Students with Different Research Interests Gain Knowledge of All Earth System Components

Earth System Science cohort Image by Brooke Coupal
The first Earth System Science Ph.D. students are, front row from left to right, Ericka Boudreau and Madelaine Griesel, and back row from left to right, Mika Bighin, Tyler Harrington and Asim Roy.

By Brooke Coupal

Ericka Boudreau ’20, ’22 is on her way to becoming a triple River Hawk.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UMass Lowell in environmental science with a geoscience option and is now one of five students in the first cohort of the university’s new Earth System Science Ph.D. program.

“I enrolled in the Ph.D. program because I loved the research I was doing and wanted to continue to develop those skills,” Boudreau says.

Housed within the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EEAS), the Earth System Science Ph.D. program gives students a deeper understanding of all major Earth system components, including the geosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere and biosphere.

“We’re finding that this interdisciplinary model is one of the appeals of the program,” says Mathew Barlow, EEAS professor and interim department chair. “Our students gain a better appreciation for how all the different pieces of the Earth system interact.”

Through core courses, students receive an overview of Earth systems, discover ways of analyzing data and learn how to effectively communicate about Earth science with others.

They also conduct extensive research in a discipline of their choosing. For Boudreau, that’s geology. She is looking into the chemistry of detrital minerals to determine the origins and potential movement of rocks in Western North America.

Ericka and Rich in Oregon Image by Ericka Boudreau
EEAS Assoc. Prof. Richard Gaschnig and Ericka Boudreau collect rock samples in Oregon.

“We want to know what the Earth used to look like and what it could potentially look like in the future,” says Boudreau, who has traveled to Oregon, Idaho and Montana for rock sampling with her doctoral advisor, EEAS Assoc. Prof. Richard Gaschnig.

Tyler Harrington, who received master’s degrees from UMass Lowell in mathematics (2022) and environmental science with an atmospheric science option (2021), is working on climate modeling with his doctoral advisor, EEAS Asst. Prof. Christopher Skinner.

“Tyler is using climate models to understand where our rainfall comes from, which helps us understand why we experience droughts,” Skinner says. The project is funded by a nearly $480,000 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant.

EEAS Asst. Prof. James Heiss is the advisor for Ph.D. students Madelaine Griesel and Asim Roy, who are focusing their research on hydrology. Griesel is performing computer simulations of saltwater intrusion into aquifers, a body of rock or sediment saturated with groundwater. She will be examining aquifers beneath estuaries on the East Coast. Roy is analyzing how coastal storms affect groundwater flow and mixing patterns in beach aquifers. Heiss received more than $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the two projects.

“In the field of hydrogeology, a solid scientific and technical background on the Earth system is important for understanding the behavior of hydrologic systems,” Heiss says. “Asim and Madelaine are gaining that foundational knowledge through coursework, while their research provides discipline-specific training.”

Tyler and Chris weather wall Image by Katharine Webster
Tyler Harrington and EEAS Asst. Prof. Christopher Skinner look at storm systems in the United States.
With interest in paleoscience, Ph.D. student Mika Bighin is researching the seasonal rates of glacial melting in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. With the guidance of her doctoral advisor, EEAS Assoc. Prof. Kate Swanger, Bighin looks to better understand past climate changes in the region. The research is being funded by an  NSF grant of more than $234,000.

“In my career, I hope to address the issue of climate change and the impacts that it will have by looking at past climate,” says Bighin, a native of Australia who is receiving support to study a STEM discipline in the United States through the Quad Fellowship, an initiative between the governments of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.

The students share information from their research projects with their cohort peers, allowing them to learn from one another.

“It’s fun to hear what everybody is doing, how different it is and where there’s common ground,” Barlow says.

As the students move through the program, they are able to rely on each other and the EEAS department.

“All of the faculty and staff have been really kind and supportive,” Bighin says. “They are all happy to answer any sort of questions, which makes me feel comfortable and eager to learn.”