State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Fall 2012 Undergraduate Research Assistant Positions

The Earth Institute, Columbia University is pleased to announce 10 research assistant opportunities for undergraduate students during the fall 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 fall 2012 semester.

This fall, the 10 research assistantships are:

1. Review of Water Shortage and Usage Considerations In Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)

2. Fossil Fuel Reduction: Does Using A Public Health Rather Than Climate Change Frame Make A Difference?

3. Governance and the MDGs In West And Central Africa

4. Manhattan 2409.Org

5. Water Footprint and Virtual Water: Trade of Key Commodities Globally and Implications for Water Stress and Sustainability; Meltdown in the Himalayas: Asia’s Water Tower

6. Global Scientific Progress in Sustainable Development: Evaluating Temporal Research Trends and Patterns

7. Energy Consumption and Livelihoods Across The Rural-Urban Interface In Senegal

8. From The Mountaintops To The Coast: Repairing Haiti One Watershed At A Time

9. Seasonal Cycles in Atmospheric Methane: Constraints on Processes Influencing Climate and Global Air Quality?

10. Arctic Arthropods: Seasonal Change at the Base Of The Tundra Food Web

To Apply:
To apply for these positions, please complete the online application available here by September 11, 2012 at 5:00PM.  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 2013.

Please contact us at with any questions.
1. Review of Water Shortage and Usage Considerations in Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)

Department/Center: Law School Center for Climate Change Law

Project Background:

In both federal and state EISs, water-related issues that are predicted to be exacerbated by climate change – such as shortages brought on by increased drought or flooding brought on by more extreme precipitation events – are rarely addressed.  There is, however, very little research and analysis on how various EISs deal with the topic of climate change and water, in part because this task requires the collection of hundreds of EISs scattered across many different agencies.

Research Assistant Tasks:

Research EISs to see which, if any, preparers of EISs are including discussion of water and climate change issues in these documents.  The results of this research would then be analyzed in order to identify best practices and suggest improvements going forward.

Through his or her work, the research assistant would gain a detailed knowledge of federal and state environmental review documents and processes as well as a general knowledge of the legal requirements that apply to these documents.

Skills Required:

Basic knowledge of and familiarity with technical environmental documents.

2. Fossil Fuel Reduction: Does Using A Public Health Rather Than Climate Change Frame Make A Difference?

Department/Center: Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED)

Project Background:

In the U.S., the public consistently ranks climate change as a low national priority even though over half of the population is convinced of the reality and seriousness of the problem (Leiserowitz, 2006). These seemingly contradictory statements can be explained through a lack of personal engagement and a sense of spatial and temporal distance from the effects of climate change (Leiserowitz, 2006). Yet, the chief method for climate change mitigation, the reduction of fossil fuel use, would also reduce air pollution — a cause of serious public health problems. The health behavior literature demonstrates that personal perception of risk is one of the strongest motivators of behavioral change (Hale and Dillard, 1995), and it is likely that personal risk perception will be much higher for air pollution than for climate change.

This study seeks to 1) understand public opinions of public health effects of fossil fuel use; 2) determine if the present day public health benefits of fossil fuel reduction will elicit attitudes that are conducive to climate change mitigation; 3) determine if a gain or loss frame is more predictive in eliciting such attitudes; and 4) determine if select population demographic characteristics predict attitudes and behaviors.

The project will assess how views of fossil fuel use shift if such use is framed as a public health, rather than solely environmental, issue. During the spring of 2012, we completed an initial literature review and developed a 3-stage study design. The first stage consists of an online survey in which the participants are presented with a brief paragraph containing information about fossil fuels in each of the two frames and then asked a series of questions to gauge their attitudes and beliefs. The second stage includes the addition of a 2×2 design so that both the climate and public health frame are additionally cast in terms of gains and losses. The third stage of the project, planned for Fall of 2012, will be a larger, more detailed survey informed by the results of the first two pilot stages. Additionally, it will include a larger participant payment, a portion of which will be donated by the participant to a non-profit organization that promotes alternative energy in order to gauge their willingness to take action.

Research Assistant Tasks:

The intern will have the opportunity to work within this interdisciplinary collaboration and will focus on three main tasks:

1) Data analysis. The intern will help with data analysis from the pilot surveys administered over the summer. The intern will thus gain skills in statistical methods such as significance testing and regression and use of analysis tools such as R and SPSS.

