Earth Interns Begin Summer Research Projects at LDEO

June 25, 2008


From asteroid impacts and climate change to oceanography and microbiology, undergraduates will spend ten weeks conducting exciting and often ground-breaking scientific research in the Earth Intern program. The program matches students with a research scientist at The Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in Palisades, New York. LDEO’s more than 200 research scientists are global leaders in the search for knowledge about the origin, evolution and future of the natural world. The intern program is co-sponsored by LDEO, The Earth Institute, Barnard College, and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia.

“The most exciting thing in science is to discover something that no one else ever knew before. Undergraduates can taste that excitement when they participate in the undergraduate research,” said Dallas Abbott, Adjunct Research Scientist of Marine Geology and Geophysics at LDEO and Intern Program Director. Dr. Abbott researches possible asteroid impacts and the role that they have played in climate change, mega tsunami events, and the evolution of the earth.

This year, students are coming from a variety of departments including Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia; Chemical Engineering at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia; Environmental Science at Barnard; the Barnard-Columbia Urban Studies Program; and the departments of Astronomy, Physics and Math at Columbia.

Dr. Abbott will be working with a student analyzing core samples fromJames De Lanoy (L), Earth Intern, and Philip Orton, PhD candidate at LDEO and intern advisor, set up equipment to measure the carbon flux on a greenroof on Columbia's campus. possible ancient asteroid impacts. One such event, which is also described in Chinese historical records, was a major dust veil that lasted for 18 months and may be related to the 535-541 A.D. period of colder climate.


In the past six years, more than 70 students have participated in the summer Earth Intern Program, which has grown to include students from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. The NSF REU Program has supported undergraduate research participation since 1982 and now allocates 1700-1800 grants to undergraduates and special REU sites per year.

Rebecca Johnson, a Columbia College student in the class of 2010, will be working with Christopher Zappa, Doherty Associate Research Scientist of Ocean and Climate Physics at LDEO, to study the effect that the formation of ice has on the transfer of carbon dioxide between water and air; research that has implications for regional and global carbon budgeting. Dr. Zappa said of the Earth Intern program, “I feel it helps undergraduates determine if their love of science translates into a passion for research. I typically take the opportunity to test out new ideas that I would normally not have the chance to work on, so the research is very pertinent and novel, and can lead to larger-scale projects.”

“Research usually requires creativity and a much broader range of skills than one finds in the classroom. These are part of what makes science fun,” said Philip Orton, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at LDEO. Orton will be taking an intern into the field to study the physical and human factors controlling the amount of carbon dioxide released from the Hudson River estuary into the atmosphere.

Orton explained that the amount of carbon dioxide released by the Hudson River estuary is roughly equivalent to 10% of the automobile emissions of Manhattan on an average day. This is a natural part of Earth's carbon cycle, but human alterations of the watershed and estuary may have increased the amount of carbon dioxide being released. Gaining insight into the estuary’s carbon dioxide flux will not only improve our understanding of estuary chemistry and physics, but may help the scientific community incorporate these calculations into global carbon budgets.


The program also lays the foundation for longer-term research partnerships between students and faculty and can provide a launching pad for students’ year-long senior theses or longer-term plans. “A student from a few years ago decided to go to graduate school after working with me during the summer Earth Intern program and has since won an NSF Graduate Fellowship,” said Dr. Zappa. Every year, numerous interns present their work at national meetings or have their senior theses published. After the conclusion of the 2007 summer program, thirteen of the Earth Interns from Columbia and Barnard continued to conduct research at LDEO through the 2007-2008 academic year.

For more information about the Earth Intern Program, please contact Dallas Abbott at (845) 365-8664 or