Audrey Taylor (Berke Group)

Patterns and mechanisms of Plio-Pleistocene climate change in southeastern Africa

November 20, 2019

Taylor Audrey 5775

Audrey Taylor is a third-year graduate student advised by Prof. Melissa Berke in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences. She presented "Patterns and mechanisms of Plio-Pleistocene climate change in southeastern Africa" at the ND Energy PD&GS Luncheon in November 2019.

Research in the Berke group examines sedimentary molecules to determine the characteristics of the past climate. By using these biomarkers, compounds indicative of certain kinds of life, Taylor aims to use the past to gain a better understanding of how climate might operate in the future. Specifically, she has studied the Plio-Pleistocene period, which is believed to have similarities to what we might expect in the near future.

“We’re using that as an analogue for future climate change,” Taylor said. “If we can figure out how climate responds in a certain region, we can determine how we need to adapt.”

As an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Taylor majored in physical geography with a minor in chemistry. Now pursuing her doctorate, the interdisciplinary work in the Berke lab allows Taylor to combine multiple research interests.

“I was really interested in climate and weather, as well as chemistry and ecology. This is the type of project that allows me to do everything without having to choose,” she said.

Taylor was also drawn to the prospects of doing her field study in various parts of the world. In addition to her prior project in southeastern Africa, she is looking forward to the opportunity to work in the Mediterranean to study the climate of Ancient Greece.

While in the field, Taylor collects sediment cores to bring back to campus for analysis. This further examination of samples is completed with instrumentation in the Berke lab and also the Center for Environmental Science and Technology (CEST).

“We go through a series of organic chemistry extractions to separate out the organic molecules from the sediments,” Taylor said.

Reflecting on her research, Taylor finds it intriguing how the complexities of the Earth’s systems can be understood through very simple ways.

“Using plant wax to look back at climate seems kind of crazy, but we can actually elucidate a lot of climate mechanisms and how climate has changed in the past,” Taylor said.

During her time in the lab, Taylor has learned a lot about analytical chemistry and has developed extensive technical skills in using the instrumentation on campus. She has passed this knowledge along through mentoring and training undergraduate students.

“It’s nice to show the students the full process and get them to the point where they can get data and analyze it,” Taylor said.

A standout scholar, Taylor has utilized resources through The Graduate School to secure funding for her research. She is a recipient of the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship for Women in Science and Engineering, a program which aims to encourage women to study and teach in STEM fields. She also received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) in 2018.