Undergraduate Research

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) provides a wide range of undergraduate research opportunities that develop professional experience before graduation.  With a faculty advisor, our students undertake field work in local and often remote and international locations, collect and analyze research samples and instrumental data sets, and are trained in a range of computational and analytical methods including use of instrumentation such as parallel-processing computers, mass spectrometers, seismometers, and laser spectroscopy. EPS undergraduate research projects have been published in top-ranked peer-reviewed journal publications.    If you are interested in undertaking a research project, we encourage you to contact a faculty member, or the Director of Undergraduate Studies, as soon as possible. The earlier a project begins, the greater the potential of the research.

Laura Beckerman

Laura Beckerman in Stable Isotope labLaura Beckerman worked with EPS graduate student Maya Gomes to explore the relationship between the geochemical cycles of carbon and sulfur in the Cretaceous Period. More specifically, she investigated the possible role that massive volcanism may have played in driving widespread oxygen deficiency in the oceans (Oceanic Anoxic Event 2).  This work involved cutting and crushing sedimentary rocks, performing a host of chemical extractions in the laboratory in order to isolate distinct chemical phases, and then utilizing an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to measure the carbon and sulfur isotope composition of various chemical phases. Laura was awarded a Northwestern Undergraduate Research Award to complete this work and presented the results at the 2013 Northwestern Undergraduate Research and Arts Exposition. 

Nora Richter

EPS and ISP major Nora Richter has been conducting paleoclimate and geochemical research in EPS labs since her freshman year at Northwestern.Heart Lake

Early in her career, Nora worked in the Organic Geochemistry Lab.  For one project, she extracted leaf wax lipids from plants collected by graduate student Rosemary Bush along a transect across the U.S.  For another, she examined lipids in the sediments of an Icelandic lake, with the goal of identifying periods of soil erosion in Iceland.  More recently, Nora used the microscopes in Yarrow Axford's Quaternary Sediment Lab to analyze insect (Chironomidae) remains in lake sediments from Greenland.  Insect species assemblages provide a valuable method for reconstructing past climate changes in the high Arctic.  Nora's research on a northwest Greenland lake was part of Dr. Axford's ongoing collaborative research aimed at understanding how the extent of the Greenland Ice Sheet has varied over the past ten thousand years as a result of climate change – and by inference, how the vast ice sheet (and thus global sea level) might respond to future climate change.  This summer, Nora expanded her expertise as a polar researcher by conducting fieldwork on the arctic island of Spitsbergen, having successfully applied to a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program there.  As a senior, Nora will follow up with lab investigations of samples she collected on Spitsbergen.

Kristen Bartucci

Student ResearchWorking with Dr. Yarrow Axford, Kristen studied past Arctic climate through paleolimnology—the study of lakes and lake sediments.  Kristen researched sediment cores from a lake on the southwest coast of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS).  This research focuses on the recent geologic past—the last 10,000 years or so of the Earth’s history.  Analyzing the abundance of certain fly larvae, or midges, from lake sediment cores is a good indicator of past temperatures.  Certain species only live in certain temperature ranges.  Therefore, knowing the magnitude of species at different times makes it possible to recreate temperature profiles of the area.  At the current melt rate of the GIS, understanding how sensitive it is to changes in temperature is crucial in order to predict what may happen with future warming. 

It is then possible to decipher the relative sensitivities of the ice sheet to temperature changes by comparing rates of glacial retreat and past temperature.  The midge data they hope to find are crucial to determining the response of the Greenland ice sheet to current warming, as the ice sheet is 2 miles thick and is capable of a rise of 22 feet in sea level if melted completely.

Alexa Socianu


Alexa's research, "Reconstructing p CO2 values during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum," focused on a novel method of calculating paleo-pCO2 levels using pedogenic carbonate nodules in conjunction with leaf wax n-alkanes from paleosol horizons in the Big Horn Basin, WY dating back approximately 57 Ma. This time period, referred to as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, represents a period in Earth’s history when global surface temperatures had warmed by up to approximately 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Analysis of paleo-pCO2 levels allows us to understand the causes for this dramatic warming event. Current soil carbonate proxies used to estimate paleo-pCO2 rely on bulk organic matter δ13C values, however this method of calculation is flawed. By refining the method for calculating paleo-pCO2 levels, she hopes to more accurately assess and understand paleoenviornments as well as gain a better understanding of the effects of quantifiable increases in CO2 on global temperature change.

Joseph Walkowicz

Joseph's research, entitled Reconstruction of an Ordovician Megalograptus from Virginia, revolved around the identification and classification of an extinct group of arthropods called eurypterids. Although these ancient "sea scorpions" lived hundreds of millions of years ago, their phylogenetic characterization pertains to modern horseshoe crabs and scorpions, among other arthropods such as insects. Collaborating between many institutions, including the University of Illinois, Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History, Joseph's research intends to reconstruct and identify a particularly rare eurypterid from its fossilized remains. He has collected his findings in a website.

Nora Richter


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Postdoctoral Research Associate Positions Available

EPS PhD Student Gabby Kitch is Recognized with an NSF Gradute Research Fellowship


May 9, 2017