Location: Bowdoin / Environmental Studies / Activity / 2013 / Interview with Sarah Close '06

Environmental Studies

Interview with Sarah Close '06
PhD candidate at Oregon State University in rocky intertidal ecology

Posted October 03, 2013

ET: You went all the way from being an undergrad in Maine to a grad student in Oregon. Are you originally from the west coast?

SC: I grew up in southern Oregon and never planned on moving back. But after finishing at Bowdoin, I ended up going back out west to Seattle. I was a biology/ES major at Bowdoin and had in my mind all along that I was interested in a PhD and research, but I consciously decided to give myself a break from academia for a while.

ET: What did you do in between Bowdoin and grad school?

SC: I wanted to get a sense of what else was out there. I had done a lot of research in college, but hadn’t done much in other settings and wanted to take the time to figure out what I wanted to do. As an ES major, I was interested in the ways that environmental issues are addressed by organizations outside of academia. I ended up working for a small environmental nonprofit called Stewardship Partners. I was their third employee, and they initially hired me as an intern, partially based on my research that I’d done at Bowdoin – I’d had some experience with restoration ecology, and got assigned to monitor their restoration projects in local riparian areas. To fill up the rest of my time, I got in touch with a Bowdoin alum doing research at NOAA through the Environmental Studies network. It turned out that he had a colleague who was working on a project that needed a few more hours per week of work, so I ended up splitting my time between research and nonprofit for a while. The nonprofit ended up hiring me full-time. I loved working there and getting to see how scientific research was applied. It wasn’t a research-based organization, but we still had to apply for a lot of grants, and we needed scientific background for a lot of what we were doing. Through that experience, I started to see that there was a real barrier between researching and applying science, and that got me thinking about grad school and what I wanted my role in science to be. I ultimately worked at Stewardship Partners for a little over a year and a half before I went back to grad school.

ET: What are the main questions driving your research?

SC: I work in rocky intertidal community ecology, in a lab that has been researching species interactions and the environmental influence on those interactions for about 30 years. I’m investigating the mechanisms behind how the physical environment affects onshore ecology, and have approached my research from that standpoint. I have some projects that are very local, and some that are over 900 km in scale.

ET: What are the main points that you’d like people, especially non-scientists, to take away from your research?

SC: It’s very important for us to be able to understand the physical mechanisms that affect natural communities, especially if we want to understand how potential climate change impacts are going to work on local systems. That’s what gets me excited about my research – I don’t study climate change specifically, but the reason I’m so interested in these physical ‘drivers’ in the environment is because of that: because we’re fundamentally changing these really basic processes.

ET: What is it about the climate change aspects of your research that you find compelling?

SC: What I find interesting are all of the interactions, and the complexities. The Oregon coast is a highly upwelling-influenced system, and we know the upwelling mechanism is changing. And not only is upwelling itself changing, but the changes are driving up more low-pH water to the Oregon coast that wasn’t expected for a long time, causing ocean acidification levels to rise unexpectedly. When it comes to these complex ecological systems, there’s still a lot of pretty basic stuff that we’re figuring out now, so it makes it a really exciting time to be working in this field.

ET: What made you want to specifically pursue these research questions?

SC: I always wanted to be a marine biologist growing up, and I actually went through with it! I took Amy Johnson’s marine biology course as soon as I could when I got to Bowdoin, and I really loved it. I think the department had an interesting focus on understanding the physical environment as well as the biology, and I think the classes I took here really got me interested in that relationship. I spent my sophomore summer researching with Lindsay Whitlow (Biology), who was a visiting professor at the time, and Dharni Vasudevan (ES/Chemistry), working on salt marsh restoration. It was my first real solo project. They set us free – we (the student researchers) got to decide what we wanted to know about the system, and got to research it. During my junior summer, I worked in East Africa on Lake Tanganyika doing research on the physical environment and how it affected fishery dynamics and food webs. I think that, as I was learning a lot about biology and ecology at Bowdoin, these were the questions that I kept coming back to. When I started grad school, I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to study, but I ended up in a lab that gave us a lot of freedom to pursue our own questions, and eventually I figured out that everything I was curious about in our (rocky intertidal) system related to the physical environment’s role in ecology, and in teasing apart all of these interacting dynamics in the rocky intertidal system.

ET: How have your decisions (at grad school and beyond) been influenced by what you did at Bowdoin?

