Summer Research Opportunities

2017 Summer Research Assistantships:

To apply, contact the faculty member to determine if your background is appropriate for the position. If approved, complete the online Summer Research application form. Directions for submission are at the top of the application page.

Faculty Supervisor: Eli Tziperman
School: SEAS
Dept./Area: Earth and Planetary Sciences
Project Topic: Climate Dynamics

Undergraduate students with a strong background in physics and math are invited to join us for research projects either during the summer or the academic year. Students will learn about and participate in climate dynamics research activities, including the study of climate variability and climate change, both natural and human-caused. Possible project topics range from El Nino, the large-scale oceanic thermohaline circulation, and cold past climates such as the glacial cycles of the past 3 million years, and the preceding warm climates with implications to future climate change as well. Typical projects involve Matlab programming and the analysis of climate models or data. More information on our web page:

Contact: Eli Tziperman

Faculty Supervisor: Scot Martin
School: SEAS
Dept./Area: Environmental Chemistry
Project Topic: Data Analysis of Human Activities on the Air quality and Climate of Amazonia

This project focuses on the effects of human activities on the air quality and climate of Amazonia. Data sets are available from aircraft measurements taken in 2014 and 2015. This research position requires strong computer skills, as well as an interest or prior experience with data mining or visualization. This study is a collaborative effort of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Center for Geographic Analysis.

Contact: Scot Martin

Faculty Supervisor: Daniel Jacob
School: SEAS
Dept./Area: Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling
Project Topic: Atmospheric Modeling

The Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group headed by Daniel Jacob welcomes applications for summer undergraduate research assistantships. Our work focuses on understanding the chemical composition of the atmosphere, its perturbation by human activity, and the implications for climate change and life on Earth. We conduct global modeling of atmospheric chemistry and climate, aircraft measurement campaigns, satellite data retrievals, and analyses of atmospheric observations. Undergraduate research assistants are typically given responsibility for a data analysis research project. Strong interest in programming is a must.

Contact: Daniel Jacob

Faculty Supervisor: Joseph Allen
School: T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Dept./Area: Environmental Health

Project Topic: 'Green' Buildings and Health

The advent of sustainable design or “green building” strategies has reinvigorated questions over whether environmentally friendly buildings can also be healthy buildings. Join our Healthy Buildings research team ( at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health as we investigate the connection between the built environment and health. We have three project areas related to our environment and impacts on human health, productivity and wellness: Green Buildings and Health; Student Health in Dorms; and the Harvard Healthy Building Material Academy. Activities for the student researcher include:

  • Conduct field studies collecting environmental measurements in buildings
  • Analyze environmental sensor data
  • Conduct literature reviews on the connection between the built environment and health
  • Write a scientific abstract for a conference or grant submission
  • Work with researchers on developing field sampling protocols
  • Develop web content, logos, and interactive project posters

Specific tasks will depend on the interests and skills of the student. We are interested in transdisciplinary research and welcome candidates from any academic background (e.g., computer science; graphic, web and video design; business; history; education). No specific academic or work prerequisites required.  We are looking for: positive attitude; independent; creative; fun; tinkerer; interest in the environment, health and sustainability.

Contact: Joseph Allen

Faculty Supervisor: Michael Aziz
School: SEAS
Dept./Area: Material and Energy Technologies
Project Topic: Performance of Redox Flow Batteries (RFBs)

Redox flow batteries (RFBs) have the potential to offer cost-effective electricity storage as a solution to the intermittency of solar and wind. The Aziz group has been investigating organic molecules as the RFB active species, motivated by their abundance and low cost, and has demonstrated high performance RFBs based on quinone molecules in both alkaline and acidic electrolytes. A critical requirement for flow battery commercialization is the stability of these organic molecules. In this research project with the Aziz lab, we propose to investigate the dependence of reactant stability on concentration, temperature, pH, and the presence of other electrolyte species. The student will examine the time dependence of reactant concentration and possible decomposition products by analytical techniques such as NMR, UV-Vis spectroscopy and mass spectroscopy. A college-level course in organic chemistry is a recommended prerequisite for this position.

Contact: Michael Aziz

Faculty Supervisor: Alán Aspuru-Guzik
School: FAS
Dept./Area: Chemistry and Chemical Biology 
Project Topic: Force field development for molecular mechanics

Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations are often used to analyze the chemistry of aerosol droplets in the atmosphere, which is important for modeling cloud reflectivity and projecting climate change. However, the force fields used in these simulations are relatively inaccurate as they do not accurately account for quantum corrections. We are developing a force-field functor that takes a classical force field  and modifies it to include quantum corrections. We will use the Wigner-Kirkwood expansion of the quantum partition function to implement this functor and use it to modify existing functors of simple liquids like neon and water. We will then run MD simulations to verify that our approach more accurately predicts basic properties like the radial distribution function. Our goal is to create a functor that can be applied to any force field, such as those for aerosols, and make the associated MD simulations more accurate.

