Jeremy Hoffman spent about 100 hours holed up in a basement laboratory last summer, plucking a certain type of plankton out of sediment-core samples to study.
Sure, it was monotonous.
But the 22-year-old Bettendorf resident and geology major at Augustana College in Rock Island said he found his "zen" in the process - and ended up finding evidence to help further scientific study of sudden climate change.
For that work, Hoffman was named the first winner of the American Geophysical Union's David E. Lumley Scientist Scholarship for Energy and Environmental Science. It recognizes an undergraduate or high school student for research that addresses a global problem related to energy or environmental science.
"He did some really great work, and it's going to launch him eventually to getting his Ph.D.," said Jeff Strasser, professor in Augustana's geology department. "Jeremy's been very self-motivated on this - he did it all independently. Jeremy figured out the science and pushed himself to do the work."
Standing in a lab full of rocks and fossils recently in the Swenson Hall Geosciences Building at Augustana, Hoffman motioned toward an overhead screen as he explained his research about the effect on fresh water from melting ice sheets.
It focused on what's known among scientists as the "8.2 Kiloyear Cold Event," which he described as the most abrupt and significant climate change event that has happened in thousands of years.
This particular change happened 8,200 years ago when a glacial lake - comparable to the size of Lake Michigan, he said - drained into the Atlantic Ocean through the Hudson Strait near Greenland. No one knew what had caused the sudden drainage or the 8-degree drop in temperature
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because of it.
Hoffman was intrigued with the idea of understanding more about the incident and how that might help scientists study climate change in today's world.
His interest was piqued further when he heard Augustana alumnus Anders Carlson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, speak about his research on the issue. He is a 2000 graduate of Augustana.
"People are really worried about how fast the ice sheet is retreating," Hoffman said. "I thought that research sounded really cool."
Hoffman said he was lucky enough that Carlson took him under his wing, allowing him to help with his research, which ended up finding the "geochemical fingerprint" in the sediment from that area.
Because of glacial runoff, that lake drained in a year, which can be seen in the sediment because of the plankton Hoffman plucked out of the core samples. He said their shells showed chemical changes during that time, caused by a shift in water temperature because of the "huge amount of fresh water" entering the salt-water ocean.
He said the shift in ocean circulation led to the sudden climate change.
"We're very confident we found exactly what we were looking for," Hoffman said.
"They found the smoking gun," Strasser added. "They figured it out."
Hoffman's work was the focus on his senior inquiry project, which is an independent research project required of all senior geology majors at Augustana, Strasser said.
He started the research last winter, proposing the project in December 2009 and then doing the lab work over the summer 2010. It was finished in September, Hoffman said.
They now are writing a research paper on the project and trying to get it published, he said.
An official at the American Geophysical Union sent some of the judge's comments about Hoffman's project, in giving him this award:
- From Stephen J. Burges, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Washington: "The applicant will likely make significant scientific contributions. He is most worthy of support."
- From Stephanie Stockman, education and public outreach for science mission directorate at NASA headquarters: "I am impressed with his commitment to share his research and potential expertise beyond the scientific community."
Hoffman hopes to work as a research scientist, while helping lawmakers better understand science.
"There's a huge knowledge gap between scientists and the public and lawmakers," he said. "If we can identify the effects of a sudden climate change, we can be somewhat ready for it."