Geology major Sierra Melton ’18 has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She is one of two Colorado College seniors to receive the prestigious award this year.
Melton will attend graduate school at Pennsylvania State University in the fall, where she plans to study glaciology and conduct research that contributes to the understanding of polar and alpine environments. “I am particularly interested in the interactions between soil, water, and ice in rapidly-changing permafrost and glacial landscapes, and I intend to utilize remote sensing, field work, modeling, and lab work to investigate the evolution of these landscapes,” she says. “My research will fill missing gaps in our understanding of connections among cryosphere, climate, and human systems in the regions most vulnerable to changing climate.”
Melton was a Goldwater Scholar in 2017, and received a Udall Scholarship Honorable Mention and Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention in 2016. She has been selected four times for highly competitive undergraduate research programs; these experiences have taken her to tidal rivers in Texas to soils on construction sites in North Carolina to streams in Alaska.
“My passion for investigating alpine and Arctic environments began in my childhood while exploring Colorado’s alpine ecosystems,” says the Boulder, Colorado, native.
Now a senior at Colorado College, Melton says her geology education “is preparing me well for a geoscience career of field research and critical thinking.
“I highly value interdisciplinary research and at some point in my career would love to combine glaciological and permafrost research to further understand the complicated natural systems of polar and alpine environments,” she says.
During the summer after her freshman year, Melton participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, collecting and analyzing sediment cores for grain size, porosity, and sedimentary organic matter from the Mission and Aransas Rivers. Since physical characteristics of sediments affect bacterial and organic matter content, influencing decomposition and biochemistry, her work complemented ongoing research on nitrogen cycling and removal in tidal freshwater river zones.
The following summer she worked in an REU program with the North Carolina State University Soil Science Department, where she used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and ground-based remote sensing and photogrammetry to quantify erosion and compute runoff flow paths on an active construction site.
Following her junior year, Melton worked as a research assistant in a paleoclimate lab at Southern Methodist University, where she prepared carbonate nodules and mammal teeth from an Ethiopian archaeological site for stable isotope geochemical analysis. The analysis helps place the behaviors of Middle Stone Age early modern humans into a paleo-environmental context. With the support of an REU grant, she continued doing geoarchaeological research as part of an archaeological excavation team in northwest Ethiopia last January.
Last summer Melton joined the Woods Hole Research Center’s Polaris Project’s team of permafrost scientists in the remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska. There she designed and executed a project to investigate patterns in carbon storage and processing across the landscape in response to changes in soil moisture. She continued this research as her senior thesis and hopes to return to the tundra in the future to investigate other research questions arising from the unique permafrost-fire-water interactions that occur there.
“Ultimately, I hope to work in academia as a research geoscientist and develop a field- and lab-based research program that will combine the expertise of geomorphologists, biogeochemists, and glaciologists with the fresh perspectives of motivated students to develop and investigate research questions about permafrost and glacier-marginal landscapes,” says Melton.
“This award deepens my enthusiasm for future graduate research concerning Earth's dynamic glaciers and icy landscapes,” she says. “I look forward to addressing fascinating research questions concerning the systems most vulnerable to climate change and with the greatest potential to impact human lives.”
During the 2018 awards cycle, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program received more than 12,000 applications and granted 2,000 fellowships. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. It is a five-year program that includes three years of a $34,000 stipend for research as well as tuition coverage.