2) Administration of third stage of survey. The intern will participate in administering the larger full-fledged survey, including additional coding of the third stage of a survey in an online tool and handling subject payments. The intern will also help with initial data analysis.

3) Exploratory literature review. Engaging an intern in a literature review will allow the intern to learn about past research and new developments in the field, while simultaneously allowing us to design future stages of the project.

Skills Required:

–          Academic interests: Climate change mitigation, climate policy, public health, psychology.

–          Required: Experience with online survey tools (or equivalent experience with web-based applications), basic data collection and analysis, strong written and communication skills.

–          Preferred: A psychology major or student with experience in psychology research and specifically with survey design and advanced data analysis. Experience with Limesurvey, R, and SPSS.

3. Governance and the MDGs in West and Central Africa

Department/Center: MDG Center West and Central Africa

Project Background:

Since 2006 the MDG Center for West and Central Africa (MDG WCA) has been implementing the Millennium Village Project (MVP) in four countries across the region in order to show that the Millennium Development Goals can be quickly achieved with targeted, integrated investments.  Through partners, an additional three countries have started MVPs and another seven countries are planning MVPs that are focused on environmental restoration in both dryland areas and mining sites.  With this rapid scale up there is a need to understand how different governments are administering MDG-based programs at the national, regional, and local levels. This will help the Center adapt programs to different country contexts. MDG WCA has ongoing research on the different government planning systems, particularly in terms of decentralization, in countries where it already operates.

The research will not only enrich the students understanding of sustainable development and West African governance systems, but will also give the student a first-hand perspective of how to national policy converts to real programs and practice on the ground. Final report may be submitted for publication and can be published on the MDG WCA website.  Additionally the intern will have direct  contact with MDG Center experts and MVP country contacts who can share a wealth of experience and knowledge on sustainable development in West Africa.

Research Assistant Tasks:

Through literature review and interviews with MDG Center staff and MVP country contacts, the intern will conduct a study of West African local governance systems particularly as they relate to decentralization and development planning. The RA will be expected to:

  • Describe and compare the decentralization systems in West African countries beginning by consolidating MDG Center research from countries that the Center has already engaged with (Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria)
    • Conduct a literature review on West African decentralization systems, to accompany existing primary research from the MDG Center
  • Based on consolidation and literature review, work with MDG Center scale up and institutional experts to identify the priority countries to expand this research to (potentially Niger, Chad, Gambia, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, etc.).
  • Write a final, comparative report on West African governance systems in regards to structures in charge of achieving local development and MDG attainment.

Skills Required:

  • French (intermediate; fluent preferred)
  • Knowledge and interest in West Africa
  • Proficiency and/or interest in qualitative research

4. Manhattan

Department/Center: Center for Environmental Research and Conservation

Project Background:

The research assistant will help collate data that will feed a website called The goal of is to enable New Yorkers to discover climate-resilient designs for Manhattan by manipulating lifestyles, climate scenarios, and the city ecosystem coverage, where “ecosystems” are broadly defined to include pavement, buildings, streets, parks, fields, forests, wetlands, estuary waters, and so on. Users will be able to compare their designs to current estimates of carbon, water, biodiversity and population in the city today and contrast their design performance with estimates of the same cycles for Manhattan 400 years ago, based on data developed through the Mannahatta Project (see Users will also be able to share their visions with each other and distribute them through social media channels. The website is scheduled for launch in April 2013.

The research assistant will help the Manhattan team parameterize models estimating carbon cycling, water cycling, and biodiversity patterns in New York City (Manhattan, initially) today in contrast to 400 years ago (Manhattan). Parameterization will require literature review in the primary and gray literature and participation in interviews with city officials, engineers, architects, and other infrastructure and ecosystem experts. Participant will interact with on-line databases and project management software.  Research contributions by the assistant can be tailored into an independent research project suitable for a senior thesis if desired.

Research Assistant Tasks:

Research assistant will help parameterize block-sized areas on Manhattan with these models using a geographic information system (GIS; in particular, ESRI’s ArcGIS). Student will learn how GIS data and models can be used with Internet-based web mapping to encourage sustainability development and planning.

