Earth Institute Student Research Showcase 2017

Earth Institute Student Research Showcase 2017

The Earth Institute, Columbia University is committed to showcasing student research in the areas of environment and sustainable development. The Earth Institute brings together undergraduate, graduate and PhD students at the annual Earth Institute Student Research Conference. Students discuss their unique research experiences of working to understand and solve pressing environmental and sustainable development issues.

All of the projects are conducted by students who have received support, guidance or funding through an Earth Institute affiliated education or student program including a travel grant, internship, or research assistantship from the Institute.




Sebastian Heilpern

I was born near Woodstock, NY, to Argentine immigrants, but grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As an undergraduate at Cornell, I worked in southern Mexico investigating the impacts of an invasive fish on stream ecosystems, and in the Caribbean surveying marine fish communities. After graduating I was employed by the Wildlife Conservation Society's Latin American and Caribbean Program. I received an M.S. from the University of Chicago, where I investigated how the interactions between fishes and large woody debris influenced primary and secondary productivity in large Amazonian floodplain river system. As a PhD student at Columbia University I am interested in understanding how species-level information on traits can be scaled to predict how vulnerable ecosystem functions and services are to biodiversity loss. In the Amazon, fishes are oftentimes the primary protein source for riverine people, and I am developing a "biodiversity-ecosystem service stress test" to probe how changes in fish biodiversity due to dam development and overexploitation may affect services associated with food security, such as protein and micronutrient availability.



Margaret Obrien

My name is Maggie O’Brien. I am currently a Master’s student in the Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology Department at Columbia University. I completed my undergraduate degree at Manhattan College in 2015. Here, I did research on behavioral development in giraffe calves. While there I also worked as an Intern through the Research Experience for Undergraduates’ program at the American Museum of Natural History where my research focused on species distribution modeling of bats in the West Indies. Today, my research is largely focused on studying the molecular evolution of complex adaptive traits. Currently, I’m researching the evolutionary influence of a hormone, leptin, on thermoregulatory regimes in bats. In the Fall 2017, I will be attending the PhD program in Comparative Biology at the Richard Gilder Graduate School where I will be researching genomic influences on the evolution of parity mode in lizards and snakes.



Lu Gao

Lu Gao is a 2nd year Master’s student in the Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology department working with Dr. Marina Cords. She is interested in primate social behavior and rainforest conservation. For her thesis, she is exploring what factors contribute to the variation in number of males in blue monkey groups in a wild population in Kakamega Forest, Kenya. After graduating, she looks forward to continued opportunities to expand her research, and to apply her findings to conservation policy.



Cristina Mihailescu

Born and raised in Romania during the tormented communist era, I came to America in a pursuit of a better life. As I was studying Business Administration at LaGuardia Community College, I was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke scholarship and gained the confidence and resources to transfer to Columbia University in 2014. Currently, I am a senior at Columbia School of General Studies majoring in Sustainable Development and expected to graduate in May 2017. While my life experience growing up in Romania and traveling the world helped me gain different perspectives about the global socio-economic challenges, my studies at Columbia helped me understand the urgency of preserving the environment and the necessity of fostering economic equality and political fairness. I am keenly interested in green energy technology, sustainable water management, and global health, as well as an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations’ efforts to make the SDGs the highest global priority.



Eleanor Pressman

Eleanor Pressman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying Environmental Biology. She is interested in agricultural intensification and climate change ecology. Besides participating in an Earth Institute Research Assistantship, Eleanor is a member of the Columbia University Sailing Club and COÖP leader.



Olivia Williamson

Olivia Williamson is a senior at Barnard College majoring in Environmental Science. As a junior, she was a student researcher in Bocas del Toro, Panama, conducting marine field research in the Caribbean on the prevalence of coral disease. As a senior, she has conducted laboratory research at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory with Dr. Sonya Dyhrman’s lab, investigating the response of harmful algal bloom phytoplankton species to ocean acidification. After graduation, she is headed to the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science to pursue her PhD.



Lauren Naylor

Lauren Naylor is a 2016 Texas A&M graduate from Dallas, Texas with a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences. She is currently a graduate student at Columbia University pursuing a Masters degree in Conservation Biology. Research Interests include marine conservation issues, applied conservation science and the intersection between science and policy. After graduation, she hopes to work for a non-profit doing applied conservation research and public outreach.



