Fall 2018 Earth Institute Undergraduate Research Assistant Opportunities

by |August 13, 2018

By Alana Masciana

The Earth Institute, Columbia University, is offering undergraduate students with research assistant opportunities during the fall 2018 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 $16 per hour for up to 10 hours a week for 12 weeks (a maximum of 120 hours during the semester). The research positions are:

  1. How do nitrogen-fixing trees influence soil greenhouse gas fluxes?
  2. Dust and Climate- How has past climatic variability affected winds and rains over the west coast of North America?
  3. 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
  4. Evaluating variability in “background” air pollution above northern California
  5. The Ecology of Urban Lyme Disease: the connectivity of hosts, vectors and pathogens
  6. The Role of Urbanization in Degradation and Regeneration of Tropical Deciduous Forests in South Asia

To apply:

Complete the online application available here by September 16, 2018 at 11:55pm. 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 are expected to participate in the Earth Institute Student Research Showcase in spring 2019.

Contact Cari Shimkus (cshimkus@ei.columbia.edu) with any questions.

 


  1. How do nitrogen-fixing trees influence soil greenhouse gas fluxes?

Department: Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B)

Anticipated tasks: Analyzing gas samples on a gas chromatograph. Analyzing soil samples on a discrete analyzer. Assisting the collection of gas and soil samples from Black Rock Forest.

This project examines how nitrogen-fixing trees influence soil greenhouse gas fluxes (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane) in comparison to non-fixing trees. Understanding how tree species and tree functional types influence soil greenhouse gas fluxes allows greater accuracy in the calculation of large scale greenhouse gas budgets. We have collected hundreds of gas and soil samples over the summer that require analysis. Further collection of gas and soil samples would be greatly expedited with the assistance of a student.

Skills required: Basic knowledge of ecology, laboratory safety training preferable.

 


  1. Dust and Climate—How has past climatic variability affected winds and rains over the west coast of North America?

Department: Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: The RA will prepare mineral dust samples for chemical analyses (includes physical sieving and sample dissolution with inorganic acids), assist in the analysis of prepared samples using mass spectrometry, and critically examine resulting data and their implications for regional climate variability.

A thorough understanding of how the Earth system has responded to past variations in climate forcing is critical to our ability to predict future changes associated with anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. In this regard, long-term records of dust deposition generated from marine sediments provide important constraints on the effects of climatic variability on large scale atmospheric circulation and continental aridity. We are seeking an RA to aid in the characterization of new dust records from the Pacific that trace changes in North American dust emissions over the past 4 glacial-interglacial cycles. The RA will process and analyze samples originating from likely North American dust source regions in order to constrain the chemical fingerprints associated with each region and compare these results to the chemical composition of dust within the Pacific sedimentary record. This project will help constrain the origin and variability of North American dust emissions and thus inform how spatial patterns of storminess and draught along the west coast of North America respond to a range of climatic conditions. 

Skills required: The ideal RA should have a willingness to learn and the ability to execute new laboratory procedures, be detail oriented, and must be able to spend at least 3 hours at the Lamont campus per visit (not including transit time).

 


  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: Environmental Science at Barnard College

Anticipated tasks: 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 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 , 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.

 


  1. Evaluating variability in “background” air pollution above northern California

Department: Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: Balloon sondes launched regularly at Trindidad Head in northern California provide a long-term dataset of the vertical profile of ozone from the near-surface into the lower stratosphere. Colleagues at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have used a “big data” approach (self-organizing maps) to identify nine classes of vertical profiles and have provided us with the dates on which each of the nine profile shapes was observed (see https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/ 10.1002/2015JD023641). For each of the nine vertical profile shapes, the undergraduate intern will select the dates on which that shape was observed from a global chemical transport model simulation for 2004-2012 from which we archived vertical distributions of ozone at the model grid cell containing the Trinidad Head launch site. (We have previously used to quantify individual sources of U.S. background ozone; see https://www.atmos-chem-phys- discuss.net/acp-2018-115/). Once all dates for a given shape is selected, the intern will average over all of the dates, separately for each altitude. By plotting the modeled profiles versus the observed profiles (e.g., altitude on the y-axis and ozone on the x-axis), the intern will help us to evaluate whether or not the model captures all nine shapes. If time permits, the intern will then repeat the analysis for a broader set of simulations that will allow us to connect each observed profile shape to individual sources contributing to background ozone. Earlier work has linked ozone aloft at Trinidad Head to pollution events downwind at the surface in the intermountain west, and the intern may also explore if the model captures these relationships.

Skills required: Coding experience in Python, MATLAB, IDL, or R is an advantage. Prior experience working with large datasets, including observational datasets or multi-model ensembles commonly used in climate is also a plus. The minimum required skills are comfort and experience with basic data analysis and statistical techniques in Excel. Communication skills are highly valued for thoroughly documenting codes and disseminating scientific findings.

 


  1. The Ecology of Urban Lyme Disease: the connectivity of hosts, vectors and pathogens

Department: Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B)

Anticipated tasks: This project focuses on understanding the ecological determinants of rising Lyme disease cases on Staten Island. During the 2018 field season, data on blacklegged tick and white- footed mice densities and infection prevalence was collected. These samples will be screened for multiple tick-borne pathogens during the fall semester. The research assistant will organize and manage data collected from the 2018 field season. The research assistant will also get experience in the lab preparing tick and tissue samples and screening the samples for multiple tick-borne pathogens.

Skills required: Great communication skills, clear handwriting and an interest in disease ecology is required. Quantitative data analyses, such as statistics using R, is preferred but not necessary. Experience in a lab setting, in particular with DNA extraction and qPCR would be very helpful for this position.

 


  1. The Role of Urbanization in Degradation and Regeneration of Tropical Deciduous Forests in South Asia

Department: Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development

Anticipated tasks: We are currently looking for an undergraduate research assistant to provide assistance with quantification and assessment of forest degradation for a NASA funded study of forest dynamics in Central India. The project utilizes geospatial technologies, such as satellite image analysis and geographic information systems, as well as data science methods, to locate regions of forest degradation and regeneration, and to link these processes to land use and socioeconomic changes.

The objectives of the project are:
1. Classify land cover using very high resolution satellite imagery
2. Perform post-processing of the land cover data using ancillary environmental data
3. Assess the accuracy of the land cover classification
4. Develop geospatial methods to measure forest degradation from land cover maps
5. Link quantified forest degradation to household surveys in Central India

Skills required: The undergraduate RA should have introductory experience with one or more of the following technologies:

  • R or Python
  • ArcGIS or QGIS
  • Google Earth Engine or ENVI (or another satellite image analysis platforms)

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