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Laura Larocca

PhD Candidate in Earth and Planetary Sciences

Laura Larocca

There are always twists and turns to any research project, and things can get overwhelming. I have found that reflecting on how far I’ve come on a project helps, even if I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Laura Larocca is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences. She is a member of the Quaternary Sediment Lab at Northwestern University. Laura received a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation in 2018 and the Denise Gaudreau Award for Excellence in Quaternary Studies from the American Quaternary Association in 2020. She recently was named a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern University. 

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

My research explores the recent and long-term history of Greenland’s mountain glaciers. I use a combination of historical air photos from Danish mapping expeditions, declassified Cold War-era spy satellite imagery, and imagery from modern satellites to document how glaciers have changed in response to climate changes from the early 20th century to the present. In addition, to place recent glacier change into a broader perspective, I use sediment (in other words, mud!) samples from glacial lakes to reconstruct their fluctuations over the last ~10,000 years. Sediment accumulates in lakes continuously year after year, piling up in pristine layers that act as a record of the local environmental conditions when they were deposited. This method allows me to peek into the past and identify times when glaciers were small or wholly melted away, indicating a warmer than present climate. Ultimately, my research projects provide a long-term framework for anticipating the consequences of future, human-driven warming and will help to improve estimates of 21st-century ice loss from Greenland. 

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

I was inspired initially to study the Arctic because of its vast, visually stunning, and otherworldly icy landscapes. Now, I’m motived by how quickly those landscapes are changing, the future impacts these changes will have on Arctic communities and the global population, and how to effectively communicate the urgency of addressing climate change to the public.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?

I admire my adviser, Yarrow Axford. Not only is she a scientific leader in our field and a strong advocate for women in STEM, but she also is an incredible mentor to all of her students and comes into every interaction with kindness and an open mind.

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?

Remote fieldwork! I’ve been so lucky to have had multiple opportunities to see Greenland’s glaciers firsthand and collect the sediment samples that I work on in the lab. Nevertheless, after weeks of camping, I sure do appreciate the wonders of modern plumbing, fresh fruit, and the internet!

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?

Greenland’s ice sheet and peripheral glaciers can raise the global sea level by more than 7 meters. Uncertainties remain on how sensitive Greenland’s ice is to warming air and ocean temperatures and how fast it will melt. My work places recent change in context and will help assess when Greenland’s glaciers will disappear in the future. 

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?

Be patient and take things one day at a time. There are always twists and turns to any research project, and things can get overwhelming. I have found that reflecting on how far I’ve come on a project helps, even if I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

I’m most proud of sticking with it and making it this far. I changed career paths to the earth sciences after completing an undergraduate degree in fine arts, and that switch was not easy! I’m also proud of my first two 1st author journal articles published last summer in Quaternary Science Reviews.

Published: March 2, 2021

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