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Toward diversity in advanced Earth sciences studies

Summer at Stanford piques undergrad interest in graduate school

Mandy Erickson
September 11, 2013
Summer at Stanford students
Sixteen undergrads from colleges around the world spent two months at Stanford conducting research -- and one day at the beach -- in the third annual Summer Research in Geosciences and Engineering program organized by the School of Earth Sciences

Kofi Christie spent a chunk of the summer mucking around in the salt marshes at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, his clothes covered in mud.

He was taking samples from Adobe and Matadero creeks, then analyzing them to see whether human influences have changed the ecology of the water. The junior at Morehouse College, under the supervision of Julian Damashek, a graduate student in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford, discovered that indeed, human influences have created differences in the two creeks. Matadero Creek, which receives treated wastewater, has higher nitrate levels, a condition that leads to the death of aquatic organisms.

“If we’re dumping this treated wastewater, we’ve got to understand it has higher nitrate levels,” the physics major said.

Christie was one of 16 students conducting individual research projects as part of the third Summer Research in Geosciences and Engineering (SURGE) program run by the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

“I have loved my time at Stanford,” said Christie, after explaining his research poster to attendees at the SURGE symposium. “I’m definitely thinking of applying to grad school here. I want to pursue a Ph.D. eventually.”

That sentiment is precisely what the program organizers want to hear. Funded largely by a grant from Chevron, SURGE’s purpose is to increase underrepresented student enrollment in Earth sciences graduate programs. “Underrepresented,” said School of Earth Sciences associate dean Jerry Harris, means more than racial minorities: SURGE also seeks out women in disciplines where women are still underrepresented as well as undergraduates now studying in fields outside of Earth sciences.

“Your first love may be biology, math or engineering,” Harris said, “but you can apply that training and love to the Earth sciences.”

The program is in only its third year, Harris said, but so far many of the SURGE graduates have enrolled in graduate programs.

This summer’s 16 SURGE participants, from colleges around the country and the world, hail mostly from smaller institutions; a few are Stanford students. Mostly rising juniors and seniors, they were chosen from a pool of 300 applicants based on their grades, letters of recommendation, and whether their interests meshed with projects faculty members are working on.

They received a $2,000 stipend — to avoid competition with a summer job — and free room and board for the eight weeks of the program. They also obtained help on applying to graduate school, including preparation for the Graduate Record Exam.

“It’s a whole package of preparing them for grad school,” Harris said.

The SURGE participants also took field trips: Along with students in a sister program for Stanford undergraduates — the School of Earth Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program— they paddled in Elkhorn Slough on Monterey Bay.

Each SURGE student worked closely with a graduate student or postdoc on an Earth sciences project the two of them designed together. The project topics ran the gamut of Earth sciences study: the chemistry of tree leaves, the formation of valleys, tsunami simulation, geysers, the economics of tree planting incentive programs, melting permafrost.

They chose projects that could be completed in eight weeks and that match their interests. Tera Johnson, a rising senior and environmental science major at Skidmore College, was determined to work with soil. So she and her mentors, PhD candidate Aaron Strong and staff scientist Nona Chiariello, devised an experiment that would determine whether adding nitrogen to soil causes more carbon dioxide to be released in the atmosphere.

Many days during the summer, Johnson lugged a heavy sensor from a lab at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge to a plot of land 100 yards away. There she measured the carbon dioxide emitting from sections of soil with and without added nitrogen, a component in fertilizer and byproduct of industrial production.

She watered some of the plots to simulate rain and left others dry. The findings at the end of the program were fairly clear: Nitrogen does not increase the release of carbon dioxide, but rain does.

Johnson applied to SURGE, she said, because “The research opportunities at Skidmore are limited. I wanted to come to a place with resources, where I could do my own project.”

“The summer’s been wonderful,” she added.

Not every SURGE student was tromping around in the dirt. Some, like Gina Belair, a physics major who is transferring Allan Hancock College to UC Berkeley as a junior, spent the summer in front of a computer. Belair automated the input process for a program that evaluates underwater sound waves, which precede tsunamis.

Making the program easier to use, Belair explained, could help scientists better predict tsunamis. “We’re trying to prevent false evacuations,” she said.

And Rosemary Mena-Werth, a rising junior at Stanford in geophysics, collected ground leaves from a rainforest in Panama, then studied their chemistry. She evaluated how leaves respond to consumption by insects as part of a larger project studying the evolution of complex ecosystems. Rosemary worked with grad student Kelly MacManus at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford.

“We need to know what throws the ecosystem out of balance,” Mena-Werth said.

For Tefiro Serunjogi, who is studying economics and environmental science at Grinnell College, SURGE allowed him to pursue research on his homeland, Uganda, that fit his major. Serunjogi looked at why some landowners in Uganda participated in a project organized by a non-governmental organization (NGO) that paid them to grow trees. He found that the major reason was trust: Landowners were mostly likely to enroll in such a program when they trusted the NGO, even if planting trees was not profitable for them.

“It was fantastic, finding a project that perfectly addressed my major,” said Serunjogi, who aspires to earn a joint MBA and Earth science degree from Stanford. Spending the summer with mentor Charlotte Stanton, a PhD Candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources and accomplished scientists and other undergraduates with similar interests was an exceptional experience, he added.

“We all share this passion for the environment, but we all have different focuses,” he observed.

 Mandy Erickson is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area