Amy Leventer is an associate professor of geology at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, United States. She is also a part of LARISSA, an interdisciplinary project examining changes in Antarctica’s Larsen Ice Shelf. (LARISSA stands for LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica.)
“I do work on trying to understand the history of Antarctic climate,” she says. “I do this by looking at the record that is in marine sediments.”
Amy’s work with diatoms, a type of algae, can reveal hints about Antarctica’s past.
“So I use them as paleo-indicators of oceanographic conditions at times in the past,” Amy says. “It would be the same as say looking at pollen on land where you use the pollen to reconstruct what the trees were like or the vegetation was like. I can do the same in the ocean by looking at the diatoms. They hold clues to things like nutrient concentration in the water, available light, distribution of sea ice, things like that.”
Amy grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, United States, and Congers, New York.
“I was one of those kids who was always a collector, so I’d be the kid who would collect almost anything: seashells, pebbles, insects, leaves, flowers,” she says. “I know I once came home with a handful of snakes. I always tried to organize things by what they look like, so I think working in the way I do now with diatoms is pretty much a natural fit. I’m a good observer, and I like to make order out of everything I see around me.”
“I didn’t come from a family of scientists,” she says. “I didn’t have any particular plan when I went to college, even for what I would do afterwards.”
Eventually, Amy majored in aquatic biology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. “In college, I tried out a whole bunch of different sciences, and the climate puzzle was the one that pulled me in just because of its scope,” she says.
Amy later earned a Ph.D. in geology from Rice University in Houston, Texas, United States.
Most Exciting Part of Your Work
“I actually love looking through a microscope and seeing a world unfold for me.”
Most Demanding Part of Your Work
“There is always more work to do than I can complete. I always have something pressing that I wish I could get to. The hardest part for me is feeling like I’m never going to catch up.”
How Do You Define Geography?
“I guess the way that I look at geography is understanding a landscape and the way that it was developed.”
One of the ways the LARISSA team explores the changing world of the Larsen Ice Shelf is through the use of bathymetry, the study of underwater depths. The LARISSA team always has a member who creates bathymetric maps.
“Everything that we do has to have a spatial context,” Amy says. “[In] some of the areas we have visited, we were among the first people to go there, so we’re the groups that go in and make the maps of the seafloor.”
Additionally, Amy and LARISSA’s work in Antarctica contributes to our understanding of climate change. Amy points out that climate change has historically transformed the world’s geographic features, and they continue to be transformed today.
“I hope that my work is contributing to our understanding of how climate change has affected the world in the past and how to understand how it is changing today,” Amy says. “And what to expect in the future.”
So, You Want to be a ... Geologist
“Course-wise, I always tell my students to try to take as many different kinds of sciences as possible,” Amy says. “Not to shy away from things that they don’t think they are good at. They may be surprised by their interests as long as they give things a chance.”
Amy also offers some nonacademic advice: “I do tell all my students to try to maintain some level of connection with the outdoors,” she says. “Make sure that you are always getting up and doing something.”
“I’m a huge reader, so I’m always trying to get my students to read books about anything,” Amy says. “Probably the most exciting books to read—I think—are the books on exploration.”
Amy has some great book suggestions for people interested in learning about Antarctic exploration, including Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and, one of her personal favorites, Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written by Leonard Bickel and Sir Edmund Hillary.