Julia Armstrong

I am a junior studying sustainable development at Columbia College. I am particularly interested in the anti-fracking movement and I have worked as a youth spokesperson for FrackAction, a grassroots organization. In 2013, I testified at the New York State Assembly Energy Hearing and was a spokesperson at a New York State Press Conference. I have also given several speeches at information sessions in Fishkill and Stone Ridge, New York.


Climate Change


Priscilla Bell

My name is Priscilla, and I am a sophomore in SEAS. This project taught me more about Python, and how relatively simple models, like an Aqua planet, can help us learn more about the effects of CO2 on temperature, ITCZ position, and precipitation. In November, I declared as an Earth & Environmental Engineering major. I’m interested in renewable energy, and specifically bringing renewable energy to cities. In my free time, I love hiking, playing soccer, and watching movies.



Richard Li

Richard Li is a junior in Columbia College majoring in Environmental Biology. He is interested in ecosystem ecology, and has been studying climate sensitivities of various North American tree species, since starting work at LDEO’s Tree Ring Lab in the summer of 2016. Besides his passion for dendrochronology, he serves as the acting president of the undergraduate Environmental Biology Society, and is also an avid birder and urban explorer.



Hadia Sheerazi

Hadia received the 2016 IACM Scholarship from AC4 (Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity) to present her research on the impact of climate change and armed conflict on women and girls at the 2016 International Association of Conflict Management Conference. She has interned at AC4 and the Columbia Law School’s Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI). Hadia has also been involved as a youth delegate in the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum, World Bank Group Youth Summit, and the United Nations Youth Assembly, and was named as one of 60 Global Champions for Women’s Economic Empowerment by UN Women’s EmpowerWomen Team. Hadia will also be featured in UN Women and PwC’s “Gender 101” e-learning course. In 2015, she was selected to deliver the Youth Address at the United Nations General Assembly Hall at the 70th Anniversary NGO Conference. She has presented her research on climate change, gender and DRR at the 2015 UN Youth Assembly and at the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network Summit. On International Women’s Day in 2015, she was invited by UN Women’s to “ring the bell for gender equality,” at NASDAQ, and was selected to present the youth reflection at UN Global Compact’s Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) Conference during the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform. In December 2015, she participated in the ONE Campaign’s and (Red)’s opening bell ceremony at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on World AIDS Day.

Hadia came to New York City in 2006 as a Presidential Scholar at St. John's University, where she majored in Government & Politics and Economics in the Honors Program. She graduated summa cum laude as the Student Commencement Speaker and Student Marshall in 2010. After graduation she joined the international law firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP as their Pro Bono Coordinator, and managed the firm's various pro bono matters across seven offices and helped increase firm-wide pro bono hours to over 40,000 for which the firm received the #1 ranking on The American Lawyer’s A-List in 2011. Hadia has served on the Board of the Young Women’s Council of the High Water Women Foundation, served as writing mentor in Girls Write Now, and was a Team Leader of the Grants Advisory Committee of The New York Women’s Foundation. She was a finalist for the 2016 Forbes 30 under 30 list.

Hadia’s essays “Because I’m a Girl,” and “I Am Not a Color,” have been published in anthologies, she has contributed an inter-chapter in Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring, authored and illustrated an e-book Saudade. Hadia enjoys writing, running, cooking, Vinyasa yoga and is an active volunteer in the New York City community.



Neha Savant

Originally from Southern California, Neha Savant is now a first year master’s student in Columbia’s Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology Department where she studies the genetic structure and connectivity of a threatened salamander across differing hydrologic landscapes in New Jersey. After graduating from Pomona College in 2014 with a BA in Biology, she studied frog behavior and speciation in Costa Rica, manakin behavior in Panama and frog and butterfly population ecology in Oregon. She is primarily interested in amphibian conservation and how genetics and genomics can help inform conservation action.


