State of the Planet

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Spring 2012 Undergraduate Research Assistant Positions

The Earth Institute, Columbia University is pleased to announce 12 research assistant opportunities for undergraduate students during the spring 2012 semester. Undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard will be able to serve as research assistants on exciting research projects related to sustainable development and the environment, and engage with distinguished faculty and researchers at the cutting edge of this burgeoning field.

While research assistantships at Columbia are generally awarded to graduate students, this program instead aims to present undergraduates with a unique opportunity to be involved in high level research and to gain valuable experience and skills for their future academic and professional careers.

Successful applicants will work on a part-time basis and directly with faculty on these projects. Research assistantships are funded at a rate of $15/hour for 10 hours per week and up to a maximum of 120 hours for the spring 2012 semester.

This spring, the 12 research assistantships are:

  1. Anthropogenic radionuclides in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  2. Growth and Climate Response of Coppiced Quercus griffithii in Bhutan
  3. Regional Partnership to Promote Trade and Investment in sub-Saharan Africa
  4. Ethnoclimatology in Bhutan: Anthropological and meteorological approaches to traditional forecasting of climate variability
  5. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville
  6. Evaluation of impact of large-scale anti-malaria programs implemented in sub-Saharan Africa through funds provided by Global Fund
  7. International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP)
  8. Biodiversity, Water, and Energy: A Case Study in the Inquire Institute and Technology, Research, Ecology and Exchange for Students Program
  9. Statistical downscaling of precipitation (rainfall and snow) over the Western Himalayas
  10. Collectivizing Performance: Unions and Education Reform in Brazil
  11. Climate Extremes in a Changing World: Analyses and Implications
  12. Relationship between implementation of a farmer’s agricultural input subsidy scheme and household food security/nutritional outcomes in ten African countries

To Apply:
To apply for these positions, please complete the online application available here by January 29, 2012 at midnight.  While you may apply for more than one position, you must submit separate applications. Please note that only undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard are eligible to apply. Decisions will be made shortly after the deadline.

Please note that students who are awarded research assistantships will be expected to participate in the Earth Institute Student Research Showcase, which takes place in spring 2012.

Please contact us at with any questions.

1. Anthropogenic radionuclides in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

Department/Center: Geochemistry

Project Background: The study is focused on determining the total concentrations of the anthropogenic radionuclides 239Pu, 240Pu, 237Np, and 137Cs in selected full depth profiles from the various Atlantic GEOTRACES cruises occurring in 2010‐2012 (US, Netherlands, UK, and Germany), which will allow the broad brush characterization of the anthropogenic radionuclides some 37 years after GEOSECS. Other samples include those collected in the Pacific Ocean before and after releases from the

Fukushima reactor incident. There is currently a US cruise collecting samples for us in the Atlantic and we are planning to submit a proposal to participate in the US GEOTRACES Pacific program. The isotopes of interest, in addition to being transient tracers, exhibit a range of Kd values (sediment water distribution coefficients, Pu>Np,Cs), and geochemical behaviors as well as provide a means to resolve different sources of radioactive contamination. This will allow us to address processes such as advection (new water mass tracers), sources and sinks (characteristic isotopic signatures), as well as processes related scavenging and particle dynamics across a range of contrasting regions. If this project is selected, a research assistant can expect to gain solid experience in and provide valuable assistance with several phases of water sample collection, processing, and analysis. Acquired analytical techniques would include separation and purification techniques and preparation of samples for our ICP‐mass   pectrometer, and gamma spectroscopy for the analysis of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides, as well as data processing and interpretation.

Research assistant tasks:

Summarize the data and methods he or she works on in the form of concise written reports, and students would be integral to the published manuscripts from this research. There may be some local field work as well as some analytical method testing and development.

Skills Required:

  • common sense
  • mechanically inclined
  • willing to work carefully and hard

There is a significant amount of chemistry lab work, which requires careful note taking, the ability some data analysis background would be helpful, but is not necessary. All of the analytical work will take place at the Lamont Campus.