Skills Required:

Background in environmental science, civil engineering, geography, computer science, or related discipline is required. Skills with GIS, relational databases, and web-mapping are desired but not required.

5. Water Footprint and Virtual Water: Trade of Key Commodities Globally and Implications for Water Stress and Sustainability; Meltdown in the Himalayas: Asia’s Water Tower

Department/Center: Columbia Water Center

Project Background:

The selected intern will be a member of the interdisciplinary research team at the Water Center. He/she will assist in the following ways:

  • Help with the literature review for the chosen project
  • Assist the team with data collection, input, processing and analyses
  • Work closely with a mentor to formulate hypotheses/tests
  • Assist with the research methods– including the analysis of models and accounting frameworks
  • Help identify and list possible solutions/ intervention strategies that are environmentally sustainable

Student will have the opportunity to gain significant research exposure through the project, and regular interaction with other faculty and students working at the Center. The RA will be encouraged to attend the Center’s weekly interdisciplinary research meeting where the students and faculty present their work and findings for discussion.

Skills Required:

  • Strong organizational and interpersonal skills.
  • Knowledge of MS Office package.
  • Knowledge of Matlab and/or R is a plus.
  • It is also desirable that the candidate have some interest in statistical modeling of climate and/or agriculture /industrial trade data.

6. Global Scientific Progress in Sustainable Development: Evaluating Temporal Research Trends and Patterns

Department/Center: Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology/Center for Research on Environmental Decision

Project Background:

This project attempts to survey the global publication landscape of sustainable development research since the Brundtland Commission Report in 1987. If successful, this project may be a useful contribution for the formulation of UN Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs). The main objective is to track the extent and intensity of selective research areas in sustainable development in the last quarter of a century. Specifically, is the global community doing relevant and adequate research in addressing the triple bottom lines (social, environment, and economic aspects) of sustainability?

By the end of the research term, the RA will be equipped with the skills of managing, manipulating, and analyzing large citation databases. More importantly, the RA will gain research experience and critical first-hand insights into the knowledge gaps in sustainable development research (thematic and geographic), which hopefully will encourage him/her to pursue more in-depth research as a result of these findings in the near future.

Research Assistant Tasks:

  • Database building and management of downloaded article citations (database currently has at least 12,000 citations)
  • Detailed review of random subset of the relevant scientific papers
  • Basic bibliometric analysis of research areas, keywords, and journal citations (e.g., monitoring trends and patterns over time)
  • Training opportunity in statistical and network analysis (if interested).

Skills Required:

  • Knowledge of Microsoft Office Words, Excel and Access
  • Training in basic statistics and use of statistical software such as SPSS or R (Preferred but not required).

7. Energy consumption and livelihoods across the rural-urban interface in Senegal

Department/Center: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Project Background and Research Assistant tasks:

Guided by the research scientist, the student will apply basic statistical analysis techniques to household-level data collected in Senegal in 2010, to explore relationships among patterns of energy and water consumption, nutrition and socio-economic status across the rural-urban interface. The data was collected by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and its partners to provide a baseline picture of socio-economic and nutrition conditions – a Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis.

This study constitutes a stand-alone extension of an IRI-WFP research collaboration funded by CCAFS (the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program of the CGIAR and ESSP) to investigate the climate sensitivity of food security in Senegal. It seeks to exploit the wealth of information collected among the ~10,000 Senegalese households surveyed to describe their demography, assets, socio-economic condition, nutritional status, etc. that was made available through partnership with WFP in the context of the CCAFS project. The data is currently archived in the IRI Data Library (IRIDL), and is therefore ready to be cross-referenced with a variety of other “standard climatological” data holdings, as well as analyzed making use of the statistical tools inherent to the IRIDL.

This project is designed to give a student the opportunity to conduct research semi-independently.

Skills Required:

Basic statistics (estimations of mean, standard deviation, correlation, distribution functions, etc.) and familiarity with a scripting language such as Matlab, or willingness to learn independently.

