Learning by doing—and teaching
An undergraduate's research adventure in Colorado was also a learning opportunity for her mentor.
Andea Scott, ’20, loves the coursework for her major in energy resources engineering: chemistry, physics, computer science, and courses like Sustainable Energy for Nine Billion. Last spring, she began looking ahead toward graduate school and decided to try her hand at research.
“Research is a big part of graduate school,” she says, “I wanted to know if I would like it.”
Applying to the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research program (SESUR), which matches undergraduates with faculty research projects, the sophomore earned a spot working with Professor Kate Maher on a large project funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy to better understand the cycling of carbon in the Earth system.
“After my finals, I flew out to Colorado and hit the ground running,” says Scott, who was among the youngest of the nearly two dozen researchers there from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Colorado State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), and UC Berkeley in addition to Stanford.
For two and a half weeks, they collected samples of leaves, roots, and soil as planes loaded with remote sensing equipment flew overhead.
“We’re hoping to extend what we see using detailed surface remote sensing by correlating it with nutrient composition and other characteristics of the subsurface,” explains Dana Chadwick, PhD ’17, a post-doctoral scholar on Maher’s team who led the ground crew and served as Scott’s immediate supervisor.
How to be a great research mentor
Crew boss or not, as a post-doctoral scholar Chadwick is still in learning mode, too. And one of the skills she is refining as she plans a career in academia is mentoring students. She took the Stanford Earth course How to Be a Great Research Mentor as a graduate student in the Department of Earth System Science. But mostly she has learned on the job, having now worked with five SESUR students.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years—things like the best size for a summer project and finding balance between structure and letting students work through things on their own,” she says. “But this is the first time I have taken students into the field with me.”
Supported by summer stipends, SESUR students ask and answer research questions of their own design in the context of the larger projects. They present their findings at a research symposium at the end of the summer.
“The students got to see the research from the beginning to the end, which can be inspiring and powerful,” says Chadwick, adding, “I think that the SESUR program is an incredible opportunity—and, because it’s funded, it’s not just available to those who can afford to do unpaid research over the summer.”
The program is designed for students exactly like Scott, who are early in their Stanford careers and looking for a first research experience. A required spring quarter course teaches them the basics of developing proposals, preparing posters and oral presentations, and working with data.
“Taking the SESUR class taught me a lot about the things I didn’t know and was scared about, not having done them before,” says Scott. “So I felt like I had a lot of support.”
Despite the size and scope of the project, Scott found herself working alongside Maher during the initial stage of the project. “That was a super cool experience—I was learning directly from her,” she says. In some cases they were learning together, drawing on the specific expertise of each team on the interdisciplinary project. When they had questions about plant identification, for example, they looked to the herbarium curator from RMBL, explains Scott. “Not everybody knows everything.”
Learning their way around a lab
With a few weeks remaining in the summer, the team came back to Stanford to test their samples in the lab and evaluate the initial data. Stanford Earth’s central analytical facilities are equipped and fully staffed at the school level, which minimizes barriers to access for both faculty and students and ensures professional training.
In the Green Earth Sciences Building, Scott was guided through the sample preparation lab in the basement. Moving to the Environmental Measurements Facility (EM1) on the third floor, she received additional assistance running her samples through the X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) machine to identify nutrient concentrations.
“The availability of all those instruments in EM1 for broad use, especially for students on these kinds of projects, is pretty incredible,” says Chadwick, who continued to mentor Scott through this experience.
In addition to helping process the full suite of samples, Scott analyzed preliminary data for her own project, Calcium and Phosphorous Levels in Fine Roots Across Species and Elevation in the Rocky Mountains, which she presented in October. “I specifically looked at fine roots because they decay directly into the soil, while foliage drops to the surface and takes a while to get into the soil.” she says. Her analysis showed that plants tend to keep more calcium and phosphorous in their roots at higher elevations.
Chadwick is proud of Scott’s accomplishments—and also of her own role in crafting a great summer learning experience. “I am glad I was able to bring the students through the whole arc—from picking a sample up in the field to the labwork and plotting the data,” she says.
“I probably had the best first research experience that I could have ever imagined having,” says Scott, who is earning research credits for her continued work on the project during the school year. “Kate and Dana allowed me to have a lot of independence, but when I needed them they were there.”
Witnessing such a large-scale scientific collaboration also taught her an important lesson about being a scientist, she says. “You are not going to know everything. You have to know who to ask and who can help guide you and give you that piece of the puzzle that makes everything fit together.”
The interdisciplinary team: Andea Scott, ’20 (back row, fourth from right), was one of the youngest researchers on the ground crew led by Dana Chadwick, PhD ’17 (center left). Photo by Professor Kate Maher.