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Undergraduates get a taste of Stanford Earth research

This summer, 19 undergraduate students are participating in faculty research projects through the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research program.

Rising sophomore Claire Morton is helping investigate the impact of agricultural soil quality on children’s health and nutrition in India by collecting and assembling data, creating maps and performing statistical analyses.

Emily Lacroix, a PhD candidate in Earth system science in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences (left), and Gabby Barratt Heitmann, a rising sophomore, hold soil samples from North Dakota that Lacroix collected for a research project designed to confirm the presence of anoxic microsites in agricultural soil. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Working in the campus office of the Lobell Lab, she extracts and cleans soil test data from India’s Soil Health Card program portal and creates maps showing the presence of essential nutrients, such as iron, in agricultural soils across the country. Using large-scale survey data, she creates maps showing measures of children’s health, such as stature.

In the analysis phase, Morton will do multivariate regressions and use a spatial first differences approach to determine whether the health and soil data area related to one another.

“My interests lie mainly in data science and statistics, so I was excited to find a research project that dealt with geospatial data and would help me learn more about how to do rigorous statistical research,” she said. “I’m also passionate about doing impactful research. I saw a clear need for this work and felt that it was very meaningful.”

Morton is one of 19 students participating in faculty research projects through the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SESUR). Students apply to work full time on an individual faculty project or they may propose a project of their own. Those selected to join the program are paired with mentors – a faculty member, graduate student, postdoctoral scholar and/or research staffer.

Summer research projects typically involve field research, but due to COVID-19-related restrictions on undergraduate travel, this year’s SESUR students are working in offices and labs on campus or remotely from their residences.

Bringing modern analysis to historic data

Rising junior Acacia Lynch is working with Stanford Radio Glaciology, to develop techniques for analyzing ice-penetrating radar data recorded in the 1960s and 1970s on optical film.

“This data offers the opportunity to see how the subsurface of Greenland and Antarctica have evolved over the last half-century but using modern data analysis approaches require calibrating the data,” said Dustin Schroeder, assistant professor of geophysics and Lynch’s mentor on the project. “Acacia is analyzing circuit diagrams for these vintage radars so that calibration is possible.”

Reflecting on his reasons for participating in the undergraduate research program, Schroeder said he owed many of the best things about his academic career to professors who welcomed him into their labs as a high school student and undergraduate student.

“Personally, as a first-generation college student who had those opportunities, I have a big karmic debt to repay,” he said.

“As faculty at a university which is a world leader in both research and undergraduate education, it’s our responsibility and privilege to include undergrads in our research. I hope they learn what doing research is like and gain some insight into what they find inspiring and what they’d like to do with their lives.”

Protecting carbon in agricultural soil

Rising sophomore Gabby Barratt Heitmann thought joining the Fendorf Group for the summer would be a good way to find out if she likes biogeochemistry – the study of how chemical elements, such as carbon, flow through living systems and their physical environments.

She is assisting Emily Lacroix, a PhD candidate in Earth system science, who is studying the prevalence of anoxic microsites – small zones of oxygen depletion in otherwise well-aerated agricultural soils. Anoxic microsites likely play a role in protecting soil carbon in agricultural soil by slowing microbial respiration, and therefore, the rate at which soils produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. It’s a critical area of research because agriculture, forestry and land use account for about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, much of which can be attributed to soil microbial respiration.

Lacroix did soil carbon research herself as an undergraduate student and says it’s what sparked her interest in graduate school.

“It feels nice to continue this legacy of thoughtful mentorship,” she said. “We also have a lot of fun in the lab, and it brings me great joy to see my students gain skills and confidence. It’s one of my favorite things to do as a graduate student.”

Lacroix, who collected soil from farmlands across the country for the summer research project, taught Heitmann how to extract DNA from the samples. Heitmann enjoys seeing trends emerge in the data – no matter how small.

“For instance, while weighing out soils from different sites, you really get a feel for how the composition is changing, rather than analyzing it on a soil triangle,” she said. “I’ve also been able to go to the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm to do fieldwork with another member of the Fendorf Lab, which has been an amazing experience.”

Exploring how communities respond to climate change

Rising senior Bless Romo is getting a crash course on developing, conducting and analyzing qualitative interviews at the Social Ecology Lab, which is exploring how communities come together to address environmental and sustainability issues.

Romo, an earth systems major, will interview one of the lab’s community partners – a climate justice nonprofit organization based in a small town on the central coast of California that is helping its community adapt and flourish as the climate changes.

“Interviews are such an interesting method for research,” she said. “Getting to hear people’s experiences and narratives in their own voice is very powerful. Interviews are also great for understanding behavior, and one of the things we’re trying to do with this protocol is understand how individuals and communities act in regard to environmental challenges.”

Romo’s summer research experience has been guided by two mentors she described as brilliant and thoughtful: Alison Bowers, a research associate in the lab, and Anna Lee, a PhD student in the Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.

“They are providing me with the resource and opportunity to explore this project in a way that is meaningful to me – through the climate resilience lens,” Romo said.