Research at Hendrix

Bethanie Edwards '09

Bethanie Edwards '09

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major

Ph.D. candidate in the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Chemical Oceanography.

Current projects

As a Ph.D. candidate at two world-class institutions, I have had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects. My first summer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute was after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. My advisor was part of the RAPID response efforts funded by NSF. He collected a number of samples for me to analyze. I used this data to publish  my first first-author paper on the role that surface marine microbes played in the degradation of oil in the Gulf.

One great thing about being an oceanographer is that I don't spend all my time in the lab analyzing samples. I actually go out on research cruises, sample the environment, and conduct ship-board experiments in the middle of the ocean.

In March 2011, I spent seven-days in Sargasso Sea aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer studying the microbially mediated dynamics of organic matter export, a key component in the global carbon cycle. I am particularly interested in how chemical signals produced by phytoplankton in the ocean impact carbon cycling. Phytoplankton photosynthesize like trees, taking CO2 via respiration. The oceans absorb ~50% of the CO2 in the atmosphere annually, but the balance between phytoplankton photosynthesis and bacterial respiration can alter this percentage. I found that chemical signals produced by phytoplankton can impact how quickly bacteria respire potentially affecting how much CO2 the ocean absorbs. It is fascinating how tiny, microscopic organisms can modulate the global carbon balance.

In April and July of 2012, I participated in two expeditions aboard the R/V Knorr, repeating the experiments from the Sargasso Sea cruises. Over two weeks we steamed from Woods Hole, Mass. to Bermuda. A month later we spent 40 days conducting research along a transect from the Azores to Ireland. I observed similar trends on all three cruises in the North Atlantic, supporting my hypothesis that chemical signals produced by phytoplankton in the ocean impact the carbon cycling in the ocean. This novel finding that could transform the way that oceanographers thinking about the fate of organic carbon. I have also tested this hypothesis in the Pacific Ocean in July 2013 off the coast of California aboard the R/V Pt. Sur. I still have a freezer full of samples from this cruise to analyze with hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of chemical signaling in the ocean.

In addition to sea-going science, I have taken an interest in science policy. In January 2013, I was a member of the delegation from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change to the United Nations Environmental Program 5th Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Mercury. I witnessed policy makers and scientists finalize the text of the Minamata Convention which has now been ratified by the U.S. As I watched delegates from all over the world piece together this treaty, I began to understand how important it is for scientists to participate in efforts aimed at increasing scientific literacy amongst government officials and the general public. Since my scientific expertise is relevant to my understanding global climate change, I will continue to seek opportunities to share my knowledge with policy makers and concerned citizens.  

Undergraduate Research

As an undergrad at Hendrix, I participated in two NSF funded summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) at outside institutions and spent six-weeks sailing from Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to Tahiti studying phytoplankton. NSF-REU programs are a great way to get hands-on research experience, explore different fields of science, and spend the summer in a new and challenging environment. The summer after my sophomore year, I worked at Mount Desert Island Biological Labs in Maine studying the ecology of killifish embryos. Instead of doing a typical study-abroad program during my junior year, I participated in SEA Semester. I spent six weeks in Woods Hole (where I currently live), learning about oceanographic principles and developing a research project to look at the abundance and distribution of two species of phytoplankton in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific. Fueled by the prospect of adventure and scientific discovery, we spent six weeks at sea learning to sail and conduct research aboard a 134-ft schooner. Between my junior and senior year, I found my calling while working in a lab at the University of Southern California. I spent the summer studying marine microbes that are a source for nitrogen in the ocean, which is the major limiting nutrient in open ocean systems. I loved the idea of employing molecular biology, wet chemistry, and oceanography to tackle a scientific problem. With the help from the Hendrix Odyssey program, I was able to present this research at a conference in Nice during January of my senior year.

How Hendrix prepared me for success

With the liberal arts education that I received at Hendrix, I am much more adept at communicating my science whether it be in a paper or a presentation. Not only because the professors at Hendrix set that precedent in the classroom but also because of the nature of the Hendrix community which facilitates interaction between the sciences and the humanities. I spent many lunches engaging in scientific discussions with Philosophy, Political Science and History majors because they weren't quartered off into their own dorms or section of campus as you might find at a large university. I also became a skilled grant writer by applying for Odyssey funding and getting feedback from the Odyssey committee members who span a wide range of academic fields.

Future plans

It is an exciting time in oceanography and I look forward to transitioning into a postdoctoral position next year. There are two initiatives that I am particularly excited about: 1) NASA's Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) program which will still be in the planning phases and 2) Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE) which is currently recruiting investigators to measure, model and experimentally manipulate a complex system representative of a broad swath of the North Pacific Ocean, namely the Hawaii Ocean Time-series Station ALOHA. Over the next 13 months, I will be furiously writing my dissertation, submitting papers for publication, and contracting potential postdoctoral advisors involved in the above projects. I plan to use my postdoctoral position as a stepping stone into a professorship.

My advice

I honestly believe that Hendrix can help you pursue any field of science that interests you. But you have to know and utilize your resources. Take advantage of the small class sizes and the approachability of the professors. An hour talking to a professor during office hours can save you several hours beating your head against a wall in the library. They will also be instrumental in helping you apply to summer internships and grad school. Be aware that there are tons of summer research opportunities out there for undergraduates; you just have to seek them out and apply. Additionally, the Odyssey Program is an amazing way to get support and funding for independent ideas. Finally, network! If you are inspired by someone's research or have a question about a talk they gave, shoot them an email. Scientists love talking about their research and the prospect of a future hard-working grad student.