Community Development


Karen Xia

Karen is a third-year undergraduate student studying Computer Science-Statistics and Environmental Biology. She investigates particulate matter and aerosol optical depth in the atmosphere in Indian urban centers. She has analyzed spatial and temporal trends in air quality, utilizing a global chemical transport model (GEOS-Chem) to model aerosol behavior in India over the past decade. Her work in trend analysis and modeling aims to better understand and describe the Indian air quality issue, with the ultimate goal of adding a voice to public health and policy decisions surrounding air quality.



Hermila Yifter

Hermila Yifter is a first year graduate student pursuing a MPA in Development Practice at SIPA of Columbia University. Prior to attending SIPA, Hermila received her B.S. in Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 2015, and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in San Diego, CA, working in refugee resettlement.



Jordan Corson

Joran Corson is a doctoral student and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University. His work uses ethnographic and historical methods to look at social and political processes of inclusion/exclusion. In addition to this line of inquiry, Jordan is engaged in ongoing research on global educational innovations and a project that takes up the idea of curricular hacking.



Jeremy Brooks

Jeremy Brooks is a second year M.P.H. student in the Environmental Health Sciences Department with a certificate in Environmental Health Policy at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Prior to coming to Columbia, Jeremy worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency managing and disseminating information on a number of grants related to children’s environmental health, cumulative risk, healthy schools, and tribal health. Jeremy is interested in studying and improving vulnerable population’s resilience to environmental hazards such as climate change, lead, and air pollution.



Zachary Zill

Zach Zill was born and raised in Washington, DC and has worked in the construction industry for a decade. He has long been fascinated by DC’s history and by the persistence of deep inequality and political disenfranchisement in the United States’ capital city. His past research includes studying the environmental and social impacts of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil for the book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil (Haymarket Books). His current research was performed in Columbia’s MS in Sustainability Management program.



Elana Sulakshana

Sulakshana is a senior at Columbia College, majoring in sustainable development and history. She has been working since 2012 as an intern or researcher on climate change in various capacities, most recently at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and as a climate policy intern at The Century Foundation. She is particularly interested in the intersection of climate change and human mobility and is writing her senior thesis on relocation post-Hurricane Sandy in NYC. She spent last summer in Anchorage, AK working with the Alaska Institute for Justice on policy for the relocation of Alaskan native villages that are on the frontlines of climate change. On campus, she is very active in Columbia’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, lived in a sustainable community–– Greenborough––for two years, and leads bike trips for Columbia’s outdoor pre-orientation program.



Emma Krasovich

I am currently a MPH. student in the Environmental Health Sciences department at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. I am in the Global Health Certificate, which requires a six-month practicum in a low or middle income country, and I spent my six months in Malawi. During my time there, I worked for a non-profit known as Project Concern International (PCI) on their Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs to improve food security within vulnerable communities.

I have also worked for the Earth Institute researching ways to promote fertilizer among rural, Malawian farmers to improve crop yield. Currently, I intern with the non-profit Pure Earth, where I conduct research on global pollution events and how the environmental hazards that result, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, etc, impact human health. My interests lie in sustainable development and capacity building of vulnerable communities, particularly in a way that empowers women, promotes health and prevents the effects of climate change. Upon graduating from my MPH, I aim to pursue a PhD in Environmental Engineering so that I can work on promoting sustainable water infrastructure and management in developing countries.



Leticia Neves

Leticia is a MS student in Sustainability Management at Columbia University, where she focuses on CSR but has a special interest on climate change resilience and mitigation strategies for supply chain. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Communications – Journalism from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil and is a certified mediator from the University of Texas in Austin. Now she is also a 2017 EDF Climate Corps Fellow, and will be working with the company Pharmavite over the summer on their CDP and Sustainability Reports. She is an avid hiker, amateur photographer and scuba certified.

The project she is presenting is for the Sustainability Management integrative capstone workshop, which acts as a culmination of each element of the M.S. program offered by the Columbia University Professional Studies and The Earth Institute. This Spring 2017 capstone consists of a group of eight (8) students in their final semester of graduate study at Columbia University. They come from a wide range of professional and academic backgrounds including waste management, banking, corporate sustainability, research, and environmental/civil engineering.



