Making the Grade

June 22, 2006
News Subtitle: 
Lamont-Doherty Summer Interns Arrive to Deepen their Interest in Earth and Environmental Sciences
Summer Intern

Dallas Abbott (far left, in hat) with 20 of this year's Lamont-Doherty Summer Interns.

Photo credit: Ken Kostel

Mikah McCabe wanted "some serious research experience" on global warming or climate change. Hagar ElBishlawi wanted to work in a program affiliated with The Earth Institute. Michael Silberman wanted to work at Lamont because the people there work on the "interesting and important problems."

Each of the undergraduate interns welcomed by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory this summer may have had their own reason for applying, but they all have one thing in common: they are some of the best and brightest.

"We tell them if they don't have a B+ average they're unlikely to get in," said Dallas Abbott, who is entering her fifteenth year as the director of the internship program. "So the applicants are generally very good."

This summer marks the twenty-ninth year of the Lamont Summer Intern Program, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Interns attend special lectures, workshops and field trips designed to give them a better idea of what scientific research entails.

Each of the interns will also carry out a research project under the guidance of a Lamont scientist. At the end of summer, they present the results of their work in a poster session. Some plan to develop their research project into a senior thesis.

They also get out into the field. In early June, McCabe and some fellow interns went to Staten Island to collect samples for her project, which involves using isotope geochemistry to determine when rock surfaces first became exposed to air by retreating glaciers.

"We took three samples by literally blowing rock pieces off of boulders with small explosives," said McCabe, who is working with Meredith Kelly and Joerg Schaeffer in Geochemistry. "I am now processing those samples in the lab. The process would be far more tedious if I didn't know where they came from."

While the interns are enjoying the excitement of fieldwork this summer, and may possibly even experience the exhilaration of making a new scientific discovery, they are also learning about the less glamorous, day-to-day issues that are inevitably a part of scientific research.

"My main challenges so far have been computational," said Silberman a senior in applied mathematics at Columbia University, who is working with Samar Khatiwala and Christopher Zappa in Oceanography. "We have to deal with really big windspeed data sets, so I run out of memory occasionally."

The students come to Lamont to work hard, but also to have some fun.

"On our first night here we went to an Indian restaurant followed by a tour of the Hudson River," said ElBishlawi, a senior environmental chemistry major at Columbia University, who is working with Marc Levy on a project examining hydrology and conflict. "It was a nice opportunity to get to know some of the other participants in the program."

About 40 percent of interns have gone on to graduate school in the earth and ocean sciences, Abbott said. About 20 percent go on to medical school, while many others become high school science teachers.

"They really learn what it's like to do research," Abbott said. "And many have developed their summer research work into journal publications. At first, they make physical contributions by the work that they do, but by the end of the summer, they're making intellectual contributions as well."