William Atkinson, 2018, Geosciences

This summer, I worked with Professor Satish Myneni, studying an aspect of soil geochemistry that may influence whether soil is a vital sink – or troubling source – of carbon dioxide. In soil, bacteria can decompose organic carbon into carbon dioxide (CO2), enhancing emissions that drive climate change. However, minerals can interact with the organic carbon, trapping it in the soil and preventing the escape of CO2. To clarify this key role of minerals, we took two approaches: reacting synthetic minerals in lab, and collecting real-world field samples from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. I also had the incredible opportunity to sample in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, where elevation differences led to diverse soil types worth studying in the future. In all cases, I analyzed the interactions through infrared spectroscopy, in which peaks on a spectrum can be assigned to molecular structures, offering a close-up view on how minerals and organic carbon interact under different conditions. This summer gave me a valuable glimpse into life as a researcher, stressing the importance of planning, flexibility, and collaboration.