News Story

February 28, 2011

HUCE Scholarships Support Summer Research

This past summer, 18 Harvard undergraduates set out to destinations near and far as recipients of grants from the Center’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fund. The students completed independent and faculty-sponsored research on a variety of topics, including climate dynamics, ecology, and energy. Following is a sample of three student projects, as recounted in their own words.

Max Brondfield ‘11
Urban Metabolism: Quantifying Methane Sources for the Boston Metropolitan Area
“My research is part of the Boston ULTRA-ex (Urban Long-Term Research Area-Exploratory) project, studying ‘urban metabolism.’ Broadly, this project, which involves multiple schools in the area, seeks to understand how urban centers consume and emit energy, as represented by fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. The project focuses on a 100-kilometer area from Boston to Harvard Forest, and we hope to get a sense for the ‘urban-to-rural gradient’ of greenhouse gas emissions, or in other words, a sense of how emissions change as you move farther away from big cities. The focus of my summer work was on methane and CO2, which we measured by driving around the study area with a mobile sensor in the trunk of our car. We then were able to analyze the data and search for important correlations and trends.
Although we are not ready to draw any definitive conclusions, it appears we have found some very good metrics for distinguishing the gradient from urban to rural areas, and we have found that concentrations of greenhouse gases decline steeply as one moves away from an urban center. While it is hardly a groundbreaking discovery that cities emit pollutants, these distinct trends should help us to better isolate sources of gas and more accurately model the flux of energy through urban systems.
By far the most rewarding aspect of my research has been the opportunity to apply what I have learned in school to active research in the environmental science field. I began pursuing environmental science because I found it interesting and fun, but I never anticipated getting the chance to tackle challenging problems at the forefront of the field. I am so excited by the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a project that has implications far beyond the classroom.”

Paul VanMiddlesworth ‘13
Landscape Ecology
“The main goal of the project was to determine how the spatial arrangement of roads, dominant tree species, parking lots, canals, and other aspects of the urban environment affect the dispersal of invasive Anolis lizards in the Miami metropolitan area. The research involved a preliminary survey to determine the range of the invasive populations; this data, along with historical records concerning the locations where the lizards were initially introduced, allowed us to map out areas that appeared to function as boundaries to the spread of the invasion. We created several transects that intersected the hypothesized boundaries. We then conducted extensive surveys of the habitat on each transect in order to determine how the boundaries of the lizard’s geographic range were correlated to changes in habitat and, by extension, how different features of the urban environment serve to either facilitate or hinder the spread of invasive populations.
   The most rewarding part of my assistantship was the opportunity to get involved with every stage of project, from experimental design and methodology to data collection and analysis.”

John Mussman ‘12
Predicting Occupant Alertness Levels in Day Lit Buildings
“I worked with Professor Christoph Reinhart at the Design School to simulate the effects of naturally lit spaces on human circadian rhythm—the conjunction of metabolic cycles that determine factors such as alertness and cognitive performance over the course of the day. Every human’s circadian rhythm differs slightly from the precise length of an Earth day, so we use parameters like sleep and light exposure to reset our internal clocks in accordance with the planet’s rotation. Using student sleep schedule data and circadian simulation software developed by Professor Steven Lockley’s team at the Medical School, I modeled how exposure to different intensities of light in built environments could effectively reset occupant body clocks.
The ultimate goal is to build a workflow that helps architects design naturally lit buildings that are sustainable not just in how they use daylight in place of artificial lighting and internal heating, but also in the way they promote occupant health and productivity. This more targeted development of sustainability principles will lead to more efficient structures and more effective urban spaces, and contribute to a more purposeful design aesthetic, while simultaneously developing the case for resource efficiency.
I now have a much fuller sense of how sustainability practices guide the academic and professional design community. I’m currently considering urban planning, though I also have strong interests in film and philosophy.”

Grace Charles ‘11
Interactive Effects of Large-Mammal Extinction & Climate Change
“My summer research was conducted at Mpala Research Center in central Kenya. My work focused on the interactive effects of climate change and simulated extinction of herbivores on the structure and function of ecological communities. Understanding how climatic variability mediates the effect of animals on an ecosystem is an increasingly relevant topic in light of recent climate change predictions, as well as documented ungulate population declines throughout East Africa. Moreover, ecological understanding of African rangelands continues to lag that of high-latitude and wet-tropical systems. And yet, millions of people depend on these rangelands for their livelihood.
 All my work was conducted in a recently established large-herbivore exclusion experiment that employs restrictions applied to 1-hectare (10,000 m2) plots. Each restriction is replicated at three sites with different levels of natural rainfall (spanning just 20 kilometers, yet encompassing an 80% increase in precipitation from the driest to the wettest site). Three scenarios use electrified wire to exclude different size classes of herbivores (elephants/giraffes only; all mammals larger than dik-diks; all mammals larger than hares). The fourth plot is unfenced, allowing access to all animals. Thus, the experiment simulates size-biased extinction by excluding species of successively smaller size.
   My research had two goals. First, I wanted to quantify basic ecosystem functions and attributes under different herbivore exclusions across the precipitation gradient. Second, I sought to develop and test a passive-warming device to experimentally heat small areas, so that subsequent work can incorporate temperature variability. Next year, I will return to Mpala as the project manager for the project and I will continue to carry out my research.

For more information on the Undergraduate Summer Research Fund, click here.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Environment@Harvard.


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