Contact:  Alán Aspuru-Guzik

Faculty Supervisor: Noel Holbrook
School: FAS
Department/Area: Organismic & Evolutionary Biology
Project Topic: Impact of human activities on the health and productivity of New England forest trees.

We have two projects that examine the impact of human-caused “global change” on tree physiology. The first focuses on the possible mechanisms connecting leaching of soil calcium due to acid precipitation with increased vulnerability to cavitation. Biophysical studies of pit membranes show that calcium removal leads to a dramatic reduction in the ability of these structures to contain embolism. Thus, we hypothesize that the significant decline in sugar maple trees in New England involves an increase in vulnerability to cavitation. Summer research will include hydraulic studies of cavitation resistance using enzymes and Ca- chelators, as well as biophysical characterization of pit membrane mechanical properties using atomic force microscopy. We will use material collected from the Hubbard Brook experimental forest in which long-term manipulation of soil calcium provides access to sugar maple trees with differing exposure to calcium depletion.  The second project focuses on how drought may impact the ability of tall red oak trees to transport carbohydrates to their roots. For these project, we are looking for someone who enjoys both lab and field work and who is not inordinately afraid of heights as some measurements may be done using a canopy lift to access the leaves of tall trees.  A background in math/physics and/or biology is a plus, but is not required.

Contact: Noel Holbrook

Faculty Supervisor: William (Ned) Friedman
School: FAS
Dept./Area: Organismal and Evolutionary Biology
Project Topic: Linking Plant Phenology and Climate Change through Development

Most phenological events that are studied in association with climate change are limited to relatively brief windows in the life of a plant.  Bud break, peak flowering, bud dormancy, and leaf drop are some of the more commonly documented aspects of a plant’s phenology.  A knowledge of the morphology of plants suggests that in order to fully understand how diverse plant species will respond to climate change, a far more developmental perspective must be integrated into the collection of data.  In most temperate woody flowering plants, leaves and flowers are formed (organogenesis) and undergo limited development (morphogenesis and histogenesis) within a bud at least one or more growing seasons before they will emerge from a bud and become functional.  Thus, summer and fall climate may have a profound effect on timing of events such as leafing out and flowering in the subsequent spring.  This study will use the extraordinary living collections of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University to examine timing and patterns of development of leaves and flowers across their full two-year developmental trajectory, in a selection of key species growing within this common garden.  Research will be based at the Weld Hill Research Facility at the Arnold Arboretum.

Contact: William (Ned) Friedman

Faculty Supervisor: Elsie Sunderland
School: T.H. Chan School of Public Health & SEAS
Dept./Area: Biogeochemistry of Global Contaminants
Project Topic: Methylmercury production from soil flooding associated with hydroelectric power development (Labrador, Canada)

New hydroelectric developments and reservoir creation are being proposed in many ecosystems, but little data exists on whether toxic methylmercury flux will vary with soil carbon content and composition. This information is essential to assess the environmental and human risks associated with reservoir creation. We are addressing this knowledge gap for a hydroelectric power development under construction near Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River (Labrador, Canada). An undergraduate research assistant is needed to assist with soil core collection and soil flux core experiments over a period of several weeks in Laborador. The research assistant will also provide lab support for methylmercury analyses and soil characterization analyses in our Cambridge labs during the summer of 2017.

Contact: Elsie Sunderland

Faculty Supervisor: Elsie Sunderland
School: T.H. Chan School of Public Health & SEAS
Dept./Area: Biogeochemistry of Global Contaminants
Project Topic: Using feather archives to explore past exposure of songbirds to methylmercury

This summer 2017 project will explore whether methylmercury (MeHg) exposure was a significant factor in the population decline of endangered songbird species. Songbird types include the Wood Thrush, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Red-Eyed Vireo and Northern Water Thrush. Feather archives are available through the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. In our Cambridge lab, the research assistant will assist with MeHg analysis of feathers from the eastern US and Central America, basic data analysis using MATLAB or R, and a small literature review. No prior experience is necessary as there will be opportunities for training throughout the project.

