi River basin has significant flood protection in the form of levees and designated floodways that can be intentionally inundated to prevent flooding in other regions. This flood was the first time in decades that some of these floodways were used, and this decision on the part of the US Army Corps of Engineers met significant local and state resistance. For example, the State of Missouri petitioned federal courts to block the Army Corps’ actions. Understanding these decisions and the response of communities and local governments will help us to plan for flood response in the future.

Research assistant tasks:

  • Exploratory literature review
  • Data analysis
  • Review of news coverage and available reports

Skills Required:

  • Academic interests: climate/hydrology, disaster response and decision-making
  • Required: Ability to perform quantitative analysis (e.g. Excel computations)
  • Preferred: Basic knowledge of R or MATLAB

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12. Analysis of how alternative means of visualizing climate and epidemiological data affect the decisions of malaria makers

Department/Center: Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED)

Project description: The goal of this research project is to examine how alternative means of visualizing climate and epidemiological data affects the decisions of malaria policy makers. In order to make appropriate policy decisions, malaria policy makers need to use data from the fields of climate and epidemiology (including entomological, hydrology and socio-economic data). Traditionally, these data have been presented to malaria policy makers in isolations – accompanied, at most, by text that describes the data using terminology that is appropriate for experts in the respective field. Given that malaria policy makers cannot be experts in all of these disciplines, it is difficult for them to use these isolated data sets appropriately in their decision-making process.

Although data visualization experts (e.g. Edward Tufte: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/) have advocated the need for more innovative means of visualizing quantitative data, we lack sufficient research of the most appropriate format for presenting relevant quantitative data to policy makers.

Therefore, the goal of this project is to examine how alternative means of visualizing malaria data affects the decisions of malaria policy makers relative to the traditional means of presenting these data. To accomplish this goal, we have the following three objectives:

  1. Review the literature on decision making and data visualization
  2. Develop alternative formats of visually presenting quantitative data
  3. Pre-test the alternative formats for visually presenting quantitative data with Columbia undergrad students

Research assistant tasks:

The research assistant will be supervised by Derek Willis (primary supervisor) and Sabine Marx. Approximately 4 weeks will be devoted to accomplish each of the three objectives outlined above. At the beginning of each 4-week period, we will meet with the student several times to outline what needs to be done in order to accomplish that period’s objective. We will continue to meet with the research assistant in person at least once per week (typically on Fridays) to ensure that progress is being made and to answer any questions. We will also be available to respond to the research assistant’s questions and suggestions for the project via email. By participating in this proposed research assistantship, the undergraduate student will have the opportunity to develop research skills in conducting literature reviews and conducting experiments. Both of these skills will be extremely useful for future social science research. In addition, the research assistant will learn alternative means of visually presenting quantitative data – a skill that should prove useful in not only his/her future presentations but also as a potential line of research to pursue as well.

Skills Required:

  • Academic interests in global health, sustainable development
  • Moderate proficiency with Excel, strong writing and communication skills
  • Basic data analysis

 

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