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Volume 3, Number 4
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A Profile of an Emerging Researcher
Mud Unearths the Scientist Within

By Erica Goldman

Becky Holyoke - by Skip Brown

"Anyone can play with mud," says doctoral student and former Sea Grant fellow Becky Holyoke. But to go from mud core collections to a career in science, it takes commitment, curiosity and a drive to ask the next question.

Becky Holyoke's feet no longer touch the bottom of the boat as she leans far over the edge to wash off the plastic tube that encases her mud core, strands of long hair distracting her peripheral vision and the sleeve of her gray sweatshirt trailing in the water. She forces her cold-numbed hands to obey her commands and carefully inserts a stopper at the end of the tube, moving slowly to avoid jostling the interface between mud and water – where all of the chemical secrets that she wants to coax out of the sediments reside.

In most ways, it is a morning like many others she has spent collecting samples for her research as a graduate student in the Marine-Estuarine-Environmental Sciences (MEES) program at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). But today marks the start of a new course. These cores are the first she has collected to pilot her Ph.D. research, a path embarked upon only a few months ago – a career turning point that caught her by surprise.

Holyoke began graduate school with a single-minded purpose, to bridge the gap between science and policy. She worked as an environmental consultant for several years after college and became frustrated by the role she found herself in. She excelled at the rigorous fieldwork aimed at mapping out the boundaries of wetlands and surveying habitat for endangered species. But she wasn't comfortable with the end product of that science. She saw that some project managers came to environmental consultants for advice on figuring out the minimum they had to do to follow environmental regulations, not for guidance on going the extra step to protect the environment. Holyoke knew the regulations and the policy behind them thoroughly – well enough to know that there were ways that companies could get away with doing less. But she realized she did not want to become someone who could help companies identify ambiguities that exist in regulation. What she wanted was to help link sound science with policy decisions. So she applied to graduate school – only to two programs, both with an emphasis on environmental policy. Along the way, however, her application to the University of Maryland College Park was hijacked.

Roger Newell, a professor at UMCES Horn Point Laboratory, saw something different in Holyoke's application – a student with a strong undergraduate science background who would benefit from understanding the strengths and limitations of what science could do before entering the world of policy. He offered her an opportunity to study how oysters in the Bay affect nitrogen and phosphorus at the boundary between the sediment and the water column, research key in determining what role oysters might play in the Bay's restoration. The project had both technical and policy elements – oysters are pretty political in Chesapeake Bay these days. But the position would not be based at College Park. Newell's lab is located on Maryland's Eastern shore.

Holyoke never considered applying to faculty at the research labs. But she saw that an advanced degree in science would help her in later policy pursuits. Newell had sold her on that. Besides it would only be a few years, he had reminded her. She would stay on a strict timeline and then make the leap into the world of science policy. Holyoke was admitted to the MEES program and received a two-year fellowship offering full support from Maryland Sea Grant. She began her graduate school journey towards a Master's degree in May 2002.

Over the next two years, Holyoke grew to know mud and like it. She has a sense of sediment acquired from hundreds of core dissections. She can read the mud's colors, smells, and textures – a stench of rotten eggs means too little oxygen, a light brown color means plenty. These particulars provide some clues to the results of the experiments even before she does the time-intensive analyses to profile the amounts of iron, sulfide, carbon, and other chemical species in the core.

But sense alone is not science.

Back in the lab, Holyoke immediately launches into the experimental rigors of her work, going into autopilot to prepare for the core dissection. She moves with a technical dexterity that she has honed over the years, stowing muddy field gear and readying her equipment. Time is of the essence. It doesn't take long for the cores to begin to warm and for rising temperatures to speed up the rates of reactions carried out by bacteria in the mud, which could contaminate the results.

Holyoke must handle the mud in a carefully contrived environment that is completely devoid of oxygen – an element that could fuel confounding chemical reactions. To create a mini-world free of oxygen, she reaches for a strange contraption called a glove bag.

She rips open a package that contains what looks like a giant plastic bag with hands sticking out of it. She hooks intake and outtake tubes on the bag to a tank of nitrogen gas and a vacuum device respectively and places a spatula, plastic rack, and centrifuge tubes inside. As she turns on the suction, the objects are instantly shrink-wrapped, like vacuum-sealed bacon in a grocery store package. She switches on the nitrogen gas and the bag puffs up, its two hands sticking out like a ten-fingered snowman. The snowman deflates and reappears twice more to insure that all of the oxygen in the bag has been replaced by nitrogen. Sitting down on the stool in front of the bag, she cranks up the music on the radio and pushes her hands into the unwieldy plastic gloves–they are way too big for her – and maneuvers the spatula to slice the first section of mud from the core.

Holyoke will be the first to point out that these highly technical aspects of her work are the easy part in many ways. "Anyone can play with mud," she says. But it takes something more to be a biogeochemist. And only recently did she realize what her advisors have maintained all along – that she probably has that something.

Her sense of this something did not gel until she tackled the data synthesis and analysis she would need to do to write up her Master's thesis. She disentangled a few questions about how oysters modify the condition of the sediment they live in. But in the course of doing so, she generated a slew of additional questions. What kinds of reactions take place in the dynamic region between oxygenated and un-oxygenated sediments called the redox boundary? How does season affect the rates of these processes? What about the amount of light that penetrates to the bottom of the Bay? And what about the presence or absence of other plants and animals in addition to oysters?

The fact that the number of questions exceeded the number of answers did not come as a surprise to her, but the fact that she wanted to be the one to pursue the answers caught her off guard. She realized that she liked depth and detail – a reductionist at heart maybe – and each answer left her more curious and more determined to keep going. Could that drive to discover the next deeper piece of the puzzle be the something that makes a scientist? So as she synthesized her data and began to write, she made an important life choice: not to graduate with a Master's degree, but to switch into the Ph.D. track. She took charge of her science.

This year, Holyoke applied for and won a prestigious scholarship to support the duration of her dissertation research. The Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, given to only a handful of outstanding graduate students in marine fields, will allow her to conduct research independent from a single scientist's grants. She switched her primary advisor to Jeff Cornwell, whose research on sediment geochemistry more closely aligns with her interests. She assembled a Ph.D. advisory committee, convened the members for a first meeting, and followed up with a series of one-on-one meetings. Now she is taking additional advanced coursework and trying to schedule her written and oral "comps," exams that she must take to advance to candidate status for the Ph.D. degree. She is also working to narrow down the string of exciting questions that emerged from her first project to craft and defend a cohesive proposal for her dissertation.

Down the road, Holyoke still sees herself providing a bridge between science and policy – emphatic on this point and frustrated at times that her Ph.D. advisor insists that he sees her in academia. It's a compliment, she knows, that he perceives her as a skilled and dedicated researcher. But she wants to find a niche that will put her science to public use. "I haven't changed my opinion on life yet. Everyone thinks that I am a scientist and they may be right. I really like what I do. But I still want to make a difference in policy." For now, Holyoke's closet is divided in two, her mud clothes on one side and her power suits, left over from her consulting days, on the other.

Finished dissecting the first core, she removes the stopper from a second and places a piece of flexible rubber tubing in the murky water on top of the mud in the plastic cylinder. She starts a siphon and drains the brown liquid into a bucket. The next mud core is now primed and ready for dissection and Becky Holyoke is one core closer to the scientist that lies within.

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