Fall 2011 Undergraduate Research Assistant Positions

Fall 2011 Undergraduate Research Assistant Positions

The Earth Institute, Columbia University is pleased to announce 9 research assistant opportunities for undergraduate students during the fall 2011 semester. Undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard will be able to serve as research assistants on exciting research projects related to sustainable development and the environment, and engage with distinguished faculty and researchers at the cutting edge of this burgeoning field.

While research assistantships at Columbia are generally awarded to graduate students, this program instead aims to present undergraduates with a unique opportunity to be involved in high level research and to gain valuable experience and skills for their future academic and professional careers. 

Successful applicants will work on a part-time basis and directly with faculty on these projects. Research assistantships are funded at a rate of $15/hour for 10 hours per week and up to a maximum of 120 hours for the fall 2011 semester.

This fall, the 9 research assistantships are:

  1. Integrating Remote Sensing Data into Crop Models to Improve Crop Forecasts
  2. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville
  3. Analysis of Vegetation Biodiversity and Carbon Sequestration after 5-years of Sustainable Development in the Millennium Village in Sauri, Kenya
  4. Gridded Population of the World Version 4
  5. Impact of Temperature and Precipitation on Malaria Transmission in Tanzania
  6. A Web-Based Decision Support System for Malaria Policy Makers
  7. Regional Partnership to Promote Trade and Investment in Sub-Saharan Africa
  8. What’s Cooking?: An Investigation of a New Fault Paleothermometer
  9. Land-Use and Habitat Change in African Savannas: The Role of Fire in Driving Subtle Changes in Genetic Structure and Social Behavior in African Starlings

To Apply

To apply for these positions, please complete the online application available here  by September 22, 2011 at midnight.  While you may apply for more than one position, you must submit separate applications. Please note that only undergraduates from Columbia and Barnard are eligible to apply. Decisions will be made shortly after the deadline.  

Please note that students who are awarded research assistantships will be expected to participate in the Earth Institute Student Research Showcase, which takes place in spring 2012.

Please contact us at with any questions.

1. Integrating Remote Sensing Data into Crop Models to Improve Crop Forecasts

Department/Center: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Project Background:
We have been developing an integrated modeling framework for predicting crop response that can assimilate remotely sensed vegetation and soil moisture data within the growing season using an ensemble kalman filter (EnKF). This approach was done with the aim of improving crop model performance to simulate yields at reasonable lead-time before the end of the growing season. Apparently, crop models are very useful for forecasting crop yields because of their ability to simulate crop response as a function of climate, soil, crop characteristics, and management practices. But because of model structure and input and forcing data errors, they are imperfect in simulating the truth. Improving the performance of a crop model without altering its internal model structure can be achieved by updating state-variables periodically with observations, so-called data assimilation. Remotely sensed data e.g., vegetation and soil moisture are potentially useful to be integrated because of their spatial and temporal extents allowing crop predictions over larger regions. Key to data assimilation is the concept of errors, error modeling and error estimation. Data assimilation melds the relative errors in dynamical models and observations. The melded estimates do not degrade the valuable information from a dynamic model but tend to enhance its information content. By assimilating remotely sensed data into a crop model, the accuracy of results will improve, and consequently reduce crop forecast variance. The integrated modeling framework has been developed with DSSAT crop models. In this project, we aim to test and validate it in Uruguay for soybean, and pasture modeling.

Research assistant tasks:
- Downloading and processing remote sensing data (e.g., MODIS LAI and AMSR-E soil moisture) over Uruguay from NASA portal
- Conduct simple GIS analysis and
- Assist in improving the integrated modeling system.

It is expected that the research assistant will enrich his/her knowledge on bio-physical models, math and statistical approaches and numerical programming

Skills Required:
- Strong analytic skills
- Computer programming (preferably Fortran or C)
- Basic skills in GIS and remote sensing

2. Enterococci in the Hudson River: Sources of Contamination at 125th Street: Environmental Issues and Policy Recommendations for the Waterfront Development in Manhattanville

Department/Center: Department of Environmental Science, Barnard College

Research assistant tasks: This project offers the unusual opportunity for an undergraduate research assistant to work with environmental scientists in the Dept. of Environmental Science at Barnard College, Lamont Observatory, Hudson Riverkeeper and the NRDC's NY Harbor Program as well as many individuals from different walks of life (including the local community board and the North River Water Pollution Control Plant) who are intimately involved with the Harlem waterfront and the Manhattanville area. The student research assistant will responsible for sampling and analyzing  Enterococci bacteria, maintaining the newly developed Enterococci laboratory, working with other student research assistants, assisting the Introductory ES laboratories (that have now become an important source of data), and assist in the writing of a report summarizing the results of this study and making public health and policy recommendations. Any student with a strong academic record may apply but special consideration will be given to an environmental science or environmental policy major, and students with laboratory experience.

