Spring 2020 Earth Institute Undergraduate Research Assistant Opportunities

December 11, 2019

By Samantha Ostrowski

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is offering undergraduate students with research assistant opportunities during the spring 2020 semester. Undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard will be able to serve as research assistants on 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. Blue Carbon Quantification in the Hudson-LI Sound Estuary
  2. Enabling Urban Residents to Adapt to Coastal Flooding: Evidence from New York City Neighborhoods
  3. Error Analysis of In-Situ Sea Surface Temperature Observations
  4. Ice Calving History of Antarctica in the Past
  5. Radioactive Isotopes as Tracers for Past Changes in Arctic Ocean Circulation
  6. Reconstructing Oceanographic Changes on the Chilean Margin During the Past Ice Age Cycle
  7. Reconstructing Past Warmer-Than-Present Climate Conditions in the Southern Ocean
  8. Rio Grande Rise, South Atlantic: Exploration of an Underwater Plateau

More details are below.

To apply:

Complete the online application available here by January 29, 2020, at 11:55 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 are expected to participate in the Earth Institute Student Research Showcase in spring 2020.

Contact Samantha Ostrowski (sostrowski@ei.columbia.edu) with any questions.


1. Blue Carbon Quantification in the Hudson-LI Sound Estuary

Department: Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES)

Anticipated tasks: Working with Excel and satellite data from the National Wetlands Inventory, the intern will analyze Dorothy Peteet’s previously collected probe transect data from wetlands of the Hudson Estuary. Utilizing the probe depths, geospatial area, and previous data we have collected on soil density and carbon, the intern will work to quantify the volume of blue carbon stored in the wetlands. Literature review will also be conducted to illuminate the impact of the quantity of this stored carbon in the New York coastal region and will compare the calculated data with data from other comparable coastal regions.

Skills required: The intern will ideally have experience working with geospatial data (satellite, ArcGIS), data analysis with Excel, literature review, and a strong understanding and passion for wetlands and carbon sequestration with climate change.


2. Enabling Urban Residents to Adapt to Coastal Flooding: Evidence from New York City Neighborhoods

Department: Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR)

Anticipated tasks: RA responsibilities will include:

  • Conduct a literature review.
  • Help to manage a household survey of coastal residents in the Rockaways area of New York City (NYC). The survey will be conducted mainly online but may require phone calls and/or visits to those households who do not respond online. The RA will help to develop a questionnaire for the surveys. S/he will program the questionnaire on a web-based data collection platform. S/he will manage sample lists and monitor survey progress.
  • Clean and help to analyze survey data.
  • Conduct in-depth interviews with selected community group leaders and residents.
  • Help to coordinate with our community group partners.
  • Help to write a report and, if interested, coauthor papers for publication.

Skills required:

  • The RA should have a strong understanding of basic statistics, up to and including multivariate regression. The study will analyze panel data. If the candidate does not have experience with panel data, s/he should have an interest in learning new statistical methods.
  • Ideally the RA would have some experience with working with data — cleaning, analyzing, visualizing.
  • The RA should have some experience with a statistical analysis package such as Stata, SAS, SPSS.
  • The RA should have excellent research skills. S/he should be very well organized and pay close attention to details.
  • Some familiarity with impacts of sea level rise and flooding on populations and some coursework in one of the social sciences (economics, political science, or sociology) would be helpful.

3. Error Analysis of In-Situ Sea Surface Temperature Observations

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: Inter-comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) measurements, made over time from individual observational platforms (a ship, or a drifting buoy, or a mooring) with the values from the independent SST analysis, based on satellite data. Interpretation of in situ minus satellite SST differences in the context of other available data and metadata, with the goal of explaining or modeling the error of the in situ observations of SST at the given platform.

Skills required: Good quantitative skills; some knowledge of mathematical statistics is a plus. Knowledge of some programming is necessary, in the amount sufficient for reading data, changing their format, performing simple calculations with them, etc. (Excel knowledge does not count.) Experience in using Matlab would be helpful, but not strictly necessary.


4. Ice Calving History of Antarctica in the Past

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: The student will be working with deep-sea sediment core samples in the lab. They will be tasked with first wet-sieving the sediment samples. They will then complete density separations for each sample, which will separate microfossils from iceberg-rafted debris (small rocks taken out to sea by icebergs). This debris will then be weighed, counted and plotted against core depth (and eventually time) to assess Antarctic meltwater fluctuations over ~500,000 years.

Skills required: All necessary training will be provided at Lamont, and some microscope experience will be expected. Columbia General Lab Safety Training will need to be completed prior to or within first week or two of starting the job.


5. Radioactive Isotopes as Tracers for Past Changes in Arctic Ocean Circulation

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: This project aims to create a record of the radioactive isotopes Pa-231 and Th-230 in Arctic sediments in order to investigate past changes in ocean circulation. The sedimentary ratio of these two isotopes can be used to study the movement of water in the deep ocean, and in this project we aim to constrain deep water transport from the Arctic to the North Atlantic. This deep water outflow contributes to North Atlantic Deep Water, which is a major component of the ocean overturning circulation that plays an important role in the regional and global climate.

To accomplish this, we must create a chronological record of Pa-231 and Th-230 in Arctic sediments. Radiocarbon (carbon-14) dating will be used to create such a record by determining the age of sediment samples that were collected from the Arctic Ocean and are currently being stored in the LDEO core repository. The student research assistant will be responsible for preparing the sediment samples for radiocarbon dating. This will include sub-sampling and processing sediment core samples to isolate the coarse size fraction that contains the planktonic microfossils used for the radiocarbon dating, microscopy work to select the best specimens for analysis, and packaging the samples for shipment to the analytical facilities in Woods Hole, MA. After the samples are analyzed, the student research assistant will process the data and interpret the results, with assistance from postdoctoral fellow Lauren Kipp and professor Jerry McManus. By assuming responsibility for the radiocarbon component of this project, the student will lead their own independent project while also contributing to the larger research effort of studying changes in Arctic Ocean circulation.

