[Chesapeake Quarterly masthead]
Volume 1, Number 2
Table of Contents
Download pdf

At the Top of Her Game
Maryland Sea Grant Fellow Scores at Science

By Michael Fincham

Angie Arnold sitting next to a dissecting microscope - by Skip Brown

If you stare at it long enough under a microscope, a grain of hickory pollen looks a lot like a basketball, an old ball beaten out of round from too many bounces and dotted with a nubby grain that's nearly worn smooth. Oak and willow look like collapsed basketballs, gone shapeless and airless. But ragweed, round and spiky, looks like trouble. You can look at it and start sneezing.

Angie Arnold, a 25-year old grad student, spends most of her work time sitting at microscopes, endlessly eyeballing tiny round shapes that could be oak or willow or hickory pollen that has been buried in the bottom of Chesapeake Bay for decades or centuries. Working with her advisor Grace Brush, Arnold extracted the pollen from sediment cores holding hundreds of years of Bay mud. She keeps a sharp watch for ragweed in particular because ragweed pollen - an irritating allergen for most people - can also be a sign of large-scale land clearing. It's a key to dating these cores and correlating changes on the land with changes in the Bay. This pollen has left a record in the sediment, and Brush and her students are using that record to assemble an environmental history of the Bay.

hickory pollen showing smooth exterior

oak pollen - similar to red blood cells

willow pollen - exterior similar to rough coral

ragweed pollen with spikes


Even before she became a grad student, Arnold had already left a record of her own in the history of Johns Hopkins University. As a four-year starter at point guard and shooting guard for the women's basketball team, she played more minutes, made more free throws and handed out more assists than anybody before her. She also ended up second on the all-time list of scorers, averaging 15.5 points per game for her four-year career. That's a lot of points for someone who played mostly point guard, but Arnold deflects any compliments. "Once you look at how much I shot," she laughs, "you say she should be scoring a lot."

In her senior year, she scored a lot when it counted the most. In the middle of March Madness, the annual basketball playoffs of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, she led her team into the Sweet Sixteen all the way to the Elite Eight. In her last college game Arnold went out big, counting 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting. A week later, she got a compliment she couldn't deflect: She was named the best woman player in America under 5'6" by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. Early in her graduate career, Arnold found a new game, paleoecology, and a new coach, Grace Brush. And soon enough she won a new award, a Maryland Sea Grant Research Fellowship. Sea Grant Research Fellows receive a stipend, tuition remission and training under scientists working on Sea Grant projects. The scientists, in turn, get help with field and lab work. Over the last 25 years, Maryland Sea Grant has funded the graduate work of dozens of degree-seeking students, many of them women.

Grad students, of course, handle much of the grunt work in most research projects - and marine science is no exception. For the last four years Arnold's job has been to trek out with Brush and haul up sediment cores from the rivers, marshes and mainstem of the Bay; back in the lab, she helps crack open the cores and then sits down to the long labor of figuring out what's buried in the old mud. In each core there can be thousands of remnants and hundreds of species, ranging from trees, grasses and weeds to algae, diatoms and dinoflagellates. She has to put a name on those odd shapes, at least to the genus level when she can, and then count them. Next to her microscope are her key reference sources: the publications and Ph.D. dissertations of graduate students who sat at these scopes before her. Scientific knowledge, like sediment, accumulates over time.

These are time-consuming tasks, but they are only the pre-game warmups. Like a point guard running down court hoping to shoot, a scientist who wants to score in the research game has to see the patterns at play in the data unfolding in front of her. In core slices from the Chester River dated circa 1700, Arnold has been seeing some provocative patterns among one-celled protists down at the bottom of the food chain. She found that high-salinity species were declining at the same time that fresh-water species were increasing. "This change of species," she says, "suggests changes in runoff, more fresh water coming in." Out of all that digging, eyeballing and data crunching, Arnold is slowly crafting her own dissertation on some of the historic changes in the food webs of the Chesapeake.

For Arnold, it's now late in the grad-school game. With comps out of the way, she's focused on finishing her dissertation, finding a job and planning a wedding. She hopes to work in environmental restoration, perhaps with a consulting company that pays better than a fellowship. Her other game plan is to find a teaching/coaching job that could combine her first love (basketball) with her second (environmental science). Last winter, in the middle of her research, she still managed to moonlight as assistant coach with the women's team at Johns Hopkins. As she works away at her microscope, somewhere in the back of her brain, a basketball is still bouncing.

Top of Page

[Chesapeake Quarterly]
Other Issues

[Chesapeake Quarterly Bar]
[Maryland Sea Grant][NOAA]