Contact: Elsie Sunderland

Faculty Supervisor: Dustin Tingley
School: FAS
Dept./Area: Government
Project Topic: Machine Learning for the Environment

Social scientists routinely encounter settings where they must deal with a proliferation of variables that need to be accounted for in a predictive or explanatory model. As such, statistical methods for these settings are becoming more developed and accessible. My group is developing machine learning methods and applying them to causal inference problems. 

This project will aim to deploy these tools for studying questions related to the environment. A first step will be to catalog where in various environment related fields (e.g., climate science, environment related public health) machine learning tools. To date, this has been surprisingly rare, unlike in other fields including the social sciences. The next step will be to see if alternative machine learning tools my team has helped develop provide greater predictive ability. Finally, we will aim to draft an article for environment related fields introducing them to these tools and distilling some of the advantages/disadvantages for their fields of interest.

Skills Needed: Statistics, computer science, programming. Interest in environmental topics.

Contact: Dustin Tingley

Faculty Supervisor: Rohini Pande
School: HKS
Dept./Area: Public Policy
Project Topic: Air pollution in Delhi

Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD), a research program at Harvard Kennedy School, is collaborating with the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago (EPIC) to study the impact of air pollution on health outcomes in Delhi. Using low-cost, portable sensors, we have generated heat maps that identify pollution hotspots and spatiotemporal patterns of pollution within Delhi. The intern will help to collect pollution data from several locations around Delhi using the low-cost, portable sensors. S/he will also help in identifying relevant sources of local health data, and coordinate with different parties to collect that data. Location: New Delhi, India.

Contact: Eshita Gupta

Faculty Supervisor: Rohini Pande
School: HKS
Dept./Area: Public Policy
Project Topic: Environmental clearances in India 

Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD), a research program at Harvard Kennedy School, is working with the Indian Ministry of Mines to evaluate its recent launch of a Star Rating program for sustainable mining. Alongside, we are analyzing secondary data to explore whether historical environmental compliance records can be used to predict future compliance. One of the most politically volatile environmental issues in India right now is the environmental clearance system, which is under fire both from the right as being too slow and therefore hindering economic growth, and from the left as being too lenient and allowing highly polluting firms to receive permits with few, if any, conditions. This project could lead to a tiered clearance system that gives preference to firms with strong environmental track records. We are looking for someone to contribute primarily to data analysis and our literature review. However, the intern will also have the ability to join in and learn about policy outreach. Location: New Delhi, India.

Contact: Anca Balietti

Faculty Supervisor: Jonathan Losos
School: GSAS
Dept./Area: Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
Project Topic: Identifying the drivers of natural selection in Anolis lizards under human-induced rapid environmental change

Biological invasions have become a major driver of current global change. New ecological interactions between invaders and native species often alter the functioning of biological communities and significantly damage ecosystem services upon which human civilization relies. A major question that remains unsolved is why some organisms are able to deal with these invaders whereas others are not? With the aim of unraveling this question, in the Losos lab we recently set up a unique field experiment on small Caribbean islands using Anolis sagrei lizards as our species of study. This set up allows us to simulate the invasion by a new predator –the ground lizard Leiocephalus carinatus- and compare the morphological, ecological, and behavioral characteristics of the Anolis individuals that survived with those that died. Because behavior largely determines how animals interact with their environment, we will pay particular attention to study whether and how individual variation in behavior influences the chances of animals to persist under human-induced rapid environmental changes. For this project, we look for candidates who enjoy fieldwork and are motivated to work with live animals in the wild. By working in a project that integrates research in ecology, behavior, and evolution, the candidate will develop an integrative understanding of how global change alters biological interactions.

Contact: Oriol Lapiedra

Faculty Supervisor: Francine Laden, Marc Weisskopf
School: HSPH
Dept./Area: Environmental Health
Project Topic: Assessing the Role of Occupation on Home Exposures in a Disadvantaged Community (Take Home Study)

Workers in the so-called dirty jobs have a high likelihood of being exposed to chemicals at work and transporting chemicals home from work, known as “take home.” Further, health disparities could exacerbate how work interplays with exposures at home and how it ultimately affects health. This study aims to better understand the connection between home and work-related exposures in high metals or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exposure risk occupations such as construction, janitorial, autobody, and recycling, within high-risk communities. We will assess the relationship between home and potential for take home with a survey and a home dust sample for metals and semi volatile compounds (SVOCs) in 30 residences in the Greater Boston area with an emphasis in Dorchester. We will also deploy silicone wristbands for SVOCs at the residence, on the worker, and 1 household member for a week in a subset of 10 residences. Participants and household members will be referred for biomonitoring of metals and PCBs. Finally, a training module in how to reduce take home exposures will be tested on other 10 workers. This project will inform a larger grant to evaluate effectiveness of interventions to reduce take home exposures and improve the health of residents in low-income communities.