8. From the Mountaintops to the Coast: Repairing Haiti One Watershed at a Time, Wade McGillis

Department/Center: Center for Global Rivers and Estuaries

Project Background:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Earth Institute (EI) established a collaboration to create the Haiti Regeneration Initiative (HRI) which has been charged with assisting the long-term regeneration of Haiti. The Côte Sud Initiative (CSI) is a subset of HRI, which focuses on the 18 Communes in the Southwest region of Haiti. CSI aims to form lasting positive changes through holistic means via urban design, sociology, energy, health, education, agriculture and water resources management.

The water resources management sector aims to develop a constructive community-based approach to manage the watersheds in light of the degradation of natural resources and the extreme impact of hurricanes and floods.  This includes the establishment of a monitoring network to produce baseline data on the quantity and quality of surface water at various watershed regions in southwest Haiti. Our eventual objective is to create models based on this data to help forecast magnitude, frequency and distribution of river water discharges to estimate the socio-economic and physical impacts of floods and possible mitigation strategies. This data collected is also useful to other HRI sectors, such as agriculture and health, to develop recommendations for the best management practices.

Thus far, two climate stations have been installed in the watershed, in Port-a-Piment and Rondelle, both of which have been logging continuous data over the past 24 months and 6 months, respectively. Several stations to measure river stage, and therefore discharge, have been installed and preliminary water quality assessments have been taken. The RA will aid in analyzing past and current data to further our understanding of the watershed dynamics, which is critical for future plans.

The research assistant will gain research experience in real-world problems and solutions in the ever increasingly prominent field of sustainable development.

Research Assistant Tasks:

  • Analyzing/graphing acquired data to show spatial and temporal trends.
  • Designing/testing of systems in the laboratory prior to field deployment
  • Possible field installation of instrumentation

Skills Required:

  • Open and enthusiastic about field-based research
  • Ability to work independently and take initiative
  • Knowledge of graphing and processing data in Microsoft EXCEL
  • Knowledge of MATLAB or R is a plus

9. Seasonal Cycles in Atmospheric Methane: Constraints on Processes Influencing Climate and Global Air Quality?

Department/Center: Earth and Environmental Sciences/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Project Background:

Over the past two decades, the observed trends and variability in atmospheric methane, a potent greenhouse gas and precursor to ozone smog in surface air, are poorly understood. This project is a first step towards testing the hypothesis that process-level information may be extracted from analysis of methane seasonal cycles, and their changes over the past few decades, as observed by a global network of ground-based stations and simulated with global chemical transport models.

Research Assistant Tasks:

(1) download monthly methane observations from the NOAA GMD website; (2) use IDL software to plot seasonal cycles and calculate the amplitude of the seasonal cycle at individual stations for each year and inspect the results for any trends or inter-annual variability; (3) plot the observation-based results next to model simulations (existing simulations, already sampled at the observational sites) that allow for exploration of the response of the seasonal cycle to changes in one specific process at a time (such as changes in the methane loss rate or in methane emissions from a particular source).

Skills Required:

  • Some familiarity with a programming language (e.g., C, Fortran, python) and/or with a statistical analysis and graphical software package (e.g., Matlab, IDL) and/or the linux/unix environment and/or manipulating datasets in various formats (such as ascii, netcdf). The intern will acquire a working knowledge of IDL, linux/unix, and data analysis experience, and exposure to research on open scientific questions (with implications for climate and air quality).
  • Communication skills are highly valued and will be honed while documenting the new plotting and analysis codes developed as well as the scientific findings.

10. Arctic Arthropods: Seasonal Change at The Base Of The Tundra Food Web

Department/Center: Lamont/DEES

Project Background :

The goal of project will be to characterize seasonal change in arthropod community composition and size in two contrasting tundra vegetation communities, one of which (shrub dominated tundra) is replacing the other (graminoid dominated tundra) as a consequence of rapid climate change. The results of this project will shed light on how continued Arctic warming will alter arthropod communities that form the base of the tundra food chain. During June, July and August of 2012, weekly arthropod sampling will be conducted on the North Slope of Alaska.

Research Assistant Tasks:

Weekly samples will be shipped to Lamont Doherty/Columbia University, where the RA will sort the arthropods into several trophic guilds, as well as measure their length/girth, and weigh them. The student will learn about food webs and how to process samples. The RA will work closely with the undergraduate student who will conduct the arthropod sampling in Alaska this summer.

Skills Required:

None required, although dedication and enthusiasm for arthropods/ecology are must haves.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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