Skills required: Training will be provided for all specific tasks. Desirable skills include attention to detail, good organization, and willingness to learn. Basic proficiency with data processing and plotting software such as Excel is preferred. Some understanding of oceanography, chemistry, and/or geology is beneficial but not required.


6. Reconstructing Oceanographic Changes on the Chilean Margin During the Past Ice Age Cycle

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: This project is designed to look at the composition of deep sea sediments from drill cores now stored from the Chilean margin, in order to assess changes in the surface ocean conditions, deep ocean circulation, cryosphere, and climate in the Southeast Pacific region during the most recent cycle of global glaciation on Earth. Learning more about the currently poorly understood past changes in this region of the world’s largest ocean will contribute to our understanding of natural oceanographic and climatic variability.

The student research assistant will help sample, process, and analyze deep-sea sediments in the deep-sea sediment laboratory at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Our preliminary investigations have revealed that several deep-sea sediment cores recovered by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) have sediments from the past ice age have the potential to record climate variability at unprecedented resolution for the Pacific Ocean. This presents an excellent opportunity for a student to make a real contribution to obtaining new knowledge about natural variability in this region. The student will take samples from one or more Southeast Pacific cores, and then help with processing tasks that include freeze-drying, weighing on a microbalance, wet-sieving using a semi-automated processing system, oven drying and re-weighing of the coarse material, settling, and decanting and air-drying of the finest material and bulk compositional analyses. These measurements will help identify the proportion of sediment related to a range of processes, including biological productivity, atmospheric transport by the wind, ocean circulation and iceberg discharge reflecting glacial activity on the South American continent.

In consultation with Prof. McManus, the student will then select a subset of the samples for detailed analysis of the sediment composition, microfossil abundance and assemblage, grain size and carbon and oxygen isotope ratios. These analyses will include a combination of automated bulk measurements and observations using a binocular microscope. All necessary training will be provided. The student will then interpret the results, with guidance from McManus. Although this will be a freestanding project pursued by the student research assistant, it will be placed in the larger context of larger parallel ongoing studies designed to explore the global connection of environment, biosphere, volcanism, and climate changes in the past in the contrasting regions of the northern and southern hemispheres.

Skills required: Training will be provided for all specific tasks and instrument use. It is important that the intern be diligent, careful, and willing to learn. Although not necessary, it will be helpful if she or he has some familiarity with the Earth’s climate system, oceanography, and/or basic laboratory practices, as well as a spreadsheet and plotting program such as MS Excel or Google Sheets. The student and project will benefit most from the right student’s combination of independence and ability to work with others.


7. Reconstructing Past Warmer-Than-Present Climate Conditions in the Southern Ocean

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: Earth’s climate of the past million years is characterized by alternating ice age and warm house climate states, so-called glacial and interglacial cycles. We currently live in an interglacial, and future climate is projected to become even warmer than at present-day. In order to understand the character and dynamics of the future Earth system, paleoclimatologists study past climate states that were similar to today using microscopic fossils preserved in marine sediments. In this project, we will use marine sediment samples and geochemical and micropaleontological methods to study differences in the hydrography and circulation patterns of the Southern Ocean today and in the past. Specific attention will be paid to amplified warming around Antarctica and ice sheet dynamics as tipping points in the global climate system.

The project will make use of two marine sediment cores from the South Pacific that record an extreme interglacial period that occurred 430,000-390,000 years before present. This geological time interval is known to have experienced warmer-than-present ocean and air temperatures in some regions by up to 6°C (10°F) and global sea level ~6-13 m (20-42 ft) higher than today, and therefore serves as one paleo-analog for potential future conditions. The student will perform paleoclimate reconstructions using carbonate shells of microfossils (so-called foraminifera) from this time interval, including sampling of foraminifera under the microscope and clean laboratory preparation of the samples for geochemical analysis of their shells’ elemental composition. The student will be guided to reconstruct these past environmental conditions, and thereby create knowledge based on which a contribution can be made to infer the future trajectory of Earth’s climate.

Skills required: The student will work in the micropaleontology, sedimentology, and geochemistry laboratories at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in Palisades, a 30-min shuttle bus ride from Columbia. Previous laboratory experience is advantageous but not required. Students are expected to follow the research instructions carefully and accurately, as the sediment samples are unique and irreplaceable. Students will work as part of a team of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, and collaboration in the laboratory with others is expected.


8. Rio Grande Rise, South Atlantic: Exploration of an Underwater Plateau

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: Carefully separate glass chips using small hammer and chisel, sometimes mortar and pestle from volcanic rocks. Selection of suitable chips for analyses using binocular microscope. Mounting of glass chips in epoxy. Grinding and polishing of grain mounts. Analyses of glass by inductively coupled mass spectrometry for the trace element contents. Data reduction of the collected data. Data interpretation in the context of South Atlantic.

Skills required: Careful handling of irreplaceable geological samples. Sample preparation is tedious and time-consuming and requires attention to detail and patience. Ability to follow instructions on use of the ICP-MS and laser. Ability to learn data reduction skills.

Media Inquiries: 
Marie DeNoia Aronsohn
marieda@ldeo.columbia.edu
845-365-8151