Spring 2017 Undergraduate Research Assistant Opportunities

by |December 28, 2016

The Earth Institute will offer six research assistant opportunities for undergraduate students during the spring 2017 semester. Undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard will be able to serve as research assistants on 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 assistantships are funded at a rate of $15 per hour for 10 hours per week and up to a maximum of 120 hours for the spring semester.

The research positions are:

  1. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th Street: Building the Enterococcus Study Group, Improving the Enterococcus Website, and Policy Issues at 125th Street for the New Columbia Campus
  2. What are the soil lead concentrations in community spaces in New York City and surrounding communities?
  3. Impacts of Agricultural Intensification in the Amazon
  4. Land Use Change and Fires in Indonesia
  5. Spatiotemporal Variability of Northwestern North American Temperatures in Response to Climatic Forcing
  6. Understanding the ecological controls of nitrogen fixation in tropical forests

To apply:

To apply for these positions, complete the online application available here https://fs21.formsite.com/earthinstitute/form65/index.html by Jan. 23 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 2017.

Contact Jessica Sotomayor (jsotomayor@ei.columbia.edu) with any questions. Address cover letters to “Jessica Sotomayor, Senior Program Manager, Office of Academic and Research Programs.”


1. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th Street: Building the Enterococcus Study Group, Improving the Enterococcus Website, and Policy Issues at 125th Street for the New Columbia Campus

Department: Dept. of Environmental Science at Barnard College

Anticipated task: This project offers the unusual opportunity for an undergraduate research assistant to work with environmental scientists in the Dept. of Environmental Science at Barnard College, in the Civil Engineering Department at Columbia, 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 building the Enterococcus Study Group (ESG), a group of eight Barnard and Columbia Students who have been trained for sampling and analysis of Enterococcus) sampling and analysis of Enterococci bacteria, further developing the Enterococcus website (https://sites.google.com/site/barnardcollegeenterococcus/home/introduction), maintaining the newly developed Enterococcus laboratory, 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.

Skills required: Ability to learn sampling and laboratory procedures, ability to work in the field and on board the research vessel Seawolf, facility with excel and data analysis, ability to manage a laboratory and students of the Enterococcus Study Group at Barnard.


2. What are the soil lead concentrations in community spaces in New York City and surrounding communities?

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Anticipated task: The student will assist in deploying a field test kit for lead in soil and analyzing results, helping to create a unique map of soil lead in New York City. Sampling locations will be coordinated with local stakeholders, including community organizations, gardeners, and city agencies. The student will assist in preparing the field kit and working with community member to use the field kit, including training, and coordinating

supplies and sampling events. The student will be trained to use laboratory equipment to prepare the extraction solution and color reagent of the field kit, as well as analyze the soil samples both with the field kit and in the laboratory with standard methods. The student will gain experience in field sampling, lab methods, and working with city and community organizations.

Skills required: Knowledge of MS Excel and Word, good communication and organizational skills, and detailed orientated. Experience working with community organizations is a plus.


3. Impacts of Agricultural Intensification in the Amazon

Department: Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology

Anticipated task: Assisting with labwork–processing greenhouse gas samples, and soil nutrient data. The student will also be encouraged to read primary literature related to this topic. Meeting the growing demand for food and livestock feed will require tropical regions to intensify agricultural production. However, the environmental costs of agricultural intensification in the tropics are understudied. Within the tropics, one of the most crucial agricultural regions is Mato Grosso, Brazil. Once an Amazon deforestation hotspot, Mato Grosso now contains a rapidly intensifying agricultural landscape covering ~100,000 km2 (about the size of Kentucky) and is now the world’s second-largest soy producer. We are making novel measurements of trace gases that have various negative impacts on the environment, agricultural productivity, and human health.

Skills required: Previous experience doing lab work and the Columbia University Lab Safety training.


4. Land Use Change and Fires in Indonesia

Department: Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology

Anticipated task: In order to develop effective policies to reduce regional exposure to air pollution contributed by fires in Indonesia, we first need to understand how fires are associated with different types of land use and land cover change. We are looking for an interested student to use remote sensing and land use information to quantify how the amount of fire emissions changes with different types of land use, such as deforestation or agricultural residue burning.

Skills required: The minimum required skills are experience with basic data analysis and statistical techniques. Coding experience would be an advantage but is not required.


5. Spatiotemporal Variability of Northwestern North American Temperatures in Response to Climatic Forcing

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Anticipated task: The student will work with dendrochronological techniques (i.e., sanding, crossdating, measuring, statistical quality controls) and Blue intensity new methodology for measuring density using image data software. Additionally, the task will include stable isotopic methodology (i.e., separation of individual tree rings, cellulose extraction and homogenization, preparation and precision weighing of cellulose samples, online isotopic ratio mass spectrometry, and evaluation of isotopic measurements). Data analyses of the resulting tree-ring series and interpretation of the results.

Skills required: Skills such as responsibility and accuracy in order to develop the lab work precisely. Approximate number of hours required: between 6-10 hours are desirable. However, the number of hours is flexible and it will depend on depending on student availability. Previous lab experience will be positively evaluated. No particular qualifications requested.


6. Understanding the ecological controls of nitrogen fixation in tropical forests

Department: Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology

Anticipated task: The research assistant will primarily aid in the elemental and isotopic analyses of plant tissue from a greenhouse experiment on the ecological controls of nitrogen fixation in tropical forests. These analyses will involve using a variety of different tissue grinders to homogenize each sample. The resulting sample powder will then be carefully weighed and packaged in tin cups for elemental and isotopic analyses. The student will work closely with the supervisor (B. Taylor) to learn how to use the elemental analyzer to obtain data on the carbon and nitrogen composition of sample tissues. This machine is typically operated by graduate students and faculty; thus, this would provide a unique experience for an undergraduate research assistant. Finally, the supervisor will discuss initial data analysis with the research assistant so that the assistant gains experience connecting laboratory sample analysis to the resulting data and their interpretation.

Skills required: Strong organizational skills, attention to detail, clear handwriting for labeling samples. The supervisor will train the research assistant in all other task-specific skills.


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