Looking to the past to prepare for an uncertain future
Using sand and rock, MIT senior Aviva Intveld tells stories of ancient climates.
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Aviva Intveld, an MIT senior majoring in Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, is accustomed to city life. But despite hailing from metropolitan Los Angeles, she has always maintained a love for the outdoors.
“Growing up in L.A., you just have a wealth of resources when it comes to beautiful environments,” she says, “but you’re also constantly living connected to the environment.” She developed a profound respect for the natural world and its effects on people, from the earthquakes that shook the ground to the wildfires that displaced inhabitants.
“I liked the lifestyle that environmental science afforded,” Intveld recalls. “I liked the idea that you can make a career out of spending a huge amount of time in the field and exploring different parts of the world.”
From the moment she arrived at MIT, Intveld threw herself into research on and off campus. During her first semester, she joined Terrascope, a program that encourages first-year students to tackle complex, real-world problems. Intveld and her cohort developed proposals to make recovery from major storms in Puerto Rico faster, more sustainable, and more equitable.
Intveld also spent a semester studying drought stress in the lab of Assistant Professor David Des Marais, worked as a research assistant at a mineral sciences research lab back in L.A., and interned at the World Wildlife Fund. Most of her work focused on contemporary issues like food insecurity and climate change. “I was really interested in questions about today,” Intveld says.
Her focus began to shift to the past when she interned as a research assistant at the Marine Geoarchaeology and Micropaleontology Lab at the University of Haifa. For weeks, she would spend eight hours a day hunched over a microscope, using a paintbrush to sort through grains of sand from the coastal town of Caesarea. She was looking for tiny spiral-shaped fossils of foraminifera, an organism that resides in seafloor sediments.
These microfossils can reveal a lot about the environment in which they originated, including extreme weather events. By cataloging diverse species of foraminifera, Intveld was helping to settle a rather niche debate in the field of geoarchaeology: Did tsunamis destroy the harbor of Caesarea during the time of the ancient Romans?
But in addition to figuring out if and when these natural disasters occurred, Intveld was interested in understanding how ancient communities prepared for and recovered from them. What methods did they use? Could those same methods be used today?
Intveld’s research at the University of Haifa was part of the Onward Israel program, which offers young Jewish people the chance to participate in internships, academic study, and fellowships in Israel. Intveld describes the experience as a great opportunity to learn about the culture, history, and diversity of the Israeli community. The trip was also an excellent lesson in dealing with challenging situations.
Intveld suffers from claustrophobia, but she overcame her fears to climb through the Bar Kokhba caves, and despite a cat allergy, she grew to adore the many stray cats that roam the streets of Haifa. “Sometimes you can’t let your physical limitations stop you from doing what you love,” she quips.
Over the course of her research, Intveld has often found herself in difficult and even downright dangerous situations, all of which she looks back on with good humor. As part of an internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, she spent three months investigating groundwater in Homer, Alaska. While she was there, she learned to avoid poisonous plants out in the field, got lost bushwhacking, and was twice charged by a moose.
These days, Intveld spends less time in the field and more time thinking about the ancient past. She works in the lab of Associate Professor David McGee, where her undergraduate thesis research focuses on reconstructing the paleoclimate and paleoecology of northeastern Mexico during the Early Holocene. To get an idea of what the Mexican climate looked like thousands of years ago, Intveld analyzes stable isotopes and trace elements in stalagmites taken from Mexican caves. By analyzing the isotopes of carbon and oxygen present in these stalagmites, which were formed over thousands of years from countless droplets of mineral-rich rainwater, Intveld can estimate the amount of rainfall and average temperature in a given time period.
Intveld is primarily interested in how the area’s climate may have influenced human migration. “It’s very interesting to learn about the history of human motivation, what drives us to do what we do,” she explains. “What causes humans to move, and what causes us to stay?” So far, it seems the Mexican climate during the Early Holocene was quite inconsistent, with oscillating periods of wet and dry, but Intveld needs to conduct more research before drawing any definitive conclusions.
Recent research has linked periods of drought in the geological record to periods of violence in the archaeological one, suggesting ancient humans often fought over access to water. “I think you can easily see the connections to stuff that we deal with today,” Intveld says, pointing out the parallels between paleolithic migration and today’s climate refugees. “We have to answer a lot of difficult questions, and one way that we can do so is by looking to see what earlier human communities did and what we can learn from them.”
Intveld recognizes the impact of the past on our present and future in many other areas. She works as a tour guide for the List Visual Arts Center, where she educates people about public art on the MIT campus. “[Art] interested me as a way to experience history and learn about the story of different communities and people over time,” she says.
Intveld is also unafraid to acknowledge the history of discrimination and exclusion in science. “Earth science has a big problem when it comes to inclusion and diversity,” she says. As a member of the EAPS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, she aims to make earth science more accessible.
“Aviva has a clear drive to be at the front lines of geoscience research, connecting her work to the urgent environmental issues we’re all facing,” says McGee. “She also understands the critical need for our field to include more voices, more perspectives — ultimately making for better science.”
After MIT, Intveld hopes to pursue an advanced degree in the field of sustainable mining. This past spring, she studied abroad at Imperial College London, where she took courses within the Royal School of Mines. As Intveld explains, mining is becoming crucial to sustainable energy. The rise of electric vehicles in places like California has increased the need for energy-critical elements like lithium and cobalt, but mining for these elements often does more harm than good. “The current mining complex is very environmentally destructive,” Intveld says.
But Intveld hopes to take the same approach to mining she does with her other endeavors — acknowledging the destructive past to make way for a better future.
Story Image: Aviva Intveld is an MIT senior majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, whose research focuses on reconstructing the paleoclimate and paleoecology of northeastern Mexico. Photo credit: Steph Stevens