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Drilling Into Ice to See Into Earth's Past, Future

Jim White, professor of Geological Sciences and the Director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, an expert on global climate change. (Image credit: Jim White, University of Colorado)

Jim White is a professor of Geological Sciences and the Director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is leading research being conducted on the Greenland ice sheet. White is also the director of The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), which focuses on studying the effects of environmental changes in high altitude and high latitude regions. White's research on the Greenland ice sheet is part of the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project. Fourteen nations are collaborating in the NEEM research, with the common goal of obtaining samples of core ice from the Eemian Period, which was the last interglacial period, about 120,000 years ago. The samples will help researchers interpret the atmospheric environment present during the Eemian period, and relate those interpretations to the present day atmosphere. The ultimate goal of this research is to learn more about how the Earth's climate functions, and what, if anything, can be done to counteract any adverse environmental conditions. The core ice samples will also help researchers identify the causes behind the Earth's increased warming, including those driven by human activity. Below, White answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions. Name: Jim White Age: 56 Institution: University of Colorado, Boulder Field of Study: Paleoclimate, biogeochemical cycles

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I wanted to apply my knowledge of chemistry to studies of the Earth. In high school, I was struck by how little we knew about our home planet, and wanted to learn more about how we humans fit into the workings of the Earth.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Always start with the basics, and try to study and understand problems from the bottom up.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I took apart the lawn mower to see how it worked. It did not go well.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? I get to study that which interests me. That freedom is priceless.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? You need to know the basic principles of your field, and then apply them with a bulldog's persistence.

What are the societal benefits of your research? We face a long and hard struggle to achieve sustainable societies, but we simply must succeed in that struggle. The other outcomes are not acceptable.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My Ph.D. advisor, Wally Broecker. He set an example of scientific excellence that I can only aspire to.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? I work with ice cores and travel to Greenland for weeks at a time, but I don't like the cold! If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My computer. While I started my career without one, its files chronicle my life.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I like the originals: for hard rock it's Led Zeppelin or the Stones; for country, it's Doc Watson.