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From water supplies to solar energy, undergrads present a year’s worth of research

Through the School of Earth Sciences, students took on a broad range of field and computation-based projects. 

Mandy Erikson
December 2, 2013

Lazy days at lakeside camps or the struggle to find good jobs must seem in the distant past for more than 30 undergraduates who spent the summer quarter working intensively on scientific research projects. Some traveled abroad to countries such as Iceland, Palau, Senegal and Ecuador; others conducted field research in the Bay Area; and still others found a passion here on campus for computation-based endeavors. 

While the projects were diverse, the students shared a common bond through their participation in the popular School of Earth Sciences Undergraduate Research (SESUR) program. Most gathered at a symposium to share their findings by way of posters and oral presentations. Their audience included faculty, students and staff as well as several alumni. 

“The students worked on their projects for nearly a year,” said Richard Nevle, director of the SESUR program. “They matured in their knowledge and in how they think about the research process.”

Students applied to the program last winter quarter.  As part of the application process, they worked with faculty advisors to develop research proposals spanning a broad range of topics in Earth, energy and environmental sciences.  

“Involving undergraduates in my research is no different than involving PhD students,” said Simon Klemperer, professor of geophysics and faculty advisor of SESUR.  “The undergrads are part of the continuum of creating new knowledge.  I just need to be sure that we choose problems that can meaningfully be tackled in a shorter time frame.”

Plenty of projects were identified throughout Earth Sciences, and the students went on to study water supplies, agricultural practices, solar energy, earthquakes, plankton and climate change, to name just a few.   At the core of each project was an important research question. Examples follow.

How does Earth produce these rocks?

To find out, junior Chris Kremer slept in a tent on a sheep pasture in southeastern Iceland.  He spent his days with advisor Dana Thomas, a graduate student in Geological and Environmental Sciences, producing detailed maps and collecting rock samples for analysis back at Stanford. His faculty advisors were Dennis Bird and Kate Maher.

Kremer is now analyzing the compositions of the crushed rocks and examining thin slices of the rocks under a microscope to learn how they were formed. That information may help illuminate the conditions that gave rise to the unusual deposit of ore minerals he studied.  “I want to reconstruct the pressure, temperature and chemical composition of the fluid from which these minerals precipitated,” he said, fingering a walnut-sized rock. Kremer chose the project, he added, because “It seemed like a really cool unsolved mystery.”

Just how eco-friendly is that chocolate?

The path to answering that research question led senior Theo Gibbs to much warmer locale: Ecuador, land of premium chocolate.  She wanted to find out whether cacao plantations that produce high-quality chocolate are as eco-friendly as the candy wrappers make them out to be. 

“The selling point of some chocolates is that they’re grown in the forest and preserving the ecosystem,” said Gibbs. Employing her Spanish language skills, she interviewed the plantation owners about their cultivation practices and their compensation.  She also took count of the plants on the plantations. 

Gibbs discovered that while cacao plants prefer shade, the plantations producing high-quality beans were hardly rain forests with monkeys swinging in the canopy. “There are more trees on the high-quality cacao land,” she said, “but not more biodiversity.” The farmers of premium chocolate tend to grow cacao beans along with bananas and other crops.

Gibbs also found that farmers of high-quality chocolate are not necessarily earning more than those who produce low-quality chocolate. “If they are, it’s only a small amount,” she said. She worked under the guidance of Ximena Rueda, research associate, and Professor Eric Lambin, professor in Environmental Earth System Science.

What is the impact of “flaring” on greenhouse gas emissions?

Ella Lowry’s research never took her off campus, though she did join a kayaking field trip for the summer researchers to Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay, where she paddled within touching distance of otters and seals. Her research project, under the direction of Adam Brandt, assistant professor in Energy Resources Engineering, was to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions from North Dakota’s Bakken region, one of the nation’s top oil-producing areas.

As some companies extract the oil, they employ “flaring,” or burning the methane gas that is released. Lowry compiled, organized and analyzed seven years of state-mandated data about production, weather (since the wind can affect the flaring), the date the drilling began and the density of the oil. After weeks of inputting and crunching data, Lowry reached a conclusion. “We found that the average greenhouse gas intensity for flaring wells is much higher than that of non-flaring wells,” Lowry said.

And far from envying her world-traveling colleagues, she was happy to stay in the lab. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work with data on a computer, but I like it better than being in the field,” Lowry said. “I get to organize it and manipulate it and figure out what we can get from it.”

Nevle said that the SESUR program helps students understand academic opportunities in the Earth sciences through hands-on research and to make decisions about their majors.  “Just as importantly, the program provides students with a first-hand experience of what it means to fully participate in the endeavor of knowledge creation, which is at the core of Stanford’s educational mission,” he said. The program is funded by the Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, the School of Earth Sciences and a grant from Shell Oil.

For the symposium, the students chose whether to give a talk, create a poster or do both. The wrap-up helped them create a narrative of their work. “When you give a presentation, you have to synthesize everything you’ve learned in the course of doing research, decide what’s most important and most interesting, and come to understand how you’ve illuminated your research question – or perhaps how you have redefined it altogether,” Nevle said.

And the winners are…

Several students received awards for the work. Susan Wu won outstanding oral presentation for “Impact of Climate Change on Urban Water Availability in India.” Outstanding poster awards went to Walter Torres for “The Turbulent Boundary Layer over Reef Ecosystem Substrates” and Paul Summers for “Conduit Processes Driving Pre-explosive Harmonic Tremor in the 2009 Redoubt Volcano Eruption.” And Laura Crews won the outstanding research blog award for “Strength and Fragility: Palau’s corals through the eyes of a student researcher.”

Coming soon: applications for the 2014 program

Nevle and Klemperer are currently working with Earth Sciences faculty to identify projects for the coming year.  “We will no doubt have a host of terrific opportunities for undergraduates to conduct challenging, meaningful research,” Nevle said. Interested students should contact Nevle via email: rnevle@stanford.edu

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

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