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Spotlight on Students: Nate Williams

Nathan Williams '11 exhibits a gyre falcon from Cornell's Raptor Program.

  • Affiliation: Science of Earth Systems
  • Hometown: Phillipson, Mass.

From a family of birders, Nathan Williams has been aware of Cornell—because of its Lab of Ornithology—for as long as he can remember. "It's the best bird lab in the world," says Williams. "Once I started looking into Cornell as a possible school to go to, things just kept getting better."

Williams looked at a few other schools, but Cornell was his first pick. "It was a pretty clear choice for me. I wasn't sure I would get in, but I figured I would try, and I did," he says. "It's tough, but I like a challenge. I don't really like being bored."

But Williams came to Cornell to study rocks, not birds. "I love birding, but that for me it has just been a hobby," he says. "Geology is something I want to go for as a career. It's just mind boggling what's going on beneath our feet. It's really quite fascinating."

Williams still finds time to bird watch. His "life list" is up to 314 species since coming to Cornell—including a lesser black-backed gull he saw on Cayuga Lake. And he is involved in Cornell's student-run Raptor Program, which promotes the conservation of birds of prey through captive breeding, rehabilitation, classroom education, and public outreach. "Some of the birds we have used to be endangered, like the peregrine falcon," says Williams "It's good to do the outreach programs like that to let everyone know what's going on with these birds and how they can help."

Williams chose to live at Cornell's Ecology House to get to know other students who share his passion for environmental issues. "Because there are less than 100 of us, we get to know each other very well. Occasionally a few of us will use our enormous kitchen to make a huge feast for all of Eco," he says. "There is a stereotype that we are just a bunch of hippies, but there is actually a very wide range of personalities and interests."

In high school, Williams created mashups with Google Earth and that helped him land a research job almost as soon as he started at Cornell. He's helping Assistant Professor Rowena Lohman study ground deformation around active earthquake faults in southern California. "I actually started analyzing satellite imagery a couple of weeks after arriving on campus. I thought that was pretty cool." says Williams. "I import data from geophysical models that we can then view in 3-D, and from that we learn quite a bit."

The following summer, Williams was a Cornell-based intern for the University of Southern California, writing MATLAB codes to determine the most efficient strategy for collecting data from a vast network of GPS stations there. "They have to spend time and money to survey them manually," he explains. "I said which ones we should actually go to, to decrease model errors so we can get a better estimation of what's actually going on."

Williams wants to attend graduate school to continue his study of what most people see simply as rocks, but what he knows is much more. "It's really the history of the Earth," he says. "Just being able to get a glimpse at what happened is really cool."

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