National Science Foundation Funds Innovative Research at Colby College



An international conference, Climate and Cultural Anxiety, the first major gathering of historians of climate change, is scheduled on campus April 1-4. Thirty-two international scholars will discuss historical perspectives on climate change.

Professor of Science, Technology, and Society James Fleming received a $25,000 NSF grant to support the conference, whose formal title is Climate Change Science, Environmental Challenges, and Cultural Anxiety: Historical and Social Perspectives. Fleming billed the conference as “unique and unprecedented ... international, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary.” A leading expert on the history of meteorology, Fleming said the field of historical studies of climate change is beginning to achieve critical mass. “Ten years ago it would have been me and one other person—and we did meet once in a while for coffee.”

Meanwhile, three other Colby professors received research grants from the National Science Foundation in the fall, and all of the projects involve student researchers.

Whitney King (chemistry) is developing instruments that can measure iron and copper in seawater.

Phil Brown (economics) is part of a project analyzing the pros and cons of dams in China.

Paul Josephson (history) is studying the role of science and technology in the conquest of the Russian Arctic under the Soviet regime.

Testing Seawater for Iron

Whitney King
Whitney King

D. Whitney King, the Miselis Professor of Chemistry, studies ways that iron in seawater, and copper to a lesser degree, stimulate the growth of ocean plankton that, through photosynthesis, play a major role in sequestering the carbon in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The research has enormous implications in the study of climate change as scientists try to understand what limits the growth of these plankton.

“There’s an incredible need to make good iron measurements on the run,” King said, noting that traditional measurement instruments are deployed from research vessels that are very expensive to operate.

King runs a business that already builds instruments, including one that measures iron in the ocean, but his research, working with two professors at the University of Maine, has developed new sensors that can be attached to moorings, drifting floats, or underwater gliders to get more robust data on iron and copper levels in the ocean.

King said that dust from desert storms can introduce enough iron to areas of the ocean to cause phytoplankton blooms. Scientists are studying iron fertilization—adding iron to the upper ocean to stimulate plankton growth—as a possible means of sequestering excess carbon from the atmosphere.

King noted that Colby graduate and oceanographer, the late John Martin ’59 (who, like King, earned his Ph.D. at University of Rhode Island), was an important figure in iron fertilization research and a leading champion of the idea. Martin’s most famous quip—“Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age”—initiated a decade of research that proposed iron fertilization as a key to mitigating climate change.

Regarding the new sensor being tested in the saltwater of Maine’s Damariscotta River and in the Pacific, King said: “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” Four Colby students each year will serve as research assistants, with two of them spending summers and or Jan Plans working alongside graduate students in University of Maine labs and at the Darling Marine Center.

The NSF grant totals $1.2 million between Colby and the UMaine, and it will span four years. King said the impressive success of Colby students in graduate schools and careers was noted by NSF reviewers, who indicated that the grant would be money well spent for developing both the science and the budding scientists. King's portion of the grant is $279,543. The proposal states that researchers will significantly engage students from underrepresented backgrounds in the project.

The Bangor Daily News wrote about the research in January 2009.

Dammed If He Doesn't
Assistant Professor of Economics Philip H. Brown spent last year developing what he calls the Integrative Dam Assessment Modeling (IDAM) tool, which incorporates biophysical, socioeconomic, and geopolitical perspectives into a single cost-benefit analysis when assessing proposed dam projects. Now he has won a $162,641 grant from the National Science Foundation start using the interdisciplinary instrument in the field.

Phillip H. Brown
Phillip H. Brown

For Brown, the field is China. “China is going on a dam-building spree right now,” he said. “It’s about the only place in the world.”

Brown is a co-principal investigator for the NSF grant totaling $750,000 and shared by a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and two professors at Oregon State University. Their proposal states that “a broader view of dams is needed” to sustainably meet “the simultaneous and growing demands for water, energy, and environmental quality while protecting the welfare and tradition of affected communities.”

Integrating education and high-quality undergraduate research is a stated goal of the project. Three of his students—Yilin Xu ’09, Qingyi Wang ’11, and You Liu ’11—are helping Brown implement surveys along the Nu River in China. Xu was coauthor with him on a paper about hydroelectric potential that was accepted by China Economic Review. Colby students will spend the next two summers in the field on the project, he said.

This summer Brown will take his survey to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River to villages that are inaccessible by road.

Arctic Nightmares

When he received a Fulbright Fellowship last year and taught at the Pomor State University in Archangel, Russia, Professor of History Paul R. Josephson spent time in the archives researching the technology of Arctic conquest during the Soviet era.

Paul R. Josephson
Paul R. Josephson

He found it fascinating. “As soon as I got back, I applied to the National Science Foundation,” he said, mapping out a project titled “Arctic Science and Arctic Politics Under Soviet Power, 1930-1990.”

Josephson’s two-year study, which he describes as being at the intersection of the history of technology and environmental history, will result in a book about the Soviet regime’s “attempt to conquer a place that seems hostile” through the use of modern, essentially urban technology. Part of his study, which received a $90,077 NSF grant, will compare the Russian approach to Arctic development with far-northern development programs in the Scandinavian countries, Canada, and the United States.

Bailey Woodhull ’08 and Mark Phillips ’09 have served as research assistants on the project.

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