2.  Growth and Climate Response of Coppiced Quercus griffithii in Bhutan

Department/Center: Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory

Project Background: The Kingdom of Bhutan is seeking to sustainably maintain its natural forest resources as it moves from a relatively isolated, absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with increasing ties to the modern global economy. The goal to sustain and conserve Bhutan’s forest resources would appear to be in conflict with its economy and demographics. Bhutan’s economy is based upon forestry, tourism, agriculture and hydroelectric power and is among the fastest growing economies in the world. Its human population is growing at an annual rate of approximately 1.2%. In October 2011, we were able to sample 18 Quercus griffithii in a small farm woodlot north of Paro, Bhutan. The primary goal of this collection was to see how well-formed rings were in these deciduous oak (ie., Quercus). Upon entry into the stand, it became clear that it would be difficult to find ‘natural’ oak (Fig 1a). The oaks in this woodlot had been coppiced. Coppicing is the general harvesting of tree stems for wood products. Species that are targeted for coppicing are chosen for their ability to re-sprout after harvesting. In western culture, trees are often coppiced just above the root collar, but are sometimes coppiced at greater heights. In Bhutan, oaks are coppiced at 2 m or greater above the ground to reduce grazing by livestock while individual trees are in recovery. The goals of coppicing are said to be to provide fuel and firewood and fodder for livestock. Initial samples and external characteristics indicate that some of these stems could be 100-200+ years old (Figure 1b), suggesting that they could have sustained perhaps eight human generations. This, on outside appearances, seems to be sustainable forest management; although coppicing may reduce tree vitality and cause lower genetic diversity because vegetative reproduction can be favored against sexual reproduction. The goal of this project is to investigate the age of the trees sampled and examine the growth, climate response and resiliency of these trees to centuries of coppicing.

Skills Required: A working knowledge of and experience with laboratory analysis of tree-ring samples is required.  A background in history and anthropology would be preferred.

3.  Regional Partnership to Promote Trade and Investment in sub-Saharan Africa

Department/Center: Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI), Earth Institute

Project Background: The Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) was established at The Earth Institute at Columbia University in early 2006 to help Sub-Saharan African cities achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Our work is divided into two areas of focus, investment and social sector. The Investment-related activities of MCI focus on helping the Millennium Cities create employment, stimulate enterprise development and foster economic growth, especially by increasing domestic and foreign investment, with a view toward eradicating extreme poverty.

The Regional Partnership to Promote Trade and Investment in sub-Saharan Africa (the Regional Partnership) is a joint project of the MDG Center under the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), based in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) jointly with Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment (VCC) of Columbia University.  The project aims to (i) assist secondary cities/regions in generating more investment (both local and foreign), to build up their productive capacity and their ability to trade; this, in turn, will contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals; and (2) contribute to the global dialog on the importance of increasing sustainable investment and action at the sub-national (cities/region) level.

MCI seeks a research assistant to assist the Regional Partnership with strengthening the city capacity for investment promotion and investor targeting, specifically with the goal of researching and identifying viable investment opportunities and translating these opportunities into concrete investments in the three selected cities.

Research assistant tasks:

  • Contribute through research and analysis to the preparation of the city investment promotion toolkit which MCI is preparing together with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).  In particular, this will include the analysis of the World Bank Group’s national-level investment promotion toolkit and researching how it could be applied to city-level investment promotion toolkit.
  • Supporting MCI team in identifying suitable case studies for inclusion in the City Investment Promotion Toolkit, e.g., success stories at the city level in terms of private sector development and foreign direct investment.

If time allows, the research assistant responsibilities may also include:

  • Data gathering on trends and issues in specific sectors, e.g., agribusiness, tourism, and manufacturing in Africa and globally.
  • Researching inflows of foreign direct investment into cities in the developing world.
  • Researching options for financing city investment promotion agencies.
  • Networking and identifying potential partnerships with city investment promotion agencies.
  • Application of newest IT technologies in city investment promotion agencies.

Skills Required:

  • Knowledgeable about international business, trade and investment
  • Advanced oral and written communication skills in English;
  • Strong organizational and research skills and keen attention to detail; and
  • Proficiency in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

4.  Ethnoclimatology in Bhutan: Anthropological and meteorological approaches to traditional

Department/Center: IRI/LDEO (appointment SIPA)

Project Background: Ben Orlove and Mark Cane (DEES/LDEO) are exploring a promising piece of traditional forecasting which Orlove discovered on a recent field trip to Bhutan. Potato farmers seek to know whether monsoon rains will be normal or excessive in July-August; they use the patterns of snowfall and frost in the previous winter (December-March) to forecast this, and modify their spring potato planting (February) accordingly, shifting crops, planted areas, and levels of inputs to reduce the risk of damage in wet years. Cane will use atmospheric science to research the empirical basis of this forecast; Orlove will examine the social science component. This builds on previous ethnoclimatology work which Cane and Orlove have completed.

