Undergraduates and the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard: First Hoopes Prize!

May 14, 2017

Matthew Luongo

The Initiative for the Science of the Human Past is delighted to announce that Matthew Luongo (Harvard College Dunster House ’17) has been awarded a Hoopes Prize for his thesis: "Comparison and Calibration of Climate Proxy Data in Medieval Europe.” The Hoopes prize is among the most prestigious awards at Harvard College, recognizing extraordinary undergraduate work. Inspired by contributions to the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard (SoHP) and its Historical Ice Core Project, Luongo’s thesis compares historical and archaeoscientific evidence to study the climate of medieval Europe. In his pioneering work, Luongo has devised rigorous statistical methods for testing and verifying correlations between medieval historical records of climate phenomena, natural scientific proxy records—such as tree rings and ice cores—and scientific climate models. 

Additionally, Luongo’s path-breaking research overcame the silos of Harvard’s departmental structure by having two co-advisors within SoHP: Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Environmental Science and Engineering, and Michael McCormick, Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History and Chair of SoHP.

Luongo’s adventures in the Science of the Human Past began when the freshman, aiming for an EPS concentration, “shopped” a Gen Ed course on, of all things, “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”  As Luongo describes it, “I had taken 8 years of Latin throughout middle school and high school, and was considering a secondary in Classics. I remember telling my freshman proctor that I was choosing between Societies of the World 53: The Fall of the Roman Empire, and another Classics Gen-Ed that seemed much easier.  He suggested that I not overload myself and choose the latter. However, after shopping SW53 and seeing Prof. McCormick’s first lecture, I could tell that this would be a fascinating class that, surprisingly enough to me, would have an eye toward science, and I knew I couldn't pass this up. About halfway through the semester, my TF, Shane, took me aside and told me, coincidentally, that I had chosen a text for my final paper that Mike was very familiar with (Macrobius's Saturnalia) and that I should go meet with him one-on-one. I suppose the rest was history because soon after meeting with Mike I started getting invited to DARMC and SoHP events which eventually led me to working with SoHP and the Climate Change Institute (CCI) at the University of Maine on the Historical Ice Core Project toward the end of my sophomore year.”

Luongo further details how his thesis topic evolved.  “I first started thinking about the project after one of our successful trips to CCI last year. I was able to really appreciate the power of interdisciplinary thinking firsthand. We had faculty members in climate science and history, along with graduate and undergraduate students—all team members of the Historical Ice Core Project—in the room working together toward a common goal and a tremendous amount of progress was made in only a day and a half. Particularly, I remember Alex More referencing a historical database of climate events and I could tell, just from how long it took Excel to load, that there was a tremendous amount of data in that file. I approached Mike soon after and said I was interested in writing a thesis that looked at historical and scientific paleoclimate data in tandem, to see how each data source could inform the other. I had been working with SoHP on the ice core before, but I told Mike I that I really wanted to take ownership of the project and go in a new direction. I realized that it was an unusual request for a History professor to advise an earth science and environmental engineering thesis, but I thought that if anyone would love to push that boundary it would be Mike. I reached out to Peter soon after about my plan and he happily agreed to advise me on the scientific and statistical side.”

According to thesis advisor Michael McCormick, “Matt is a typical Harvard undergraduate: smart, hard-working, doing a million things at once, and a great human being. Like most Harvard undergraduates, he has taught me a lot, and we have had a ton of fun working together. His senior thesis breaks new ground in both history and climate science, and will surely be published in one form or another.”

Alex More, postdoctoral fellow in History and SoHP, recalls meeting Luongo for the first time: “From the moment I was introduced to Matt, I immediately noticed that he was comfortable with the trans-disciplinary approach to climate history that is at the basis of our work. He was calm, spoke with authority and asked astute questions.” Luongo and More continued to collaborate over the years, sharing many hours discussing the data, and both new and traditional methodologies coming together in the climate history project. More recalls how “Matt became a collaborator at the level of other faculty and colleagues. His interest is motivated by both boundless curiosity and a deep awareness of the implications of our work for understanding the impact of climate change and adding a deeper chronological dimension to it. His scientific and statistical rigor, with dispassionate assessment of ourselves and our methods, always brought an invaluable, needed contribution in the process of forging a new field of inquiry. I am convinced that whatever path he chooses in his career, he will be a star.”

Matt’s approach to his thesis was truly original in its scope and interdisciplinary nature.  As he writes, “before leaving for my internship last summer, I made sure that all of my data was collected from SoHP or freely available online for my return in the fall, when I really began my work.  My thesis was quite a process, with many starts and stops. Since I was doing something that was quite new (fashioning a statistical methodology to compare these two data sources), a lot of my thesis consisted of acquiring and analyzing data to make sure that I was comparing instrumental, paleo proxy, and historical data in a valid way, as I wanted to compare apples to apples. Though at times it was frustrating to realize that something I had worked on for days was not a useful metric, meeting with Mike and Peter always gave me confidence that I was heading in the right direction and doing something worthwhile. The vast majority of my thesis was research and data analysis, and I finally completed that stage in late February. The write-up in comparison was painless, though I went through several different drafts to iron out details and thoughts.”

Matt plans to revise the thesis for publication in a leading scientific or interdisciplinary journal, making it the second scientific publication to emerge from his undergraduate participation in SoHP.