Nora Holt decided to challenge herself during her freshman year by taking an upper-level geophysics class.
“I knew nothing about geology when I came here,” she said. “There was a huge intimidation factor. But the professor (Steven Dickman) was great, coached me through it and reminded me that the class was doable.”
By the time the course ended, Holt knew that she would major in both geology and chemistry.
That geology major has laid the groundwork for Holt’s next challenge: determining the major ion chemistry of seawater during the Carboniferous period of 299-359 millions years ago. Holt is one of two recipients to receive a grant from Binghamton University’s Summer Scholars and Artists Program. The fellowship, from the newly established Undergraduate Research Center, provides a $3,000 stipend for students to conduct primary, original research or creative activities with assistance from a faculty mentor who receives a $1,000 stipend.
Holt, a 20-year-old from West Point who recently completed her junior year, has been studying salt samples that geologists have taken from the ground in Nova Scotia and Utah. These salt samples contain water from the Carboniferous period. Holt and Tim Lowenstein, professor of geological sciences and environmental studies, will now analyze data to determine what seawater chemistry was like during the era.
Studying the seawater of 300 million years ago is actually relevant and important to the oceans of today and tomorrow, Holt said.
“As seawater chemistry changes, it affects what organisms can live in the ocean,” she said. “That affects the entire marine ecosystem. Knowing how oceans changed in the past will lead us to a better understanding of how the oceans will change in the future and how marine ecosystems will change in the future.”
One especially rewarding part of the project for Holt was traveling in January to Spain, where she used a special microscope at the University of Barcelona to study samples.
“I was ecstatic,” she said of the trip. “It was a great experience and I met a lot of research scientists who know a lot more than I do. They were really inspiring.”
Later in the spring semester, Lowenstein suggested that she apply for the Summer Scholars and Artists Program grant.
“We hoped for the best, but we didn’t know there were only two scholarships available,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t know that because I may not have even applied!”
Holt said she could not ask for a better advisor and mentor than Lowenstein.
“Tim is incredibly driven and patient,” he said. “He’s made himself accessible to me and other students. I stop in multiple times a week to ask what I’m sure are silly questions, but he answers them every time. And he travels everywhere to give talks on his research.”
“Nora is a wonderful student to mentor,” Lowenstein said. “She is fearless about
taking on anything new − quite unusual for an undergraduate student who
began research as a sophomore.”
Holt previously helped the city of Binghamton develop its Climate Action Plan. Last summer, she took part in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) research program on campus.
“HHMI taught me to appreciate interdisciplinary research,” she said. “In order to succeed in any scientific field, you need to have a grasp on other fields and not just be a specialist in your own field.”
Holt’s short-term goals are to continue her research over the summer, possibly return to Barcelona next winter and spend the next year preparing a paper – as first author – that will be submitted for publication to a geochemistry journal.
“That type of publication is a pretty big deal − a first for the Department of Geological Sciences,” Lowenstein said.
Holt hopes to attend graduate school to study ocean acidification and someday work on the issue in a professional research position.
“Earning the (Summer Scholar) honor in geochemistry means a lot of getting my hands dirty – physically and otherwise,” she said. “I’ll be figuring out how academia works, how research works and how publishing papers works. Committing to a research project like this, I find that I just need to not doubt myself and that my hard work will pay off.
“Binghamton University has brought me a lot of academic experiences that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” she added. “It has taught me that I wouldn’t fit somewhere else: This was the school for me.”