A Summer of Hands-on, Minds-On Science

Rebecca Fowler
July 26, 2016

A new, donor-led internship program offered by the Center for Climate and Life provides high school students the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on research experience while getting a feel for what a career in science involves.

Twelve students from schools in New York and New Jersey are spending July in laboratories at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, working with Climate and Life researchers. The summer internship program enables students to spend four weeks exploring what it means to be an earth scientist. Students in the program attend Lycee Francais de New York, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Ward Melville High School, PANTHER – The Academy of Earth & Space Science, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts, and Morris Knolls High School.

Students spend full days in the lab, wrestling with research questions, conducting experiments, analyzing data and reflecting on their results. Exposure to academic and career paths in the sciences comes from their mentor, lab group members, and lunchtime discussions with a different scientist each Friday. And just like professional scientists, the students will present their research at a symposium open to the Lamont community.

The topics they’re investigating span the vast range of climate research conducted by Center for Climate and Life scientists. Emile Warot, a student at Lycée Français de New York, is working alongside paleoceanographer Brad Linsley on a project using samples of fossil corals collected off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to generate new knowledge about past Pacific Ocean sea levels, temperatures, and chemistry.

The four students paired with climate scientist Billy D’Andrea are trying to determine what sea level was like in the Bahamas during the most recent interglacial period, about 125,000 years ago.

“Looking at this period, seeing how high sea level rose and comparing that to the future will help us to see how sea level might rise in the future,” said Rebecca Holt of Ward Melville High School.

The team is set up in a laboratory in Lamont’s Core Repository. A recent Thursday found them preparing samples and slides, examining these under a microscope and chatting with D’Andrea about a study published on their research topic—one they hope to expand on through their own work.

“We have a fair amount of freedom to explore. With this paper, we think the author’s findings might be incorrect, so we’re trying to compare our findings with his,” said Addison Bent, who attends Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

Down the hall, the six students working with geochemist Sidney Hemming were gathered around a table with Hemming and her undergraduate interns; though the group was on break, they were eager to discuss their research. Their goal is to learn more about the past climate of southern Africa, and its relationship to global ocean circulation and climate variability over the past five million years.

In early 2016, Hemming participated in a research expedition off South Africa, where she was part of a group collecting sediment cores from the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Analysis of the sediments will contribute to understanding of rainfall and runoff, weathering on Africa, and changes in the Agulhas Current—a major ocean current that flows along the eastern side of southern Africa.

Hemming’s students are working with the sediment cores collected during her research cruise. “What we’re doing is taking the samples, scraping them, and preparing them for the XRF scanner to get the measurements of the different elements in the core. Once this is done, we’ll have new information that will tell us about how sediment travels and how it changes over time,” said Elmina David of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts.

Authentic research experience has been shown to benefit high school students in a variety of ways. Inquiry-based learning facilitates understanding of the scientific method and enriches their intellectual development.

“This has been a huge learning experience. It’s a really good combination of seeing the sometimes tedious work that goes into the science and getting an understanding of how science is done,“ said Andrew Chelli of Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

Programs such as this also have the ability to attract students to careers in science and other Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

“One of my reasons for wanting to be a part of this program is that I was interested in doing science in college. I wanted to find out if it meshed with me, and this has pointed me in the direction of wanting to do more research in the future,” said Tess Strohm of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts.

The students are not the only ones who benefit from the internship program. Their work contributes meaningful data and results to the research that Center scientists conduct.

“Part of what the students are doing is logistical, like making sample request tables or using simple stratigraphic techniques. But these are important skills for them to have, and the results of these exercises are really valuable to me as a scientist,” said Hemming.

Some of the students will choose not to pursue a career in STEM, but the skills they develop this summer at Lamont—problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration—will be essential to their success in any field.