State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Fall 2019 Earth Institute Undergraduate Research Assistant Opportunities

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is offering undergraduate students with research assistant opportunities during the fall 2019 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. ACRE Rwanda: Building Climate Resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa Through Insurance for Smallholder Farmers
  2. Cosmogenic Exposure Dating of Patagonian Glacier Advances
  3. Developing a Tool to Provide Near Real-time Monitoring of Environmental Conditions in Refugee Camps Around the World
  4. Multi-dating of Dropstone Pebbles from East Antarctica
  5. Reconstructing Oceanographic and Climatic Changes in the North Pacific During Past Ice Age Cycles
  6. Rio Grande Rise, South Atlantic – Exploration of an Underwater Plateau
  7. The Transport and Fate of Man-made Radioactivity in the Arctic and North Pacific Oceans
  8. Using Atmospheric Pollution as a Stratigraphic Marker in the Hudson River

More details are below.

To apply:

Complete the online application available here by September 11, 2019, 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 ( with any questions.

1. ACRE Rwanda: Building Climate Resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa Through Insurance for Smallholder Farmers

Department: Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development

Anticipated tasks: Conduct a thorough review of the literature with three main foci:

  1. What is known about strengths and challenges of using index insurance at the local level to build resilience?
  2. Are there other examples of similar insurance programs in sub-Saharan Africa, and if so, what are the results?
  3. How can we best situate ACRE Africa in the broader global resilience effort to build resilience in rural subsistence communities?

The research assistant will review, organize, and sort existing data; work with Thomas Bazarusanga to access data files, including: pricing models, basis risk estimates, historical rainfall, geolocation of households, crop commodities, planting dates, size of farming plot, farmers’ attitudes, and training programs offered; identify trends and create summary graphics to illustrate findings; identify data gaps and help build future research agenda for ACRE Africa.

Skills required: Experience with quantitative research methods and data analysis, using R or similar software tools. Familiarity with qualitative research methods, including the use of interviews and survey techniques to create mixed methodology. Familiarity with trends in climate adaptation in developing countries, especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Strong writing skills. Ability to work independently with guidance.

2. Cosmogenic Exposure Dating of Patagonian Glacier Advances

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: The research assistant will work in the cosmogenic exposure lab doing geochemical lab work on samples collected in Patagonia. The goal is to determine when and why glaciers in Patagonia grew to cover the Andes in the past. The research assistant will measure the thicknesses of rock samples, crush them, and separate quartz from the crushed material using froth flotation, phosphoric boiling, and heavy liquid mineral separation.

Skills required: The most important qualification is interest in learning about geochemical methods and glacial geology. Previous experience working in a lab is a bonus but not necessary.

3. Developing a Tool to Provide Near Real-time Monitoring of Environmental Conditions in Refugee Camps Around the World

Department: Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR)

Anticipated tasks: The undergraduate research assistant will work to identify geospatial data on refugee camp locations and work with Google Earth Engine, QGIS, Python, and other tools to extract climate and key environmental data for each camp location.

Skills required: Familiarity with (or capacity to quickly learn) Google Earth Engine, QGIS, Python, and other related tools.

4. Multi-dating of Dropstone Pebbles from East Antarctica

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: The research assistant will process pebbles dropped by icebergs and recovered from coring near the East Antarctic margin. Processing involves cutting a piece for petrographic study and disaggregating the remainder to extract different mineral chronometers for study. In a first step K-bearing minerals will be extracted to characterize the places from which the pebbles were derived.

Skills required: Basic knowledge of earth sciences and rock identification. Preference for having taken EESC2200 Solid Earth System and EESC2100 Climate system. Previous laboratory experience a plus.

5. Reconstructing Oceanographic and Climatic Changes in the North Pacific During Past Ice Age Cycles

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: This project is designed to look at the composition of deep sea sediments from recently acquired cores now stored in the core repository of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, in order to assess changes in the surface ocean conditions, deep ocean circulation, cryosphere, and climate in the North Pacific region during past glacial cycle. 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 from the Core Repository at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Our preliminary investigations have revealed that several recently acquired cores have sediments from previous ice ages that are even better preserved than recent sediments and also in much better condition than the other, decades-old, cores from the North Pacific that had been available previously. 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 North 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, iceberg discharge, and both subaerial and submarine volcanic activity. In consultation with Professor 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 Pacific and Atlantic.

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.

6. 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.

7. The Transport and Fate of Man-made Radioactivity in the Arctic and North Pacific Oceans

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: The major tasks anticipated for a research assistant are related to organizing, processing, and analyzing samples collected on the US GEOTRACES Arctic section cruise completed in October 2015 and the US GEOTRACES Pacific Meridional Transect completed in December 2018. Samples include filtered seawater, suspended particulate material, sea ice, snow, and bottom sediments. All work will take place on the Lamont campus. On a day to day basis, an RA can expect to perform the following tasks:

  • Organizing: pulling sample sets identified for analysis, helping to keep our large inventory of samples organized. Other tasks in this category could include organizing sub-samples and sample weights.
  • Processing: preparation of samples for separation and measurement of several anthropogenic radionuclides according to established laboratory protocols. Specific activities include use of an analytical balance, pipetting, preparation and cleaning of labware required for separations.
  • Analyzing: While we do several different analyses, an RA will focus on the separation and analysis of Cs-137 using our gamma spectrometer. Other analytical tasks include ion exchange separation and purification of other radionuclides followed by analysis using our ICP-MS and the analysis of filtered particulates using our XRF spectrometer. These are tasks that can be accomplished within the expected time-frame.

Skills required: In general, the position requires someone with common sense, who is mechanically inclined, and willing to work carefully and hard with a degree of independence. There is a significant amount of laboratory work, which requires thoroughness and careful note-taking. Some data analysis background would be helpful, but is not necessary. It would be useful if the student is willing to summarize the data and methods he or she works on in the form of concise written reports.

8. Using Atmospheric Pollution as a Stratigraphic Marker in the Hudson River

Department: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

Anticipated tasks: The student will sieve samples with high Ni/Fe ratios in pre-modern sediment (prior to ~1880 A.D.) and will pick the samples for cosmic spherules. We already know that four layers with the highest Ni/Fe ratios contain cosmic spherules and that the model ages of some of these layers coincide with the ages of intense historical meteor showers. If cosmic spherules are found and verified on the SEM, the student will run the <63-micrometer size fraction on the LDEO XRD to look for the mineral wustite, which is unique to cosmic dust. They will also grind up one-gram bulk samples from the same layers to better determine their Ni content via XRF, as PGEs like Ni are heterogeneously distributed. (We will also obtain more precise Pb contents at the same time.) The goal is determine the Ni/Fe ratio that is the cutoff for finding cosmic spherules. The student will also sieve samples with high Sr/Ti ratios to see if those samples contain pelagic or brackish foraminifera. We already know that some samples with high Sr/Ti ratios contain foraminifera. The goal is to determine what Sr/Ti ratio is the cutoff for finding foraminifera in a given core. The student will also grind samples for determination of their bulk carbonate content as a further test of the use of Sr/Ti ratios as a proxy for foraminiferal content.

Skills required: Wet and dry sieving, XRF and XRD analyses, picking samples for SEM analysis using a light microscope, measurement of magnetic susceptibility.

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