Research assistant tasks:

  • review the published and gray literature on potato cultivation in Bhutan to trace the introduction of this crop in the 18th century, its incorporation into local cropping and dietary systems in the 19th century, and its expansion (both spontaneous and supported by development programs) in the 20th century.
  • review the published and gray literature on agriculture in Bhutan and neighboring areas (Nepal; Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand,  Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in India) to determine the sensitivity of potato cultivation to monsoon variability and to collect other cases of traditional forecasting.
  • collect contextual information on Bhutan, such as the nature of the traditional calendar (agricultural activities are scheduled by the Bhutanese lunar/solar calendar, a variant of the traditional Tibetan calendar rather than the Western Gregorian calendar) and other domains of traditional knowledge.

Skills Required: Familiarity with anthropology, sustainable development, or both. Bibliographic skills, including ability to search the gray literature (unpublished reports by development agencies, NGOs, research institutes, etc.). Familiarity with South Asia, mountain environments or small-scale agriculture a plus.

5.  Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th Street: Environmental Issues

Department/Center: Dept. of Environmental Science/ Barnard College

Project Background: This project (funded by the EI for the fall of 2011) has offered Colleen Mulvihill the unusual opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant with environmental scientists in the Dept. of Environmental Science at Barnard College, 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.

Research assistant tasks: Responsible for sampling and analysis of Enterococci bacteria, maintaining the newly developed Enterococci laboratory, working with other student research assistants, 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. Collect all the enterococci data; this includes measurements made during sampling (i.e., state of tide and current, weather conditions, salinity, temperature). When complete this data will be analyzed and interpreted. She has also worked with students in the Enterococcus Study Group, a group formed to involve students in research.

6.  Evaluation of impact of large-scale anti-malaria programs implemented in sub-Saharan Africa through funds provided by Global Fund

Department/Center: International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI)

Project Background: The objective of this research project is to evaluate the impact of large-scale anti-malaria programs implemented in sub-Saharan Africa through funding provided by the Global Fund.  Given the recent dramatic decrease in funding provided to the Global Fund by rich countries, it is important to document the impact that past funding provided by the Global Fund has had in reducing malaria morbidity and mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. Although previous studies have attempted to estimate the impact of Global Fund funding on the malaria burden, those studies have not incorporated temperature and precipitation into their analyses.

In this study, we will incorporate temperature and precipitation into our evaluation of the impact of national anti-malaria programs implemented through Global Fund funding.

Research assistant tasks: The research assistant will conduct a literature review of all publications that examine the impact of temperature and precipitation on malaria transmission in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A template will be provided to the student that provides a detailed description of the data to extract from each publication. The reviewed literature will be organized in Endnote.  In addition, the student will identify any potential data sets presented in the literature that are publicly available.

The research assistant will write a five page document summarizing the reviewed literature. This summary will include

  • list of all publications that examine impact of temperature and precipitation in each of the five countries
  • summary of the methodology used in each publication
  • summary of the results presented in each publication

The development of this summary by the research assistant will enable us to make substantial progress during the Spring 2012 semester in refining our evaluation methodology before applying it to each country that received funding from the Global Fund.

Skills Required:

  • Academic interests: global health, climate change
  • Skills: basic statistics, moderate proficiency with Excel
  • Expertise: basic data analysis

Students from following departments preferred: E3B, Economics, Environmental Biology, Environmental Policy, Sustainable Development

7.  International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP)

Department/Center: Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN)

Project Background: The International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health supports HIV-response-related activities at more than 4,000 facilities in 12 resource-limited Sub-Saharan African countries. For the past six years, CIESIN has been providing ICAP with geospatial technical support including data acquisition, mapping and analysis, and the creation of an online interactive mapping tool. The addition of these geospatial tools and analysis has proven very beneficial in extending the capabilities of ICAP monitoring and evaluation.

In addition to editing, the research assistant will contribute to the ICAP Interactive Mapping Application by validating existing content, and developing additional content.  The tasks will include: Data Gathering, Map Document Authoring, and Map Service Publishing.  The research assistant will develop valuable skills for leveraging GIS in a web development environment.

