For two weeks over the summer, students throughout the world have the opportunity to learn from one another at one of the largest stable isotope facilities in the country. In its second year at UNM, the Center for Stable Isotopes (CSI) hosted 54 students between recently for its IsoCamp, a hands-on training course in the application of stable isotopes to the biological, anthropological, and geological sciences.
It is this diversity that allows students to develop their own career paths by learning from one another as well as leaders within the field. As a world-renowned course, students come from throughout the globe, and this year was no exception. Attendees represented 14 separate home countries, and out of the 54 students who attended both in-person and virtually, 10 identified as Hispanic/Latino(a), five as Asian, four as black/African-American, and one as American Indian or Alaska Native.
Launched at the University of Utah in 1996, IsoCamp made its new home at UNM in 2021 when the course’s organizers, Jim Ehrlinger and Thure Cerling, saw the opportunity for this special program to thrive under CSI’s leadership – and New Mexico’s diverse ecological landscape. Over the course of the two weeks, students were not only able to receive hands-on learning in a state-of-the-art facility but got to do so in a locale with endless options for sample collection in the nearby Rio Grande Bosque and Sandia Mountains.
By targeting early-stage (1st and 2nd year) graduate students, IsoCamp provides attendees with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the practical applications in the study of stable isotopes. This is done through lectures, fieldwork, and laboratory-based experiences that culminate in a final project presentation at the end of the course. These experiences are taught by some of the leading experts in their fields, and this year CSI invited 23 lecturers representing 13 institutions, including Yale University, Cornell University, UC Berkeley, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Soumaya Belmecheri, program director of the Paleoclimate Program of the National Science Foundation and research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research was excited to attend as a first-time instructor this year. While she never had the opportunity to join IsoCamp as a student, the course’s outstanding reputation was one she was well aware of and she was honored when CSI’s Associate Director, Seth Newsome, invited her to New Mexico.
When asked why she jumped at the chance to attend this year, Belmecheri said, “Two reasons: it is an amazing community to be a part of because you get to make a difference. I wish I had this opportunity as a student. Also, you get to work with colleagues in an interactive way.”
Belmecheri went on to say, “IsoCamp is unique in its design in that students gain a fully immersive, hands-on, experience. You get a good idea of the diversity of the field and how to apply it to your own research while being exposed to so many new techniques.”
The exposure doesn’t stop there, however, as a major component of IsoCamp is its focus on community-building. Throughout this immersive experience, students not only attend classes together but also spend a significant amount of time outside of class getting to know one another. As one student said, “The networking is definitely the best about the course. The projects help to communicate across different research fields. The learning environment is comfortable and it is easy to ask questions to fellow students and to the instructors.”
The community that is built at IsoCamp is truly one that attendees will rely on throughout their careers. Of the nearly 1,000 alumni who have had the opportunity to attend IsoCamp, many of them have gone on to build companies together, produce publications together, and form a network of colleagues invaluable to their research going forward.
Enthusiasm for the experience gained over their two weeks in Albuquerque was reflected in the survey responses. One of the students from this year’s course emphasized the impact that working in the laboratory had on them, saying, “From my opinion, one of IsoCamp's strengths is the opportunity to really experience the lab work and functioning. Not everywhere [has] access to laboratories.”
Overall, the impact of the experience gained over the two weeks coupled with the connections they were able to make with one another and the instructors was one that this year’s alumni will carry with them. “The instructors are absolutely the strength of the course. It's inspiring to hear them all discuss their work and the things they love about the field. I also really appreciated the diversity of the course, both in terms of topics covered and student/instructor diversity. 10/10.”