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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 ranging from local to remote and international locations, collect and analyze research samples and instrumental data sets, and are trained in a range of computational and analytical methods. These include use of instrumentation such as parallel-processing computers, mass spectrometers and other analytical instruments, 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.

Some examples of undergraduate research experiences:

Katie Braun (current student)

Katie Braun is working with EPS professors Daniel Horton and Matt Hurtgen, along with Ethan Theuerkauf of the Illinois State Geological Survey, on quantifying the amount of carbon in a rapidly eroding Illinois wetland. Previous studies of carbon movement through coastal wetlands have overlooked the export of carbon through shoreline erosion. Katie’s field site at Illinois Beach State Park is particularly interesting because this wetland has experienced massive erosion in the past few years of high lake level; the shoreline stepped back over 5 meters in the summer of 2017 alone. This rapid erosion likely means large quantities of carbon have been released into Lake Michigan, where the carbon can return to the atmosphere and contribute to greenhouse warming. To quantify this carbon loss, Katie gathers sediment cores and GPS data from her field site and analyzes those cores in the Sedimentary Geochemistry Lab and the Quaternary Sediment Lab on campus. By combining the carbon content of the cores with ArcGIS analysis of GPS data and historic aerial photographs, she will create a mass balance model of wetland carbon. Katie has been awarded a Northwestern Undergraduate Research Grant to complete this work and aims to determine whether this wetland currently functions as a sink or source of carbon. 

Hannah Dion-Kirschner (Current Student)

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is working with Maggie Osburn and Yarrow Axford to investigate lipid biomarker paleoclimate proxies. Specifically, she is aiming to better constrain these proxies for their use in high-latitude lacustrine environments. The long-chain lipids that coat the leaves of plants are well-preserved in sedimentary records, making them useful biomarkers, and their carbon chain lengths and isotopic compositions can reveal information about past hydrology, ecology, and climate. However, numerous factors complicate the use of these lipid characteristics to reconstruct climate. Hannah is working to deconvolute the effects of plant type, plant physiology, and climate in the creation of particular lipid biomarker signatures, and she is creating a calibration that is specific to the Arctic, where a short growing season, characterized by cool temperatures and continuous light, adds further potential complications. Her calibration will also enable a highly accurate reconstruction of recent climate using a lacustrine sediment core from western Greenland.

Chris Callahan (Current Student)

Chris Callahan is an environmental science major working with Dr. Daniel Horton to determine the influence of climate change on extreme air quality events. The occurrence of extremely poor air quality is strongly influenced by meteorological conditions. Low wind speeds, a lack of precipitation, and vertical temperature inversions impede pollutant dispersal, and their co-occurrence with harmful pollutants can lead to hazardous air quality conditions. Determining whether climate change has altered the occurrence, duration, or intensity of these meteorological conditions in events such as Beijing’s January 2013 “airpocalypse” requires analyzing large sets of observational data, climate model simulations, and statistical analyses that separate climate change trends from underlying weather noise. This research constitutes Chris’s senior honor’s thesis and will be presented at the the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December 2017.

Monica nhi ha (Current Student)

Monica Nhi Ha worked with Professor van der Lee on mapping the deep subsurface beneath the eastern third of North America. The map would reveal where Proterozoic lithosphere ends, where oceanic lithosphere begins, how much and what type of Phanerozoic lithosphere underlies the Appalachian Mountains and eastern seaboard of the USA, and how this might affect the dynamics, seismicity, heat flow, and morphology of that area. To do so, she looked at a lot of squiggly lines of seismograms (time series of ground motion caused by distant earthquakes) on a lab computer with a decent screen, and aligned them by similarity. She also runs various scripts and programs written in unix and Python to prepare the data for the alignment and to analyze the results afterwards. Older lithosphere has cooled longer, which makes it stiffer and thereby more efficient at propagating seismic waves, which were recorded into seismograms by Earthscope-USArray seismic stations. Monica’s alignments measure how efficiently the wave propagated.

John M. Hayes (Current Student)

EPS and ES major John Hayes has been studying the organic geochemistry of the reservoir Lake Decatur in Illinois. Reservoirs, as a group, have been recognized as globally important sites of C-sequestration and methane production because of their large number (~20 million worldwide). Lake Decatur is in the Sangamon River watershed and is part of the NSF-supported Intensively Managed Landscape – Critical Zone Observatory, which seeks to understand how landscape engineering shapes biogeochemical cycling. John is using a novel broad-spectrum biomarker approach to deconstruct the history of organic C inputs to the lake since its creation in 1922. Using a combination of lipid and lignin biomarkers coupled with carbon isotope information, an evolution from local vegetation upon initial valley flooding, to eroded soils from agricultural fields, to finally algal production resulting from eutrophication of the lake can be discerned in the lake sediments. This type of information will be valuable for constraining the behavior of reservoirs in global C-cycle models. John has received a WCAS Undergraduate Research Grant for summer support.

Laura Beckerman (Class of 2013)

Laura 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 (Class of 2014)

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

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 (Class of 2011)

Working 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 (Class of 2011)

Alexa's research, "Reconstructing pCO2 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 (Class of 2011)

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.

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