Stanford University

Summer research projects inspire the next generation of Earth scientists

BY Miles Traer
ClockNovember 05, 2015

Most summer checklists include items like ice cream and beach volleyball.  They do not typically include ironic tornadoes and electron beams one billion times brighter than the sun.  But this past summer, students participating in the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research (SESUR) program had the opportunity to check those and many more items off of their summer lists as they explored the science behind issues critical to our evolving planet.

The SESUR program offers Stanford undergrads the opportunity to pair with faculty and graduate student mentors to take part in active scientific research.  The research topics cover a wide spectrum, including agriculture, energy resources, water systems, climate change, and others. 

“Students spend a lot of time in the classroom, but don’t often have the opportunity to actively learn in labs and in the field,” said Sara Cina, the undergraduate program director.  “Grappling with the challenges of scientific research gives everyone a deeper appreciation for everything we’ve managed to learn as a species.  It’s also a lot of fun.”

For most students, their summer project is their first foray into active research and exposes them to exciting and cutting-edge areas of scientific inquiry that they continue to pursue.  According to Cina, many students develop senior or honors theses based on their summer experiences and present their findings at the prestigious American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the largest gathering of Earth scientists in the world.

This past summer, undergraduates Emma Fisher and Kaitlyn Gee found themselves face to face with the so-called ironic tornadoes and unfathomably bright electron beams as they investigated various aspects of Earth’s food and soil systems.

Fisher spent the summer with graduate student Laura Hess at the Kellogg Biological Station in southwest Michigan.  For her project, she explored how shifting rainfall patterns in the Midwest, driven by climate change, will affect crop yields.  She drilled soil cores, watered and monitored the plants, and ground corn samples in the lab to analyze nutrient variability.

“Crops could be stressed by water limitation during periods of drought, and by water excess after intense storms.  In addition, climate change will continue to make weather events more extreme and unpredictable,” wrote Fisher on her blog shortly after experiencing one of these events firsthand.

Within the first three days of Fisher’s summer project, a massive storm rolled through the area and created an ominous funnel cloud – a precursor to a tornado.  The high winds and torrential rains damaged several of the research field stations before the storm dissipated.

“That was quite the experience,” said Fisher.  “It highlighted why this research is so crucial.  It was kind of ironic – an extreme weather event hitting a research station designed to study the impacts of increasingly extreme weather on crops.  And it really showed me all of the work that goes on behind the scenes that makes scientific research possible.  That was pretty cool.”

While Fisher dealt with the aftermath of ironic tornadoes, Gee’s research took her to professor Scott Fendorf’s soils lab where she worked with post-doctoral student Marco Keiluweit.  “My project broadly investigated the global carbon cycle, and specifically looked at how carbon cycles through soils,” said Gee.  “Carbon cycling is important because it is closely linked to climate change.  Scientists really want to understand how carbon cycles through its various sinks and reservoirs – basically, places where carbon can stay for a while.”

Gee’s project involved many different research techniques.  In a humorous post on her research blog, she listed the many “items” used in a single week of research: petri dishes, computer programming, basic common sense, soil sieves, epoxy glue, her bike, patience, and knowledge of geology, biology, and environmental science.

“I came into the research program with a lot of preconceived notions and misguided expectations,” said Gee.  “I didn’t realize that a single project could involve half a dozen analysis techniques, or that it could take ten hours to run extractions on a given sample set.  It took me a little while to break out of the lab coat-test tube image of research that I had in the back of my head.”

One particular analysis technique had a particularly strong impact on Gee.  “We wanted to scan our soil samples and quantify their porosities (the amount of empty space between soil particles),” she remembered.  “So I had the chance to accompany Marco to the Advanced Light Source in Berkeley where they created an electron beam that glowed a billion times brighter than the sun, then shone the light through our soil samples.  It was incredible.”

This fall, the SESUR participants presented their research findings to a group of fellow students, faculty, staff, and alumni at the Stanford Earth Undergraduate Research Symposium where they shared stories of their experiences.  Said Gee, “Am I allowed to say that the entire summer program was the most awesome thing I experienced?  Really, I think that my research experience has led me closer to being the kind of scientist I hope to be one day.  And that’s pretty awesome.”

Students interested in the SESUR program should contact Sara Cina.

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