UB PhD student Courtney Shafer receives Department of Energy fellowship

Courtney Shafer, standing against a neutral brick background.

Courtney Shafer. Credit: Suzanna Ackroyd

Shafer will use the computational fellowship to advance research on ice sheets and climate change

Release Date: July 19, 2021

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“I love that I can combine my physics background with computational science and glaciology. I am also grateful that I get to work on a problem that’s relevant and urgent that will impact our present life and future generations. ”
Courtney Shafer, PhD student in the Department of Geology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Courtney Shafer, who will join the University at Buffalo Department of Geology this fall as a PhD student, has been awarded a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Computational Science Graduate Fellowship.

Fellows receive a $38,000 stipend, payment of tuition and fees, and a $1,000 professional development allowance per year, all renewable for up to four years. They also take part in a 12-week research experience at DOE laboratories or sites with access to DOE supercomputers. 

Shafer — one of 32 students across the nation to receive the fellowship — will study ice sheets and climate change, with a focus on vertical tunnels called moulins that form in the Greenland Ice Sheet. The research could help improve climate models used to predict sea level rise, an issue impacting people and communities around the world.

“I’ll be helping build a model that will determine and predict the formation and evolution of moulins that appear on the ice sheet surface,” Shafer says. “Moulins are essentially large vertical holes that appear in the ice and transport meltwater from the surface all the way down to the bed. The water at the bed then lubricates the ice sheet and has a large control on the speed of the ice sheet. Getting this model right is important because it will provide necessary input for subglacial hydrology models which will allow for a better understanding of ice sheet evolution and, ultimately, sea level rise.”

At UB, Shafer will be a member of the Glacier Modeling Lab led by Kristin Poinar, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Geology and a faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute.

“I'm so excited to welcome Courtney to the lab this fall,” Poinar says. “Courtney comes with three years of glaciology research experience and is fluent in multiple computer programming languages. These technical skills along with her scientific affinity and motivated demeanor are going to be key in our quest to understand the future of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The Computational Science Graduate Fellowship is quite prestigious, and it’s a terrific success for the lab to recruit a student with Courtney's skills and talent.”

Shafer said she is excited to begin her PhD research, noting that she has been fascinated by science since she was young, and that she is proud of her success as a first-generation college graduate.

“I grew up in a small farming town in Southern California where resources for students were either scarce or non-existent compared to larger, wealthier communities,” Shafer says. “I was extremely fortunate to have attended an early-college high school that stressed the importance of a college education, especially for those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Neither of my parents attended college, so this was the first time I had any sense of what college could be like and the opportunities it could open. This experience, as well as my teachers who continued to support me and invest in my interest in science, propelled me forward.”

That sense of wonder and curiosity drove Shafer to enroll at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) to study physics. 

Coming to a large campus like UCSB from a rural farming community was difficult initially, but Shafer soon found a sense of belonging and excelled. One important aspect of her undergraduate career: conducting research. She discovered and was drawn to glaciology when she started working in a lab that focused on problems that included mapping river networks on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“I was intrigued by the fact that these hydrological systems on the ice sheet were still not completely understood,” Shafer says. “I also felt a sense of urgency — I knew that ice sheets were melting at faster rates, so I thought it would be interesting to work on something that could shed more light on the mechanisms around climate change as well as influence more drastic policy change.”

After graduation, Shafer continued to research ice sheets, first at the University of Washington, where she worked on computer vision and edge detection questions, including a project that aimed to automatically map glacier termini to understand how fast glaciers were shrinking, and then at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where she was introduced to ice sheet modeling and contributed, as a co-author, to a paper in Nature on future scenarios for sea level rise. 

“I love that I can combine my physics background with computational science and glaciology,” Shafer says. “I am also grateful that I get to work on a problem that’s relevant and urgent that will impact our present life and future generations.”

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Charlotte Hsu
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