Sustainability sits at the heart of the College alongside the research of many of our talented postgraduate students, including MPhil Earth Sciences student and Churchill Scholar Jaren Yambing. As a geochemist, Jaren uses the chemistry of earth materials to help understand Earth system processes and his current research bridges paleoclimatology – reconstructing past environmental conditions using climate archives like tree rings for example – and carbon capture and storage efforts to fight the current climate crisis.

Jaren’s story

Jaren was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the US, Minnesota with his family when he was two years old. His parents nurtured his interest in the natural world with family vacations spent road-tripping and camping in Minnesota’s many state parks, learning about the vast prairies, forests, and lakes. However, Jaren never seriously considered studying Earth Sciences until taking an introductory geology class at Carlton College, where his professor framed it as an intriguing storytelling exercise; ‘the rocks, sediments, and soils all had their story to tell – how did they form, how did they get there and how to they contribute to the landscape today?’ They started with the story of lake sediments since the ice age glaciations all the way to intensive human agriculture and he’s been ‘hooked on these geologic storytelling moments ever since.’

What is particularly exciting about studying Earth Sciences today is how we can learn so much about Earth’s past conditions and apply this information to help us be better sustainable stewards of planet moving forward.

Jaren’s journey to Churchill started the summer before his final year at Carleton. He had received a Goldwater Scholarship earlier in the year for promise and excellence in STEM and was encouraged by one of his professors to apply for a Churchill Scholarship. The Churchill Scholarship is a competitive scholarship for STEM students from the USA providing funding for a year of postgraduate study at Churchill College. Jaren got in touch with Cambridge’s Earth Sciences Department to explore the research projects that might available and was delighted when he secured both an offer to study at Cambridge and a Churchill Scholarship in the spring of 2022.

Since coming to Cambridge Jaren has been studying a layered carbonate rock from the North of England that formed in a stream draining an old steel factory site. Describing the layers as ‘forming similarly to limescale in a kettle that builds up over time’, Jaren has been able to learn more about the stream water and weathering reactions from waste materials at the factory over the past few decades by analysing the chemical composition of these layers. As Jaren explains; ‘since these weathering and precipitation reactions capture atmospheric carbon, one interesting finding is that our rock layers that correspond to warmer summertime conditions contain more atmospheric carbon than cooler wintertime layers. Does this mean we have more carbon sequestration at our site during the summertime?’

In addition to the tuition and fees, Churchill Scholars also receive a living stipend comparable to the UK doctoral student stipend and additional funding for conferences and other scientific programs. Jaren has used his funding to attend 3 international conferences: American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Chicago, USA, European Geophysical Union (EGU) in Vienna, Austria, and Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference (GS) in Lyon, France. He was also able to use the funding to take part in a short oceanographic research cruise off the coast of Martha’s Vinyard, Massachusetts, USA. Wherever direction his future career takes him, Jaren is under no doubt about the importance and impact this year of study has had on his life.

Since arriving in Cambridge, receiving this scholarship has been a life changing opportunity for me, widening my scope as a researcher from local to a global scale in terms of the scientific questions I’m now asking and the size of my professional networks. I’ve also grown so much as a person living here in the UK, learning to create a healthier work-life balance, and recognizing what I value in my life.

Living on-site at Churchill, Jaren quickly felt at ease in the College’s green and spacious site. He loves cycling back after a long day of work and taking a short walk around the College grounds, and particularly enjoys the beautiful garden adjoining his accommodation.

The way that the buildings and green space are arranged feel like an American college ‘quad’ which feels very familiar and homey to me. I feel very lucky that my accommodation here at Churchill has a beautiful garden; it’s very calming to open my window to look at the blooming flowers and apple trees in my yard. I love how a different kind flower is blooming every month.

Music is also very big part of Jaren’s life and his hometown community – he started playing saxophone when he was 9 – and something he wanted to continue here in Cambridge. During the past year he has played saxophone with the Churchill Jazz Band and the Cambridge University Wind Orchestra (CUWO) alongside learning bellringing at Great St. Mary’s and playing the steel pans with the CU Steel Pan Society (CUSPS). Performing during May Week with Churchill Jazz Band and at Cambridge Pride with CUSPS were ‘truly magical experiences’ and a highlight of his time at Cambridge.

After finishing his MPhil in August, Jaren’s immediate plans are to spend a gap year back home before starting a PhD programme in Earth Sciences at MIT. Looking further ahead, he would love to stay in academia and teach Earth Science at a small liberal arts college like his alma mater, but if that doesn’t work out, he wouldn’t mind working for a governmental agency, lab, or even becoming a farmer!