Dynamic Science - In the Lab with Undergrads
When you walk into the room, you’re greeted with music playing in the background. Researchers, Graduate Students, and Undergrads are working through protocols, collecting data, and making discoveries. Some of the equipment has been custom-fabricated, while other pieces of equipment cost literally millions of dollars. Safety gloves and goggles are standard issue, and an engaged mind is essential. This is no run-of-the-mill time and place, this is a cutting-edge lab in the Department of Earth System Science, and these students are engaged in research.
While the actual tasks involved in research can vary from lab to lab, the idea remains the same. Research is the process of actively answering a question. It could involve power tools, fire, ice, water, computer programming, measurement, and more. Unlike course-work in the sciences, research can take you to new places, and present new discoveries.
Numbers can be very dry and visually uninteresting – particularly when they are characterizing the El Nino / La Nina weather system. In her project with Professor Yu, Alice Kim makes these numbers come alive in a video simulation. It’s pretty amazing to see black and white numbers turn into a short movie, with colors representing temperatures on a global scale. Alice first became interested in atmospheric chemistry in one of her Earth System Science Courses (55, taught by Gudrun Magnusdottir). The circulation patterns and the Hadley Cell fascinated her. Now, she is involved in a research project that characterizes the La Nina phenomenon. One of our newest undergraduate researchers, Alice is learning much about weather, and MatLab!
I was pretty intimidated before I got into the lab, particularly if I had questions for professors or grad students. But now, this project is kind of an excuse – now I can ask another question, to get the conversation started.
The samples start as leaves, soil, or other organic samples that can easily be seen. By the time they reach Mariela Ruacho’s lab bench, the samples are tiny – refined powder. Mariela’s role in the lab is to prepare these organic samples for more the analysis of their radiocarbon (14C) content on UCI’s Accelerator Mass Spectrometer. 14C is a radioactive isotope of carbon that is mostly studied to determine the age of things. Mariela is involved in everything that goes on in the lab, including making glass tubing, weighing reagents and samples and managing and discussing data. Mariela doesn’t get lost in the details though. She understands the importance of carbon to the environment – she knows she has an important role to play in the cutting-edge research that will eventually make a difference, e.g. in predicting the effects of climate change in the Arctic.
Working in a lab is very different. In the Chem Lab, they give you instructions, whereas in research, you have to figure it out yourself. You have to do a lot of research, to make sure you have the right way to prepare your sample.
Aquarium. Food Coloring. Plastic tubes. Plexiglass wall. Ruler. A lot of salt, and a lot of water! With just these pieces of equipment, Rachael Tan is researching cryospheric changes that result from glacier melting. Originally envisioned by Yun Xu (Graduate Student in Earth System Science), this project involves characterizing and measuring a simulated plume of fresh water (i.e. glacier-melt) in a salt-water environment (i.e. ocean). This project is perfect for Rachael – it combines her love of the ocean with hands-on learning. She’s been involved in pretty much every aspect of the project, from designing the apparatus, to securing funding for the project, to identifying just the right mix of salt and water, and ultimately to collecting data. Rachael’s project will inform a better understanding of cryospheric dynamics, and sea-level rise.
I really feel like I have felt the most close to science by doing this. It’s been fun, I’ve been able to meet a Ph.D. student, and gotten closer to my professor. I have learned from them, and built relationships.
One of the most beautiful things about any tropical reef is its coral. These living structures have such vibrant colors and interesting patterns. From a scientific perspective, coral can give us a vivid picture of past climates. Danielle Glynn works to enhance scientific understanding of oceanic carbon-14 levels using coral samples. For about a year and a half, Danielle has been working on coral samples from the Galapagos Islands and Palau Island, Indonesia. In a nutshell, she acidifies them, and cryogenically freezes down their gases to isolate their carbon. These samples are analyzed by members of the Druffel lab at the Keck Accelerator Mass Spectrometer for 14C analysis. Danielle’s project is going very well. In fact, she will be traveling to Paris, France this summer to present her findings!
Some days it’s just awesome, things just work perfectly. In research, you get to learn things, and add to the knowledge of mankind. I’m thinking 20 years from now, someone might see my paper and read it. They’ll think I’m a genius!