For Graduate Student, Research Is Gas: Well, Two Gases Actually, and Both Affect Climate

By Dodd, Scott | Oceanus, September 2008 | Go to article overview

For Graduate Student, Research Is Gas: Well, Two Gases Actually, and Both Affect Climate


Dodd, Scott, Oceanus


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

When you spend 40 days on a ship in the South Atlantic, enduring equipment failures, icebergs, and the occasional surly shipmate, you should at least get to see a few penguins for your trouble.

But when Naomi Levine went to sea in the winter of 2005--her second cruise as a graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (MIT/WHOI) Joint Program--she missed her chance.

As researchers aboard the Ronald H. Brown collected samples early each morning in the chilly air, penguins would gather alongside the ship in the dawn rays, said Scott Doney, a WHOI marine chemist and Levine's Ph.D. co-advisor.

It would have been a thrilling sight--if Levine ever got to see it. But she had to work each morning in the computer room, only coming on deck once the penguins had scattered.

"She thought we were pulling her leg about the penguins," Doney recalled. "She never actually got to see them in the open ocean on that cruise."

Levine, though, took the whole experience--seven-week cruise, cold weather, 12- to 14-hour workdays, no penguin sightings--with her usual good humor. "She almost always has a smile on her face," Doney said.

"Conducting research at sea is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing," she said. "I would have loved to see the penguins, but that was the least of my worries."

Growing up outside Boston, Levine said she was drawn to earth science by a great teacher in high school. "He showed us how you could use clues from the Earth to figure out what happened millions of years ago."

So at Princeton University, Levine took geology courses and studied deep-Earth geochemistry. But she was also interested in environmental policy and climate, which led her to the oceans.

"I wanted to work on something more immediately relevant to society," Levine said. "There's so much we don't know about Oceans and their effect on climate that it seemed like a perfect fit."

After graduation, Levine got a job at the nonprofit organization Environmental Defence, exploring her interest in environmental policy. She worked on reports showing how change could affect different parts of the country. Those reports were used to encourage clean car legislation and to build congressional support for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

She enjoyed the work, but "I wasn't doing scientific research," she said. "I was only reading other people's research, and I missed being in the lab."

The experience convinced her, however, that she wanted to focus on climate, which led her to WHOI and Doney's lab in 2004.

Researchers have been sampling the ocean since 1980s, on cruises like the one Levine was on in 2005, to measure the build-up of human-produced carbon in the oceans. Using computer models, Levine is evaluating the accuracy of those calculations and identifying regions of the oceans where current methods may not be very accurate.

"Ultimately, our goal is to get a better picture of how much man-made carbon dioxide is ending up in the ocean, which lets us better predict changes in Earth's climate," she said.

With her other Ph.D. co-advisor, WHOI marine chemist Dierdre Toole, Levine is now studying dimethylsulfide, or DMS, a naturally produced gas that influences Earth's climate. It encourages the formation of clouds that reflect solar radiation back into space and, as a result, cool the Earth's surface. …

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