Ronak Mashweri

Ronak Maheshwari is a MIA student concentrating in Global Energy Management and International Finance. He graduated from BITS Pilani in India in 2014 and then worked for Credit Suisse Investment Bank and later with the Government of India managing Swachh Bharat (Cleanliness and Sanitation) Assessment Project. Ronak is a vocalist and has performed with a number of bands in India and US. He is looking forward to initiate more extra-curricular events at SIPA to help seeples showcase their talents and also help all the student organizations to work smoothly.



Myrian Smith

Myrian Smith – Columbia SIPA - Energy & Environment, Responsible for ensuring effective communications and relationships with partners, advisors, and sponsors. She is a U.S. Naval Officer who has served in Japan and Bahrain. Over the past year, she was solely responsible for creating and planning operations and mission objectives for over 18 deployed warships to the Arabian Gulf. Myrian provides five years of intensive leadership and work experience in a high demand environment. As an active duty U.S. Naval Officer, Myrian hopes to open partnership doors for the U.S. Navy through the energy sector. Separately to her naval career, Myrian is also interested in the relationship between human rights and energy. She graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. Myrian was born near Jerez de la Frontera, Spain and grew up in Kennebunk, ME.



Yunwen Sun

Yunwen Sun is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in Energy and Environment. Her focus at SIPA is on renewable energy finance and policy. Yunwen currently works as a Program Assistant at the Women in Energy Program of Center on Global Energy Policy and is the Co-Director of Events at SIPA Energy Association. Prior to coming to SIPA, Yunwen worked in consulting for three years, primarily focused on digital and technology transformation for retail clients. Yunwen graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics.



Yemi Melka

Yemi Melka is a first-year graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs studying Global Energy Management and Policy. She has professional work experience in environmental research and public health economics. At SIPA, she serves as the project manager of SolEnergy Initiative, a Columbia-funded global collaboratory project focused on developing an implementation model for solar powered irrigation technologies in Ethiopia and fostering private sector entrepreneurship. Yemi also co-directs the Women in Energy program of SIPA’s Energy Association and works as an intern with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.


Earth Science


Gemma Sahwell

Gemma Sahwell is a member of the Barnard class of 2019 and is pursuing an undergraduate major in environmental science with a minor in chemistry. Gemma was born and raised in Miami Beach, Florida where she first realized the importance of studying the Earth system as she saw firsthand the effects of climate change on her local community. During the summer of 2016 Gemma worked as a research assistant at the University of Miami in the Geology department at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. In her spare time Gemma enjoys painting, philosophizing, and scuba diving. Gemma is active with multiple groups on campus, including Barnard Divest for a Just Transition, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, and Columbia’s K1 Project. As a member of the K1 research team she will be travelling to the Marshall Islands to measure radioactivity and study the intersection of environmental science and human rights.



Jee Min Lee

Jee Min Lee is a Masters student studying Earth & Environmental Engineering with a focus on water resource management. During her undergrad at Columbia, she studied Environmental Biology and conducted her senior thesis research at Barnard College’s Microbial Ecology Lab investigating the impact of excess nitrogen input on soil microbial communities in NYC tree pit soil. She also worked at Seoul National University’s Behavioral and Population Ecology Lab, performing laboratory diagnosis for infection of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), an infectious amphibian chytrid fungus.




Chiara Bercu

Chiara Bercu is a second year MPA in Development Practice student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). She is passionate about women’s equality and health issues in the context of international development. At SIPA, Chiara focuses on women’s empowerment, especially adolescent girls, and non-profit management.

For the past year, Chiara has been working as a Menstrual Health fellow with Save the Children. She conducted primary research for 3-months in El Salvador, where she developed and coordinated a baseline assessment and qualitative research for a pilot menstrual hygiene management (MHM) education program. Using the qualitative research, she developed a survey that aims to capture girls’ stress, participation and self-efficacy as it relates to menstruation. Following a test of the tool in El Salvador, Save the Children asked Chiara to test the tools in Kyrgyzstan as well. Thanks to the Earth Institute, Chiara will be able to travel to Kyrgyzstan from March 18 – 27, 2017 to lead evaluation activities.



