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PUBLISHED: November 30, 2015

Even though she uses the geologic record to reconstruct what earth was like in the past, Melissa Berke’s feet are firmly planted in the present. Berke, who joined the University in 2013, is the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences. She’s also affiliated with Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative. Her research interests encompass paleoclimate, environmental change, organic biogeochemistry and stable isotopes, limnology, and oceanography. She spends her research efforts studying the past to better understand the future.  “If you don’t understand how the earth and its systems work, it would be almost impossible to say what might happen in the future. It’s our understanding of the past that can tell us what’s going on now and what’s likely to happen next,” she says.

One of Berke’s current projects began almost two years ago when she and graduate student Alejandra Cartagena-Sierra took a two-month trip aboard a research ship run by the International Ocean Discovery Program. During that time, the ship followed the Agulhas Current, from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean down the east coast of Africa and around to Cape Town. The Agulhas Current carries large volumes of water back into the Indian Ocean, but because significant eddies spin off and drift into the Atlantic [usually as very warm packets of water], this affects ocean activity and impacts weather patterns all the way to the Americas.

The mud core samples that she and Cartagena-Sierra helped recover from the ocean floor will allow her to study major patterns and disturbances to see how living things were affected over the course of time.

Now back on campus in her Organic Biogeochemistry Lab, Berke and students are extracting the organic matter from the samples in order to reconstruct past temperature, precipitation and vegetation. In fact, one of her current graduate students Audrey Taylor, a Clare Boothe Luce Fellow, has begun her Ph.D. by working on samples from this expedition. Undergraduates Adrienne Bruggeman and Emily Najacht are also working on the samples. The general goal, according to Berke, is to have research coming out of the lab that is thorough, well-done, and well thought-out and that provides the best “picture” of the past environments and climates possible.

In the classroom — she teaches Global Change, Water, and Energy; Organic Geochemistry; and Paleoclimatology — Berke is equally focused. Her goal, beyond simply conveying information, is to give students the tools and understanding necessary to look at the world and ask critical questions. “Reading graphs, understanding the key pieces of information, and making informed interpretations based on all of the data are critical to understanding any study my students may ever come across in life,” she says, “whether it’s about climate change or any discipline.”

Categories:  Faculty

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