Skills Required:
- Ability to learn sampling and laboratory procedures
- Ability to work in the field and on board the research vessel Seawolf
- Facility with excel and data analysis
- Ability to manage a laboratory and students of the Enterococcus Study Group at Barnard

3. Analysis of vegetation biodiversity and carbon sequestration after 5-years of sustainable development in the Millennium Village in Sauri, Kenya

Department/Center: The Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program

Research assistant tasks: The over-arching objective of this project is to assess how vegetation biodiversity and biomass have changed over the course of the five years. Baseline assessments were completed in 2004 for soils and 2006 for vegetation and then again this spring in the landscape in and around the village of Sauri.

The intern will help analyze the data to:
- Determine differences in soil carbon and nitrogen from 2004-2011 (7 yrs)
- Evaluate changes in vegetation biodiversity and biomass from 2006 to 2011 (5yrs)
- Assess various methods for rapid landscape biodiversity and sustainable agriculture diagnostics

Skills Required:
- Applicant must have at least three semesters of college level courses related to ecology and/or statistics.
- Must have experience working with Microsoft Excel.
- Ability to do basic statistics and generate graphs.

4. Gridded Population of the World Version 4

Department/Center: CIESIN

Project description: The RA will assist with the production of the Gridded Population of the World v.4, a global population surface based on population census data.

Research assistant tasks:
- Download data relating to the 2010 round of population census results for multiple countries
- Organize the data
- Track down GIS boundary files;
- Identify the permissions required for their use;
- Assist in contacting and following up with National Statistical Offices and other data providers as needed for data acquisition.

Skills required:
- Knowledge of Excel
- Basic knowledge of GIS
- Very organized and detail oriented

5. Impact of temperature and precipitation on malaria transmission in Tanzania

Department/Center: International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) 

Project description:
The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) is supporting malaria control in 15 high malaria burden countries in sub-Saharan Africa. PMI aims to achieve 85% coverage of vulnerable populations with key interventions, and a 50% reduction in malaria-related mortality. PMI supports key proven interventions: insecticide-treated bednets (ITNs), indoor residual spraying (IRS), intermittent preventive treatment of pregnant women (IPTp) and artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). Since 2010, PMI has been conducting impact evaluations to determine whether its stated goals have been achieved. However, the methodology used in these evaluations has not accounted for the impact of climate on malaria transmission. PMI has therefore developed a partnership with the International Research Institute (IRI) in order to incorporate climate analysis into their impact evaluation reports.

Research assistant tasks:
- Identify all publications that examine impact of temperature and precipitation on malaria transmission in Tanzania.
- Identify any potential data sets presented in the literature that may be relevant for IRI's work with the President’s Malaria Initiative.
- Summarize the methodology used in each publication
- Summarize the results presented in each publication
- Write five page summary of reviewed literature (time permitting)

Skills Required:
- Basic statistics, moderate proficiency with Excel
- Data analysis
- Academic interest in global health, climate change
- Students from following departments preferred: E3B, Economics, Environmental Biology, Environmental Policy, Sustainable Development

6. A Web-Based Decision Support System for Malaria Policy Makers

Department/Center: Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) 

Project description:
A beta version of a website ( has been developed in order to provide African health officials easy access to published research on malaria as well as malaria-relevant datasets. The goal of this project is to add a decision support tool to the site that will assist health officials in malarious countries in translating the information available on the site into the most appropriate anti-malaria programs for their countries.

Research assistant tasks:
- Contact health officials in national malaria control programs around the world to describe the development of the malaria decision support tool and to request their participation in evaluating the tool in January of 2012.
- Work with these health officials to complete an online survey to assess these officials' perceptions of the degree to which their malaria policies are dictated by donors versus the available scientific research. The results from this survey will be used to eventually evaluate the impact of the website’s decision support tool on the independence of health officials in developing malaria policy.
- Interact with malaria health officials at a booth at the ASTMH (American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene) meeting in Philadelphia in December 2011 to observe their use of a beta version of the website’s decision support tool.

Skills Required:
- Skills moderate proficiency with Excel, strong writing and communication skills
- Expertise in basic data analysis
- Academic interest in global health, sustainable development
- Students from following departments preferred: Psychology, Computer Science, E3B, Environmental Policy, Sustainable Development, Anthropology

7. Regional Partnership to Promote Trade and Investment in sub-Saharan Africa

Department/Center: Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI), Earth Institute; Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI)

Project description:
The Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) was established at The Earth Institute at Columbia University in early 2006 to help Sub-Saharan African cities achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Our work is divided into two areas of focus, investment and social sector. The Investment-related activities of MCI assist the Millennium Cities with creating employment, stimulating enterprise development and fostering economic growth, especially by increasing domestic and foreign investment, with a view toward eradicating extreme poverty.