Research assistant tasks: The research assistant’s task would be to use Esri ArcGIS10 tools to edit administrative boundaries of African countries to create contiguous administrative data sets. The best administrative units for African countries have been compiled, but because they are from varied sources so they do not always match at the country borders. Having these data sets reconciled would be very valuable for cartographic representation and will serve as base layers for static and interactive maps. Editing is a key GIS task and the RA will learn tips and tricks to hone their editing skills.

Skills Required: ArcGIS Desktop, Microsoft Excel

8.  Biodiversity, Water, and Energy: A Case Study in the Inquire Institute and Technology, Research, Ecology and Exchange for Students Program 

Department/Center: Center for Environmental Research and Conservation

Project Background: The Center for Environmental Research and Conservation is seeking a research assistant to join the CERC team during the implementation of core education programming for undergraduates, public school teachers, executives and practitioners.  He or she will be responsible for researching and drafting a case study on an important environmental issue concerning the nexus between biodiversity, water, and energy.  The case study will serve as the center piece of core curriculum in the Inquire Institute and Technology, Research, Ecology and Exchange for Students (TREES) program, supporting keen analytics for purposes of learning, skills development and application of problem-solving for the professional development of K-12 teachers.   The research assistant will be tasked with conducting an extensive survey of existing literature to identify a suitable topic for the case study.  Upon selection of a topic, the research assistant will collect and organize articles from a variety of print and internet sources, in as wide of a “news-perspective” as possible.  In addition, he or she will review on a daily basis key government, university and institution sites for the most up-to-date scientific and environmental analysis of the developing issue.  The research assistant will summarize these findings, organize information into documents and flowcharts, cross-reference facts, especially in places where conflicting information is present, and write proper citations.  In the past, research assistants have contextualized the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Hydraulic Fracturing in New York State.   Both of these cases have been used in the Institute as well as in guest speaker presentations at Teachers College.

Skills Required: The research assistant should have excellent critical thinking and analysis skills, good writing and communication abilities, discipline, work well with others and independently, pleasant humor and enthusiasm, and knowledge of and interest in environmental and sustainability issues.

9.  Statistical downscaling of precipitation (rainfall and snow) over the Western Himalayas

Department/Center: IRI

Project Background: The researcher will work closely with me, Prof. Upmanu Lall and Dr. Indrani Pal, to extend an ongoing project to better understand and predict the variability of Western Himalayan hydroclimate, with the goal of improved water management in the increasingly water-stressed Indo-Gangetic Plain where current ground-water extraction rates are unsustainable. The completed part of the project has already identified the teleconnection patterns of winter precipitation and spring seasonal river flow with large-scale climate in winter, which provides potential directions for the statistical downscaling of precipitation, temperature and/or streamflow directly from large-scale climate model simulations of ocean temperature and atmospheric pressure fields, for use in water management. The intern will assemble and process climate data from the IRI Data Library, and use statistical software like MATLAB/R to develop statistical analyses of the data as guided by the advisors.

Skills Required: An undergraduate class in probability and statistics and ability to work with either of the two packages.

10. Collectivizing Performance: Unions and Education Reform in Brazil

Department/Center: SIPA

Project Background: Governments have tried to introduce performance management reforms (performance-related pay, performance evaluation and measurement, and merit-based (non-seniority) promotion) into a number of sectors to improve service delivery.  Public education sectors around the world have taken these reforms farthest.  The degree to which they succeed or fail appears closely linked to the role of collective labor in contesting or collaborating in the design and implementation of these performance policies.  Latin America – and Brazil in particular – has growing experience with these reforms.  In Brazil, performance has been introduced at the state and municipal level, and outcomes (with regard to reform implementation and impact on education attainment) have varied.  While research on the technical aspects of performance approaches is advancing in Brazil and other Latin American countries – as well as in developed country contexts – less is known about how the politics of such reforms work.  My particular interest is in why  (and in what way) do teachers’ unions cooperate to introduce performance management in schools in some venues but block initiation of reforms or sabotage their effective implementation in others.   This project will compare the experience in performance reforms in (number/specific locations tbd) Brazilian state education sectors.  The first phase of work will involve a literature review to help refine hypotheses about what might explain different political trajectories.

