studying the past to inform the future

Kelly Fenton-Samuels

Every year, the COE awards fellowships to fund summer research opportunities for Wesleyan students across all majors and class years. Chemistry and earth & environmental science major Kelly Fenton-Samuels ’23 spent the summer working with Professor Suzanne O’Connell, studying Antarctic ocean floor sediment core samples dating back to the Pliocene Epoch.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work in Professor O’Connell’s lab, studying Antarctic marine sediment cores collected by the International Ocean Discovery Program. Specifically, my summer research project utilized deep sea sediments dating back 2.4 million years to reveal Antarctic climate changes during that time. I began researching with Professor O’Connell a year ago, after reaching out to her to discuss the work conducted in her lab. Her work both on Antarctic paleoclimate and on communicating climate science to a general audience aligns strongly with my interest in using climate change research to further climate justice.

Understanding how and why climate changed in the past provides vital data to inform models of future climate change and sea level rise.  As a COE summer research fellow, I explored the ways in which sediment core data can be employed to elucidate information about ancient environments. Throughout the summer, I was able to recover and utilize ice-rafted debris, a special type of sediment deposited by icebergs as they melt, to reveal past changes in the Antarctic climate. In addition to researching how the Antarctic environment evolved in the past, I studied the mechanisms for these climate changes through examining the influence of Earth’s movement around the sun on the rhythms of the ice ages.

One of the biggest challenges I faced this summer was how to turn my sediment data into a powerful story about the Antarctic environment 2.4 millions years in the past. The independent nature of designing a research project and poster was definitely overwhelming, and I faced a lot of self-doubt in my ability to formulate interesting research questions and to transform my research into a concise and engaging poster. Guidance from Professor O’Connell, as well as from workshops within the program, helped me gain the tools I needed to be successful.

I am so grateful for this invaluable experience! Being a COE summer research fellow provided me with the opportunity to focus solely on research as opposed to balancing both research and a full course load during the academic year, and provided insight into what a future in research might entail. Furthermore, the brevity of the program motivated me to continue researching the topic this academic year and, potentially, beyond.  I encourage other Wes students interested in environmental topics to apply, and apply early, for the opportunity, as the application deadline occurs during a busy portion of the semester [this year’s deadline will be in February 2023]!