The student will be part of a research team to assist in the following activities throughout the summer: perform literature reviews, help recruit participants, assist during home visits, and assist entering and analyzing data from the recruiting and home visits. Home visits will include sampling of the home dust, handing of silicone bracelets to family members, and administering of surveys. The student will also help coordinate referrals with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Massachusetts for Biomonitoring to obtain blood and urine from participants and their family members.

Contact: Diana Ceballos

Faculty Supervisor: Steve Wofsy
School: FAS
Dept./Area: Earth and Planetary Sciences
Project Topic: Analysis of recent global data on carbonyl sulfide (OCS) and other atmospheric gases

We are looking for an undergraduate intern to work on analysis of recent global data on atmospheric gases, with a focus on understanding sources and sinks of carbonyl sulfide (OCS). This gas provides an analogue of CO2 in land plants. Its sources originate in the oceans, and are somewhat mysterious. The research will focus on new global data acquired in the ATom field program, intended to help determine the sources and emission processes for this gas.

Contact: Róisín Commane

Faculty Supervisor: Ann Forsyth
School: GSD
Dept./Area: Urban Planning
Project Topic: Suburbia

This project is to synthesize prior studies, and some current policy and public discussions, to make an argument about the future of suburbs. Suburbs, newer areas in the outer parts of cities, towns, and metropolitan regions are a large part of most urban areas. All around the world, every day, thousands of people move to such suburbs. Hundreds more are born there. Over the coming decades suburbs will swell by a billion or more. The reason for this growth is that they can fulfill many aspirations—close to jobs, less expensive than the core city, close to nature. However for many, suburbs cause problems—using up agricultural land, increasing energy use, undermining social sustainability. Helping people think clearly and act thoughtfully about suburbs is not a simple task. Suburbs are diverse and growing more so—in form, populations, economics, accessibility, stability, and culture. Part of the reason there is great debate about them is that critics and proponents typically focus on a few types of suburban places but good policy needs to engage the larger picture. The student assistant will work closely with Professor Ann Forsyth, investigating public debates about suburban development, locating and analyzing literature on specific topics (e.g. density, planned communities), and locating case studies. Depending on skills the student might undertake specific tasks e.g. a student interested in visual communication could create figures or, someone interested in demographics might dig into population data.

Contact: Ann Forsyth

Faculty Supervisor: Diane Davis
School: GSD
Dept./Area: Urban Planning
Project Topic: Transforming Urban Transport - The Role of Political Leadership (TUT-POL)

We are seeking student researchers to contribute to the Transforming Urban Transport - The Role of Political Leadership (TUT-POL) research project. The project focuses on the origins and implementation pathways of significant transport innovations in eight democratically governed cities that are seeking to advance sustainability aims. The case sites include large global cities where mayors and other key political actors in both the public and private sector have been instrumental in spearheading the adoption of contentious but transformative transportation innovations (in alphabetical order: Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul, Stockholm, and Vienna). The multi-year project, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under the direction of Professor Diane Davis and funded by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF), is now in its final stage of research output and dissemination. It aims to generate research insights to facilitate the adoption and implementation of transformative policies more widely in cities around the world.

The project is particularly concerned with questions about political leadership and governance: How do key leaders and advocates in such cities overcome the various administrative, fiscal, environmental and political obstacles that have prevented more widespread adoption of transformative urban transportation policies? What leadership skills, technical resources, negotiation capacities, and governance styles have been invoked to successfully guide good ideas from the drawing board to the streets?  Does leadership for sustainable transportation lie in the state or civil society domains; and what roles do technicians and professionals play in leveraging positive outcomes?

What will participating students do?

We are looking for student researchers to further investigate the sustainable advances that have been made in our case study cities, with a particular focus on those that resulted from the various transportation and political initiatives that each case study highlights.

Students hired will make a significant contribution to this project, helping the research team conduct research and contribute to the case studies that will eventually be published. In the process, they will gain insight into the contemporary urban transport exemplars, and learn about the pattern-breaking transport innovations implemented and how they have affected environmental goals of the city.

Who is eligible?

We are looking for students with a clear interest in sustainable transportation, urban policy and planning and/or politics and governance. Candidates must be: 

  • Self-starters and independent
  • Resourceful
  • Excellent writers

While not required, foreign language skills (especially French, German, Swedish, Korean, or Spanish) and previous work in transportation-related issues are a plus. Familiarity with non-US contexts is preferred. 

Contact: Please send a CV and a 1-page letter of interest to: Professor Diane Davis with a copy to Lily Song.

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