Research assistant tasks:

The student will help on the literature review to help refine hypotheses and contextualize and refine field research objectives.  The literature will include some combination of existing scholarship in the following areas:

  • Trends in recent research on labor politics and union behavior from political science and industrial organization
  • Existing analysis of the politics of key education reform experiences globally (including contentious reforms in New York City, Washington, DC, Chile, South Korea etc.)
  • Recent debates on performance management and measurement reforms in the public sector
  • Synthesis of main perspectives on education reform in developing countries
  • Overview of Brazil’s last decade of public sector reforms, including existing analysis of both their technical and political dimensions

Skills Required: Good (virtual and physical) reference research skills; excellent English writing skills; reading ability in Portuguese and Spanish.

11. Climate Extremes in a Changing World: Analyses and Implications

Department/Center: Earth & Env Eng, Water Center

Project Background: The researcher will work closely with Dr Indrani Pal, Dr Andrew Robertson, Dr. Yochanan Kushnir, Dr. Radley Horton and I to examine how extreme precipitation and temperature covary and are determined by ocean-atmosphere patterns in historical data and in IPCC scenarios for the 20th and 21st century. A particular interest is to pin down the causal structures and patterns for mid-latitude extremes in precipitation and temperature in the North Eastern United States (initially, to be followed by a national analysis), so that an assessment of what might be experienced in the net 10 and next 50 years can be identified directly from the data and models, and also verified by checking the consistency with larger scale dynamical features, so we can be sure whether or not the projections make sense. A secondary analysis may consider potential losses from specific types of events in the New York area, using historical data.

Research assistant tasks: The researcher will help assemble and process climate data from archives at the IRI and elsewhere, and use R and/or Matlab to develop statistical analyses of the data as guided by the advisors. An undergraduate class in probability and statistics and ability to work with either of the two packages is a requirement.

12. Relationship between implementation of a farmer’s agricultural input subsidy scheme and household food security/nutritional outcomes in ten African countries

Department/Center: Millennium Villages Project Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)

Project Background: The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) Monitoring and Evaluation team have recently concluded the second phase of a longitudinal assessment of household food security status in ten African sites using household surveys. In addition, a portfolio of implementation research has also been completed by the M&E team in each of the ten sites.

The EI research assistant will assist in the analysis and integration of these two data sets (implementation research and quantitative household survey data) in order to explore the relationship between the implementation of a farmer’s agricultural input subsidy scheme and household food security outcomes in each site. These data will be used to inform a synthesis report planned for mid 2012, led by the M&E team. The analysis will also help inform our understanding of best practice in implementation of agricultural input subsidy programs in developing countries.

Research assistant tasks:

Research Assistant tasks will require up to 225 hours of work (15 hr/week), and will be as follows:

a) Literature Review:

  • Conduct reviews regarding implementation of agricultural subsidy programs in the research countries, compile Endnote libraries (up to 25 hours work)

b) Qualitative Data (implementation research):

  • Content Analysis of interview transcripts from 10 MVPs conducted over the period November 2009 – May 2011 (up to 25 hours work).
  • Qualitative Data Synthesis: of common implementation themes (barriers, facilitators, lessons learned) around the agricultural input subsidy scheme (up to 35 hours work).
  • Implementation Timeline: based on interview transcripts, compile a timeline of interventions undertaken relating to the implementation of the agricultural subsidy program in each site using the pre-set reporting templates provided by the M&E team.  If necessary, conduct phone calls with site team members in Africa in order to gather outstanding implementation data necessary for completing the templates (up to 45 hours work)

c) Quantitative Data (household surveys):

  • Data Management: for each site, use STATA to compile data sets for variables relating to household food security outcomes and agricultural input uptake. Work with M&E data team to ensure all data is clean and consistently formatted for multi-site analysis (up to 45 hours work)
  • Basic Data Analysis: For each site, use STATA to explore and summarize basic associations between household food security outcomes and variables relating to use agricultural input subsidies. Work with M&E data team to help identify key analysis areas for future, more complex statistical analysis to be completed by the PIs and MVP statistician (up to 50 hours work).

Skills Required:

  • Intern will be working with both qualitative (process) data with quantitative (household survey) data. Intern must therefore have an interest in interdisciplinary, mixed methods, and applied research.
  • Background in agriculture, sustainable development, development practice and / or development economics would be useful.
  • Interest in developing countries, especially Africa.
  • Preferably  have familiarity with STATA.
  • Must have a grounding in basic quantitative data management and organization – compiling descriptive and summary statistics, performing tests of association, managing spreadsheets.
  • Experience of NVIVO or other qualitative data management software would be useful, but is not essential as a successful internship candidate will be trained in qualitative data management and use of NVIVO software by the PI.
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