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Lora Stevens with an undergraduate student, demonstrating water sampling techniques in a lake at Ba Be National Park, Vietnam.

 

Looking to the Past to Understand Modern Climate Change

Dr. Lora Stevens (Geological Sciences) was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Award last year that supported her research and educational activities in Vietnam.

She worked with Vietnamese scientists and students to pursue research that 'reconstructs' past climatic changes from geochemical signatures archived in environmental samples, such as lake sediments. Findings from this research provide important insight for understanding modern climate change and its impact.

Dr. Stevens conducted research in four different regions of Vietnam, and in each she collaborated with different research teams and new groups of students. In the Central Highlands of Vietnam, her research focused on reconstructing past flood events in the region, which has major investments in hydroelectric dams (40% of power in Vietnam is hydroelectric). The work included identifying, analyzing and dating paleoflood deposits along the regional rivers and lakes in Kon Tum Province.

Dr. Stevens initiated an interdisciplinary collaboration when she sought additional types of data to help her understand the chronology and nature of past flood events in Kon Tum. She contacted Dr. Brendan Buckley of Columbia University, the sole tree ring expert working in Vietnam, who brought in a Vietnamese collaborator, a forester from Da Lat. Together, this new collaborative team with Dr. Stevens will continue the work they started and are currently developing a proposal for funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Stevens was invited to present the preliminary findings of this research at a conference in January 2014 at the University of Singapore (Holocene Climate Reconstructions and Understanding Flood Histories) in a presentation entitled "Reconstructing Paleotyphoon Strikes Along the Vietnamese Coast and Other Projects." At the conference, she built new relationships with colleagues from Australia, Singapore and India, who are important contacts as her research moves forward.

Dr. Stevens also traveled to the Quang Binh Province to better understand the frequency and location of past typhoon strikes - work that involved coring 'baus' ('coastal lakes') in the region. Dr. Stevens had to abandon one of the study sites when locals informed her that it was known to contain unexploded ordinance derived from the Vietnam War!

Her research also took her to northern Vietnam, in Lac Ba Be, where she continued her study of Monsoons. Her former graduate student, Ms. D. Marie Weide will use these latest data to publish her master's thesis research on environmental change in northern Vietnam.

Dr. Stevens evaluating a sample taken from Ia M'He, a volcanic crater lake in Kon Tum, Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Dr. Stevens seized upon three new and exciting research opportunities for her laboratory and her collaborators. One of these opportunities arose in the Central Highlands, where Dr. Stevens was allowed access by the Vietnamese government to conduct preliminary coring studies of a volcanic crater lake in Kon Tum. Such lakes are highly desirable study locations due to their long lives (hundreds of thousands of years) and excellent preservation; however, access to them has been restricted to date. Dr. Stevens' samples are the first ever collected by a Westerner. Work is underway on these unique core samples using the analytical facilities at IIRMES and Dr. Stevens' research laboratory. The data collected from these samples will serve to validate individual climate proxies against known changes in climate and be used in conjunction with Australian studies in Cambodia to seek funding from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP). These cores will likely provide the longest records available for climate change in SE Asia.

A second opportunity arose in northern Vietnam, where Dr. Stevens was provided access to a sinkhole lake called 'Ao Tien' (Vietnamese for "Fairy Pond") and discovered the first laminated tropical core in SE Asia. Laminations in sediment indicate special conditions that can lead to exceptionally fine-resolution records of climate change. Its existence alone is worthy of publication, and Dr. Stevens has already had the location added to the archive maintained by the international scientific consortium, PAGES (Past Global Changes). She is currently analyzing the geochemistry of these sediment samples and expects the results to be submitted for publication and to serve as a strong foundation to pursue external funding.

The third opportunity surfaced when she engaged in a project with archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi to understand the environmental impacts of the infamous Battle of Bang Dang (AD 1288), during which the invading army of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty was routed by Vietnamese forces. Dr. Stevens is adding a new twist to this research, to disentangle human from climatic drivers in landscape changes. With collaborator Dr. Christy Briles at the University of Colorado, an NSF proposal was submitted this fall to study "Anthropogenic and Climatological Influences on Late Holocene Ecosystems in Northern Vietnam."

Dr. Stevens in a Vietnamese Classroom

The Vietnam National University (VNU) in Hanoi sponsored Dr. Stevens during her Fulbright sabbatical (all international collaborators require an official sponsor in Vietnam), where she worked with the Geology Department at Hanoi University of Science and the International Center for Advanced Research in Global Change (ICARGC). Dr. Stevens' host was the Director of ICARGC, Dr. Pham Van Cu.M

In addition to contributing guest lectures for the university's Historical Geology course, she mentored several students from VNU who were eager to collaborate in research while strengthening their use of the English language. Through her extensive interactions with the Vietnamese students, Dr. Stevens and the students she came to know shared and learned about each other's cultures and considered the similarities and differences between Vietnam and America. Dr. Stevens looks back at these cultural exchanges as one of the highlights of her sabbatical and which befit the Fulbright Program's objectives.

In addition, Dr. Stevens was involved in several outreach activities in Vietnam. She led a workshop on proposal writing sponsored by the ICARGC and the Hanoi School of Business, co-presented with Dr. David Duong of Harvard Medical School on how to be a successful graduate student in America to new Vietnamese Fulbright students, and she even attended gatherings at the residences of the US Ambassador and Chargé d'Affaires.

The Fulbright Program, established in 1946, is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Congress aimed at increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and over 155 other countries. Fulbright recipients in the academic sciences like Dr. Stevens are considered international leaders in research and education, and they serve as ambassadors for their academic disciplines and institutions to foster connections and collaborations with partners worldwide.

The Fulbright Award and sabbatical leave provided critical opportunities for Dr. Stevens to develop new international collaborations and invigorated her scholarly work by establishing new and exciting research directions. The research has important implications to society given its focus on characterizing past climate change events to understand modern climate change and its potential impacts.

In addition, through all of her activities in Vietnam, Dr. Stevens worked very closely with students. She provided extensive training in scientific approaches and methodologies, but also offered English language skills and American-Vietnamese cultural exchange. From visiting the home towns and families of her Vietnamese students to celebrating cultural events with them (e.g. Tet, the new year celebration), the cultural exchanges provided special context to the productive research completed.

Even though she is now back home, Dr. Stevens continues to mentor two Vietnamese students, sharing new scientific findings, developing theses and manuscripts, or sometimes just conversing. In the spirit of the Fulbright Program, international understanding and collaboration have been expanded, from Long Beach to Vietnam.

Dr. Stevens with her graduate research students, Ms. Trang Tran (right) and Ms. Oanh Nguyen (left), at a Central Highlands lake in Vietnam.

Dr. Stevens received her Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Minnesota after earning a baccalaureate from Pomona College in southern California. After a stint at the University of Nebraska as an Adjunct Research Professor, she joined the CSULB faculty in 2005. As an Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, she directs the Paleoclimatology Research Laboratory and teaches courses in General Geology, Physical and Chemical Oceanography, Earth Systems and Global Change, and Environmental Science and Policy 'Capstone' Project.

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