September 2, 2008

Exploring the Earth’s Changing Climate

My summer research with Professor Kira Lawrence. By Hilary White ’10

Geology major Hilary White ’10 (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.) spent her summer researching the evolution of North Atlantic Ocean temperature during the Pliocene epoch with Kira Lawrence, assistant professor of geology and environmental geosciences. White is also a member of the women’s swim team.

One of the main motivating factors in my decision to attend Lafayette was the opportunity to be involved in undergraduate research. This opportunity became a reality when I was offered the chance to work with Professor Kira Lawrence in Paleoclimatology.

Initially, I was somewhat apprehensive because the only preparation I had was the background information on the topic that I received from Professor Lawrence’s introductory class. However, with Professor Lawrence’s patience and enthusiasm for this research, as well as her commitment and willingness to teach and guide me throughout the summer, the nervousness soon disappeared and was quickly replaced with confidence.

The main focus of our research was to generate sea surface temperature and productivity records by analyzing cores of ocean sediment from the North Atlantic Ocean in the laboratory. We were specifically looking for alkenones, which are organic lipid (fat) compounds produced by ocean surface dwelling algae. The ratio between a series of different long chained alkenones has a linear relationship with the actual sea surface temperature at the time of production.

We extracted alkenones from the sediment samples at different depths that corresponded with different dates. The samples containing the extracted alkenones were then analyzed using gas chromatography, which enabled us to quantitatively assess the abundance of alkenones in each sample, and therefore determine the sea surface temperature at different times in the past.

After Professor Lawrence instructed me on the necessary laboratory techniques, we focused our measurements on the time period of two to three million years ago at a particular site in the North Atlantic Ocean. This period of time is important because it is when the intensification of Northern Hemisphere glaciation is believed to have occurred during the Pliocene-Pleistocene transition.

By using our newly developed data, as well as the data obtained from previous research that Professor Lawrence had conducted, we were able to generate a transect of the North Atlantic sea surface temperature and the corresponding productivity records. By creating and analyzing this transect we were and still are trying to obtain a better understanding of how the North Atlantic responded to past and potentially future changes in the climate system. The data that we produced this summer has never been generated before and will hopefully provide supporting evidence to some existing hypotheses put forth by Professor Lawrence and other prominent Paleoclimatologists.

In addition to the work at Lafayette, Professor Lawrence and I spent a week at Brown University. The intent of our work there was to compare our results with similar research being carried out by other professors and graduate students at Brown. The opportunity to travel to Brown for this comparative examination of our research was an insightful experience, not only as it applied to our specific research, but also as I consider the prospect of graduate studies.

As I begin to consider my future in the geological sciences, this summer experience has been invaluable in opening my eyes to an area of the field that was previously unknown to me. Having experienced both the successes and frustrations of laboratory work, I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to work with Professor Lawrence. Her interest and enthusiasm for teaching me this summer has not only inspired me to continue my studies in geological sciences, but has also instilled in me a greater confidence to further understand and appreciate her specific area of expertise. I believe that Professor Lawrence and her dedication to the research and to me, as a student, provide a true reflection of the entire geology department, and specifically of its commitment to all of its students and to undergraduate research.

  • Geology
  • EXCEL/Undergraduate Research

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