To Bern on a prestigious scholarship

With its international reputation as a first-class research institution, the Oeschger Centre attracts scientists from around the world – like Kristy Barnes, who wants to learn how to reconstruct past climates using fossil midges.

She’s energetic and very optimistic. American Kristy Barnes has only just completed her bachelor’s degree, but during her study period at the Oeschger Centre, she’s determined to write a scientific paper. “It’s true, I’m only at the beginning of my career,” she says, “but if I’m doing a research project here, it would be nice if it resulted in an article in a journal.”


In her driven manner, Kristy Barnes has chosen the OCCR Group for Aquatic Palaeoecology for her year abroad. After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental geosciences at Boston College, she applied for a place in the Fulbright Program – one of the most prestigious scholarship programs worldwide. Her proposed project: A closer look at climate and environmental history using fossil chironomids (nonbiting midges) as indicators of climatic ups and downs. Kristy also knew which expert she wanted to show her how to work with larvae as climate proxies: Oliver Heiri, assistant professor at the Institute of Plant Sciences and a member of the Oeschger Centre. “He’s pretty much the best in his field,” she says, “and that’s why I definitely wanted to come to Bern.”

Analysing sediment samples from a mountain lake

As luck would have it, Oliver Heiri actually needed reinforcement for his research group, and Kristy Barnes won the coveted US scholarship, which is linked to the Swiss Government Excellence fellowship. Now the American has been working in Bern for half a year. In an office overlooking the botanical garden, she sits behind the microscope and analyses sediment samples from a small Valais mountain lake, the Gouille Rion in Val d’Heremence. The individual layers of this sediment core were already dated. The young visiting researcher is examining how to document climatic events – like the sudden warming 11,000 years ago or the cold relapse 8,200 years ago – based on the different kinds of midges. The trick: Because different types of midges appeared depending on the particular climate conditions, the temperature can be reconstructed based on their numbers.
But Kristy Barnes also wants to use the mini fossils to show the human impact on the environment in the Valais mountains. For it’s not just temperature variations that affect the extremely sensitive midges, but also man-made phenomena, such as an increased input of nutrients into the lake.

A straight path up the academic career ladder

Kristy already has a clear vision of her professional future. After her year in Bern, she’ll head to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she’s been accepted into the master program of modern ecology. (“I want to find out if I ended up in palaeoecology just by chance.”) And then she foresees a straight path up the academic career ladder, to a professorship in the United States or United Kingdom. Isn’t this a bit too much advance planning for a 23-year-old? “I’m on course – with the Fulbright Scholarship and the rest of my international experience, I’m not worried.”