SC: I think a lot of what I’ve done has direct applications to what I learned at Bowdoin. The experiences I got here, especially the support for students to pursue original independent research, were hugely influential – you don’t see that at a lot of places.

ET: Did you do any other research at Bowdoin besides during your two summers?

SC: My honors project was on Lake Tanganyika, an East African Rift lake that has seasonal wind-driven upwelling. It was part of an NSF REU grant, and my research focused on the food web and the nutrient dynamics within the lake - trying to see if an upwelling event occurred while we (the student researchers) were there. We also did research to see how fish recycle nutrients through ammonium excretions, and found that they have a huge role in keeping nitrogen in the water column.

ET: How did you end up focusing on something so geographically distant?

SC: Again, it all comes back to opportunities at Bowdoin. I mentioned Prof. Lindsay Whitlow earlier – I worked with him on an independent study continuation of my summer research, and he heard about this NSF project from a colleague and encouraged me to apply. I was actually already going to be studying abroad in East Africa that spring, and so I just ended up staying for an extra four months. It was a great experience, and one that I probably wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.

ET: How does your experience as a scientist at a large research university differ from that at a small liberal arts college?

SC: It’s really different, and that’s something that I think about a lot. I’m a graduate TA (teaching assistant) at Oregon State, and I interact with undergrads quite a bit. When I first got there, it was definitely a struggle to adjust. I have a friend there who also went to a liberal arts school, and we’d talk about the different philosophies of education and how generally different it was pretty frequently. But one thing that I think is really cool about being at a large school, especially as a grad student, is that you have such a community of researchers. There’s a ton of people, a lot going on, and so many opportunities for collaboration and engagement. Being part of a grad student community is awesome, both within the department and across Oregon State. But it’s definitely different than being at Bowdoin, and it definitely took me a while to adjust to the culture of a bigger school. At Bowdoin, I didn’t even know what a TA was - it was that kind of culture that took me a while to figure out. That’s one reason that I think it’s really important for students at Bowdoin (who are interested in grad school) to tap into their network and get in touch with grad students. I know a ton of grad students who went to Bowdoin, and we’re always willing to talk to undergrads. We’ve all been there, and it does take a while to figure out.

ET: When did you realize that you wanted to go for a PhD, as opposed to getting a different degree or leaving academia?

SC: I knew I wanted to take at least two years off from school after Bowdoin, and was always thinking about maybe going back for grad school. I loved my nonprofit job, but after a while I really started to notice how science wasn’t a part of it, and I missed that – I loved doing research. I had started to think about it, and then randomly ran into my former professor Lindsay on my bus commute in Seattle. He’s a professor at Seattle University now, and it turned out that we both commuted on the same city bus. I talked to him a lot about it - professors are a great resource to help you figure out grad school issues, especially when it comes to actually applying, as that can get complicated. In terms of doing a PhD versus a Master’s, by the time I decided to go back to grad school, I was really interested in a PhD, and I didn’t think about it that hard. At times I wished I’d done a masters first, but now it doesn’t really bother me that much. My advisor prefers to take PhD students, so that was a big part of the decision for me, but it’s definitely worth talking to people and thinking a lot about the difference between a Master’s and a PhD program.

ET: What’s next for you after your PhD is done?

SC: I’m actually switching gears entirely. I’m trying to finish up my PhD soon, and then in February I’m starting a year-long policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. It’s a Sea Grant fellowship called the Knauss Marine Science Policy Fellowship. I’ll be working in an executive agency in D.C. (NOAA, Fish & Wildlife, EPA, etc). I’ve been interested in policy for a long time, since the end of college, and the intersection of science and policy has especially interested me. The longer I’ve been in academia, the more I value understanding how policy works. Another big influence was that my advisor when I first started out at Oregon was Jane Lubchenco (the most recent director of NOAA). Hearing her stories about what she’s been able to do in D.C. has been really inspirational. My goal is to work in D.C. for a year, and then hopefully get back into research with the knowledge of how things work outside the academy.

ET: So would you prefer to ultimately end up back in academia?

SC: I would actually love to end up a professor at a place like Bowdoin. Teaching and research are both highly valued, you get to interact with amazing undergrads, and being able to talk across disciplines is not only valued, but it actually happens.

Sarah gave a talk on September 26, 2013 at 4 pm entitled “Disentangling environmental drivers of rocky intertidal seaweed ecology” in 020 Druckenmiller Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.

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