Two Undergraduates Join PEI Environmental Scholars Program

Joanna M. Foster ’08 for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Two undergraduates have been selected to join the Environmental Scholars Program by the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI). This two-year award was given to geosciences majors William Atkinson ’18 and Joshua Murray ’18.

The Environmental Scholars Program was established in 2011 with an inaugural gift from Elizabeth A. Smith and Ray E. Newton III ’86 to support advanced undergraduate scholarship in the broad area of environmental studies. The Program is honorific in nature and designed to reward students who have shown exceptional promise in their academic coursework and in select summer research apprenticeships under the guidance of Princeton faculty.

Below, Atkinson and Murray describe their research projects and outline how the prestigious program will support their study.

William Atkinson

William AtkinsonWilliam Atkinson’s research seeks to clarify the role of soil in global carbon dioxide emissions. Around the planet, there is more organic carbon stored in soils than in vegetation and the atmosphere combined. But whether these soils serve as vital carbon sinks, or troubling sources, depends on poorly understood soil geochemistry. Minerals found in soil like clays, carbonates, and iron- and aluminum-oxides can interact with organic carbon, preventing it from being decomposed by bacteria and released into the atmosphere as CO2.

“My research seeks to answer the following questions: What are the effects of the key soil minerals on organic carbon stability? What types of organic carbon are retained and by which minerals? How do environmental conditions from diverse climates affect these interactions?” said Atkinson.

Advised by Satish Myneni, Professor of Geosciences, Atkinson will experiment with model systems in the lab to establish a baseline for carbon stabilization by different minerals. He will then collect soil samples for analysis from a wide variety of forests including the boreal forests of Alaska, temperate forests of New Jersey and California, and tropical forests of Central America to help establish which minerals best prevent release of CO2 and how different environmental conditions affect these interactions.

Joshua Murray

Joshua MurrayMassive volcanic eruptions about 16 million years ago flooded vast areas of what is today Idaho, Oregon, and Washington with a layer of lava several kilometers deep. A record of this dramatic geology is preserved in the Columbia River Basalt (CRB) in the Pacific Northwest.

By collecting samples from the basalt and measuring volatile contents of melt inclusions, Joshua Murray aims to calculate the mass and composition of gas released during this time of extreme volcanism. His research, advised by Associate Professor of Geosciences, Blair Schoene, will shed light on an unusual period in Earth’s history known as the Mid-Miocene Climate Optimum, which was characterized by elevated atmospheric CO2 and a significant spike in global temperatures.

“Despite the ecological and palaeoclimatic significance of this volcanic eruption, the mass and composition of gas released during eruption is poorly understood,” said Murray. “Yet the techniques do exist to investigate volatile release of ancient volcanism.”

Murray’s research is crucial to linking the eruptions to climate change during this period and to better understanding how modern-day injections of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will affect Earth’s future climate system.

The Environmental Scholars Program enables students to continue research apprenticeships with a member of the Princeton faculty in the summer following their sophomore year and on a continuous basis culminating in field study as an integral component of their junior and senior independent work. It is intended for students who are able to clearly articulate a research agenda within the context of their academic course of study and with reference to previous research immersion experiences.