Planting Mentorship Opportunities

Andy Garcia CC’17 and Professor Kevin Griffin

Andres “Andy” Garcia CC’17 is majoring in earth and environmental sciences (DEES) with a concentration in ecology, evolution and environmental biology (E3B). 

The E3B program provides a unique opportunity for College students to create a scientific project and see it through from start to finish. It was through this experience that Garcia met his research adviser, Kevin Griffin, a professor of earth and environmental sciences, who has been influential at guiding Garcia — and vice versa.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Garcia and Griffin that took place on November 10, 2016. All photos courtesy of Garcia and Griffin.


CC: How did you two meet?

Garcia: I had Kevin as a professor in my junior year, Fall semester, [when I took his] “Plant Ecophysiology” [class]. Much of the class was focused on answering a specific research question, and I felt like that was what it was like to be a career academic scientist working in the field — a semester-long experience, an example of what I could be doing in the long-term and it was fun. [laughs] Had he graded harder I would’ve switched majors!

Griffin: [laughs] The class Andy is referring to is a 4000-level class. [My department] pitches a lot of our classes at that level so that we can get the advanced undergrads and the beginning grad students. It makes the audience broader because the plant ecology world is not a huge community. What happens almost always in the beginning in classes at that level is you watch the undergrads look around and see these grad students coming in and they’re kind of like …

Garcia:  … Like, “Should I drop?”

Griffin: [laughs] I can say that, without fail, the undergrads can always hold their own. It’s just letting them know or waiting for them to figure that out and it’s a lot of fun. We not only read primary literature papers but also take field trips. Our lab at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is full of toys and lots of gear. The students and I take as much of it as we can to Black Rock Forest and I quickly train students how to use it so that as a group they collect data. The students develop the research as a research project and a final paper is written in the scientific style. Several times the projects have been published.

Professor Kevin Griffin’s “Forest Ecology” class, co-taught by Matt Palmer Ph.D. (back, left of center), in Van Cortlandt Park (Fall 2016).

CC: Andy, how did this class experience develop into your E3B research project?

Garcia: I was in Matt Palmer’s “Urban Ecology” class [co-taught with Gena Wirth of GSAAP] in Spring 2016 and, at that point, my interest was more in a biological experiment and not something environmental. Matt suggested I talk to Kevin to see if he had any pending experiments or ideas floating around that we might be able to work on. Kevin filled me in on an idea he had, which is what we’re doing now: inhibiting photosynthesis in leaves so that we can measure respiration directly under different light conditions.

Listen to Garcia speak more about his research project:

CC: How does this respiration level work have an impact on us today, in the global scheme of things?

Griffin: The bigger implication of what we’re trying to do is for, as Andy says, modeling carbon cycling. If you want to get to climate change and think about how CO2 traps energy in the atmosphere, the amount of plant respiration feeds into how much CO2 is in the atmosphere. The majority of people who study this from a plant perspective study it from a photosynthetic side. Andy and I would argue you’re missing a big piece of this if you don’t fill in the other half. 

(Right) Griffin with some of the respiration data that Garcia has been collecting during his senior thesis project.

CC: Why are undergraduates, specifically, important for this kind of research at the University?

Griffin: Andy is the only undergrad working with me right now. But I have several master’s and Ph.D. students, and they make great partners. Together they’re able to accomplish a lot more than either one would alone. I love working with the undergraduates because they bring a certain energy and a certain passion …

Garcia: That’s my job!

Griffin: In Dean James J. Valentini’s vocabulary, undergraduates bring their “Beginner’s Mind” to this and just go straight at it, and that’s really fun. They bring their own sense of what an interesting question to ask is and I think it can lead you in new directions.

(Left) Garcia collecting samples for his "Forest Ecology" class during a field trip to the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Garcia: My favorite thing is when I ask a question and Kevin says, “Andy, you know, to be honest, I really don’t know!” [Griffin laughs in agreement] It’s so interesting because it’s an opportunity to go into that question and say, “Well, we don’t know, but this is how we could approach it, this is how we could measure these things, this is how we could get information out of it.” Testing these hypotheses and getting data puts you a lot closer to solving the problem. 

Griffin: The senior thesis project really is the whole package of science. It’s “I have to think of an idea. I have to justify my idea. I have to struggle with how to frame it in a way so that someone can understand it. I have to struggle with how to get the right data to answer my question.” The easiest thing to do is to write a letter of recommendation for one of the students in this senior thesis program because you’ve watched them do this from start to finish.

CC: Andy, do you have plans for after graduation?

Garcia: I might get a job or get a master’s, even a Ph.D. if it goes well. I’m optimistic because I don’t feel I have any shortage of resources. I feel Columbia offers you so many opportunities to network, to reach out and to see what’s available, which you might not get at another school.

Griffin: I always assume that if you’re hiring someone and you’re looking at two applications and you see a Columbia student who did the senior thesis project and a professor who can say, “This student can think for themselves, can problem-solve, knows how to collect data, responds when something goes wrong, fixes things and perseveres, and is present,” it’s a slam dunk.

CC: How would you like to see the College expand in terms of mentorship opportunities?

Griffin: The problem is that if you want a summer research job and you want it on campus, there’s the issue of housing availability and cost. I also think my colleagues have a lot to offer, which could help crack that door open and help people feel willing to take a risk with more research. [A number of years ago a Columbia College parent made a gift to support senior thesis research]. Since the grant is long gone, I would love to [have more resources so]  our program could  continue supporting students. We have a very small budget for the students, which is helpful because they have to write a budget and justify it — and that’s part of science too! When you show up in a professor’s office because you’re interested in a project and the lab costs or even the cost of an airplane ticket is covered, it really makes a difference.

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