The Regional Partnership to Promote Trade and Investment in sub-Saharan Africa is a joint project of the MDG Center under the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), based in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) jointly with Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) of Columbia University.  The project aims to (i) assist secondary cities/regions in generating more investment (both local and foreign), to build up their productive capacity and their ability to trade; this, in turn, will contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals; and (2) contribute to the global dialog on the importance of increasing sustainable investment and action at the sub-national (cities/region) level.

MCI seeks a research assistant to assist MCI and the Regional Partnership with strengthening the capacity of cities to promote investment and target investors, specifically by researching and identifying viable investment opportunities and translating these opportunities into concrete investments in the three selected cities of the Regional Partnership.

Research assistant tasks:
- Undertake research on companies which could qualify as potential investors, and manage and update a database of companies.
- Contribute through research and analysis to the preparation of the city investment promotion toolkit which MCI is preparing in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank.  In particular, this will include the analysis of the World Bank Group’s general investment promotion toolkit and how it could be applied to the MCI city investment promotion toolkit.  The MCI city toolkit will serve as the basis for a distance-learning tool on city investment promotion aimed at strengthening the capacity of African medium-size and under-resources cities to promote investment and attract investors. 

Skills Required:
- Expertise in investment promotion and/or business development
- Advanced oral and written communication skills in English
- Strong organizational and research skills and keen attention to detail
- Proficiency in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook

8. What’s Cooking?: An Investigation of a New Fault Paleothermometer

Department/Center: Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory- Biology and Paleo Environment
Project description:
One of the outstanding questions in fault mechanics is whether faults can sustain large shear stresses as predicted by laboratory friction experiments (strong) or fail under much lower stresses (weak).  Because fault sliding creates heat, one way to determine the shear strength of exhumed faults is by measuring how hot they got.  The amount of frictional heat generated along a fault is related to the shear stress sustained on the fault during slip, therefore paleotemperatures can elucidate this question of shear strength on exhumed faults.  I am in the process of developing a new paleothermometer that investigates the thermal maturity of organic molecules in fault zones.  When organic molecules are heated, their structure changes.  How much their structure changes will tell us how hot the fault was.

Research assistant tasks:
- Preparing samples for analysis (crushing, cleaning and extracting)
- Running samples on a GC-MS-MS.

Skills Required:
- Experience with basic chemistry and/or organic chemistry will be useful
- No previous lab experience required

9. Land-Use and Habitat Change in African Savannas: The Role of Fire in Driving Subtle Changes in Genetic Structure and Social Behavior in African Starlings

Department/Center: Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology

Project description: Fire plays an important role in shaping African savanna ecosystems. By influencing the mix of tree and grass cover on the landscape, fire can also indirectly affect the animal species that live in this heterogeneous habitat. Although bird communities are often positively affected by fires (e.g.,  increased abundances, richness, and diversity), African savannas are home to an unusually high number of family-living, or cooperatively breeding, avian species that live year-round on territories and may respond differently to fire than most non-social species. Because suitable breeding habitat is often limited on the landscape for many species of birds, younger individuals delay dispersal and remain home to help their relatives raise offspring instead of trying to breed on their own. Because these ‘cooperative breeders’ may eventually inherit the breeding territory and reproduce on their own, families can persist on the same territories for generations in some species. Fire may be one of the only natural ways for new, suitable breeding habitat to be created on the landscape or for existing territories to expand in size. However, fire could also result in an erosion of genetic structure, and eventually the breakdown of the core social or family units if it increases immigration from neighboring groups. Thus, if kin structure is eroded in burned areas, either as a result of new group formation by unrelated individuals or the breakdown of existing family structure through increased immigration, the social and demographic structure of cooperatively breeding groups may look very different in areas of recent burns than in pristine areas.
To study the role that fire plays in influencing genetic structure and social behavior in cooperatively breeding birds, we collected DNA samples in spring 2011 from numerous populations of superb starlings in Kenya living in recently burned habitat (or pristine habitat as controls). Using previously-developed microsatellite markers, we will examine genetic structure in these populations to see if fire has negative effects on kin structure. We predict that fire will leave a signature of reduced group kin structure compared to that in control areas. The results of this study will provide important new information on how kin selection shapes family-living in savanna species and how human-altered landscapes may have subtle but demographically and socially important effects on animal populations.

Research assistant tasks:
-DNA extraction from blood
-Molecular sexing using PCR, genotyping using microsatellite markers
-Analysis of genetic structure using population genetic software

Skills Required:
- Experience with basic molecular techniques (e.g., pipetting, PCR, gel electrophoresis) preferred, but not necessary. 
- Student should have an interest in ecology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary biology.