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A Coastal Georgia Student on the World's Stage
Posted 11/30/2020 03:12PM

By Tiffany King

The American Geophysical Union's annual fall conference will be one of the world's largest virtual scientific conferences, bringing together leading Earth and space scientists, current and future global thought leaders and scholars, and a College of Coastal Georgia student.

Senior Kaelyn Tyler will be doing a poster presentation on her research on the biogeochemistry of the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica. She will present her research at the conference in December in a live video poster session, answer questions, and receive feedback from other conference attendees.

Tyler's research focuses on the implications of the data collected by aquatic, robotic floats that are taking measurements of the Southern Ocean. The floats are part of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project. SOCCOM observation teams deployed profiling floats with biogeochemical sensors throughout the Southern Ocean to measure carbon (pH), nutrients (nitrate), oxygen levels, and other variables. The Southern Ocean plays an important role in the planet's carbon and climate cycles. Rising carbon dioxide levels are projected to be more severe in the Southern Ocean, which will affect the ocean ecosystem around the world. The SOCCOM project is administered by the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, in collaboration with Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD; Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute; University of Washington; University of Arizona; the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University; University of Maine; and Rutgers University. SOCCOM is supported by the National Science Foundation. There are approximately 159 active floats. Tyler selected 77 of those floats within 60 degrees south of Antarctica, and after collecting all the data, was left with over 700,000 data points to analyze. For someone who just learned coding over the summer, and is new to data manipulation and management, the experience has been very eye-opening, she said.

"The biggest part of my research is determining what the influx of freshwater due to the melting sea ice is doing to the biogeochemistry of the water," she said. "When ice freezes, it takes out all the freshwater because saltwater doesn't freeze. It leaves behind a large amount of salty water and oxygen-poor water underneath, which is not the most conducive condition for life. There's a lot of research in the Southern Ocean and, in general, about super cold, salty environments; extremophiles; and the biology that lives there as they relate to space analogues."

Space analogues, also known as terrestrial analogues, are places on Earth with assumed past or present geological, environmental, or biological conditions similar to a celestial body, such as the Moon or Mars. Her research has the potential of helping scientists who study extremely cold environments—like the Southern Ocean—and hot places on Earth make predictions as to what the ecosystems are like on other planets. Tyler is still refining her research in preparation for the conference and will share her conclusions.

Tyler was encouraged to submit an abstract on her research to the conference by Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Dr. James Deemy. He introduced Tyler and other students to the SOCCOM project over the summer and taught on data management.

"I was able to make some cool conclusions and he said I should make an abstract and continue this as an independent study," Tyler said. "From the summer until now, I was able to pin down what I want to do career-wise because of it."

After graduating from the College, Tyler will pursue her doctorate in biological oceanography. She is particularly excited about a graduate program at the University of Washington that offers a dual-title Ph.D. in astrobiology.

When Tyler learned of her acceptance into the conference, she was excited not only for the opportunity but because of how it encouraged her.

"I had felt—which I think a lot of people do at my career point—the imposter syndrome and that I wasn't an actual scientist. I had been afraid to email people and reach out because I didn't feel like I was at the same level. Getting the grant was validating and it felt like a really big step," she said. "I wish the conference were in-person because of the networking opportunities, but after I submitted the abstract, I felt more confident in reaching out to a lot of the people who will be presenting there as well. I've talked with graduate students and professors from different institutions."

Along with the opportunity to present at the conference, Tyler was awarded a travel grant. Although the conference is virtual, the grant is allocated for missed wages for taking time off work to present at the conference, Wi-Fi, and other internet expenses.

Deemy, and Dr. Kim Takagi, assistant professor of Environmental Science, will also be presenting their research at the AGU conference.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone Can Lead to New Opportunities

Tyler is a double major in biochemistry and environmental science. She is also earning minors in chemistry and math. One piece of advice that worked for Tyler, which she shares with other students, is to not be afraid of their professors.

"That was one of the biggest things for me coming into college. I treated them as teachers rather than actual people doing something they love and teaching it to others. Once you break that barrier, you get exposed to more things and opportunities, like the AGU conference," she said.

By stepping out of her comfort zone, she was also able to attend a math conference with some of the math faculty that she described as a lot of fun. She enjoys being around other people which works well for her as a supplemental instructor for The Academic Tutoring and Instruction Center (ATTIC). Tutoring and getting involved with the ATTIC has been helpful in reaffirming material learned in class.

"Students will come to you with the hardest questions from the most obscure class you took two years ago, so it's a good brain exercise," she said. She encourages students to get involved with the tutoring program and take advantage of the study time.

In the meantime, while getting ready for the conference, Tyler continues to take heed of her own advice. Amidst the hustle and bustle of classes and working, she's finding time to get involved with clubs, such as the Gay Straight Alliance, and has been attending more on-campus events.

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