Haowei Wu

Haowei Wu is a Master’s student at Columbia University majoring Earth and Environmental Engineering. With a concentration in Water Resources and Climate Risks, Haowei has gained significant experience in both research and engineering within the field. During the internship at Columbia Water Center, his project worked to analyze the spatial and temporal trends in drinking water quality violations.



Claire Johnston

My name is Claire Johnston and I am a sophomore majoring in Environmental Science at Barnard College. During my time on­‐campus, I have been involved with several political campaigns, the Columbia University Sailing Team, and domestic violence awareness. I am originally from Seattle, Washington where I developed an interest in research while interning at the Seattle Aquarium. Working with Dr. Bower on the Enterococcus project has been an exceptional experience in both field and lab work, and I would like to thank the Earth Institute for this opportunity.



Meredith VanAcker

Meredith VanAcker is a first year PhD candidate in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. She has a background in community ecology and conservation biology. Before attending Columbia, Meredith earned a Master of Environmental Science degree from Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. While at Yale, her research examined the impacts of suburbanization on parasitic infections in green frog populations. She is interested in continuing to examine how human impacts, such as land alteration and habitat connectivity, change host species assemblage and patterns of tick-borne pathogen transmission in the Diuk-Wasser lab. In the future, Meredith would like to research wildlife health at the intersection of anthropogenic change and emerging infectious diseases.


International Development


Rachel Macauley

Rachel is a second year Master of International Affairs (MIA) degree candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), studying Economic and Political Development. Originally from Liberia, she has lived and worked throughout the African continent, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Prior to SIPA, Rachel served as Program Manager at John Snow, Inc. (JSI), a global health and development consulting firm, where she managed a portfolio of public sector capacity-building programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Rachel has consulted for a wide range of clients and led projects for governments, development agencies, and community organizations. She most recently worked for the United Nations Development Programme in Bangkok, supporting their initiative to engage women in peacebuilding.



Abhinav Seetharaman

Abhinav Seetharaman, CC ’18, is a current intern at Columbia’s Earth Institute and the 1Million Community Health Workers (1mCHW) Campaign. Having joined in June 2016, his work focuses on helping connect Information-Communication-Technology (ICT) and healthcare in Ghana, by creating a unique identification system for all Ghanaians. Last June, he accompanied the 1mCHW team to the ICTs for Health Conference in Accra, where he worked with the team to develop concrete proposals for actual implementation of the ICT programs in Ghana. Abhinav has a specific interest in policy and global health; he has previously worked in related fields with institutions such as the NYC Mayor’s Office, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and the American Medical Student Association.



Nicole Joseph

Nicole Joseph is currently pursuing her master's degree, a Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy, from Columbia University and aspires to do policy work for a nonprofit or in the government sector following graduation. She has been a passionate and active environmentalist since she was ten years old, and through her undergraduate studies at New York University and internship experience with the New York League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society of New South Wales her dedication to the field has only grown. She is particularly interested in urban sustainability and food security.



Merav Cohen

Merav Cohen is a corporate lawyer and currently pursuing a Masters in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Merav is particularly interested in intergovernmental agreements and in finding social and economic mechanisms to promote environmental protection. Prior to SIPA Merav practiced corporate law at one of Israel’s leading law firms, specializing in negotiating and contracting complex infrastructure and energy projects. Recently, her interest in environmental policy carried her to Beijing, where she lived for 2 years, learned Mandarin and worked with the EU-China Environmental Governance Programme. Merav holds an LL.B. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



Savannah Miller

Founder of, Savannah Miller is an environmental advocate passionate about communicating climate science in a fresh and compelling manner. Savannah has held positions at the United Nations Development Programme and City of Atlanta Mayor's Office of Sustainability, and is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Administration at Columbia University.



Molly Engel

MJ Engel is a proud Milwaukee, WI native and a senior at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Women and Gender Studies. She is most interested in the intersection between environmental justice and feminism. Her senior thesis took her from New York City to Matagalpa, Nicaragua as she studied the sustainability of the coffee supply chain and the challenges it faces in an age of climate change.



Emily Gittleman

Emily Gittleman is in her second semester of the Sustainability Management master’s program through the School of Professional Studies. She graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Science & Policy from Chapman University in 2014. She has 2 years’ experience working for a non-profit affordable housing developer as an asset manager and sustainability analyst.