From dad’s garage to ocean research, Benoit-Bird grateful, humbled

Equally adept with hands and head

Equally adept with hands and head, Kelly Benoit-Bird readies an experiment aboard a research vessel. (photo: University Marketing)

At 9, she became fascinated with oceans while on a family trip to an aquarium in her native Connecticut. Now, even though she still sometimes gets seasick aboard a research ship at sea, Kelly Benoit-Bird has been named recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s Early Career Award for Ocean Sciences. Only one is given every two years.

“It’s pretty humbling,” said Benoit-Bird, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. She will receive the citation Tuesday at a national conference in San Francisco. “I’m being recognized by my peers who were once my role models. I’m incredibly grateful.”

Learning from others started early for Benoit-Bird, who studies how changes in resources over time and space affect competition and behaviors among oceanic organisms. From the time she could walk, she would visit her dad at his garage and hand him tools in the pit as he worked on engines.

As a teenager, she wasn’t allowed to drive a car until she could rebuild an engine by herself. Now, she designs equipment for the oceanographic research she leads and often finds herself fixing something mechanical or electronic aboard ships hundreds of nautical miles from shore.

“You become very self-sufficient on a boat,” said Benoit-Bird, who earned her doctorate in zoology from the University of Hawaii in 2003 and then did post-doctorate work on the islands. She joined the OSU faculty in 2004 and received the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award in 2005.

Besides wrenches and pliers, Benoit-Bird’s toolbox now includes passive and active acoustics devices as well as imaging optics to study a wide range of  “critters,” as she calls them, as small as zooplankton and as large as whales, in marine ecological communities.

“It’s a critical perspective needed to understand whole systems,” she says. Ocean life, unlike animals and plants on land, exists in three-dimensional space, mixed together, constantly moving, with no permanent structure to hide or eat in.

“I ask the kinds of questions that look at three-dimensional problems and search for unifying explanations,” she said.

Her use of acoustics began as an undergraduate at Brown University where a unique curriculum placed students in major research laboratories. The husband-and-wife team that ran hers used acoustics in exploring the behaviors of bats and frogs. Most recently at OSU, Benoit-Bird utilized sophisticated acoustic monitoring to track the ballet-like movements of foraging spinner dolphins at night when the use of cameras and lighting would be intrusive. Read story and see acoustic video links here.

Back in that Brown laboratory, though, and more importantly, Benoit-Bird learned to understand something she had never known before: what it means to be a scientist.

“I’m the first in my family, on both sides, to go to college,” the OSU oceanographer said. “It was not something I understood.”

Once she got it, however, Benoit-Bird started off on a journey that has led to the prestigious AGU award. She is the second OSU oceanographer to receive it. The first was Andreas Schmittner in 2006. His research focuses on ocean circulation and climate change.

The AGU’s Early Career Award recognizes significant contributions to oceanographic sciences and the potential for a promising future.

“Kelly is a superb scientist, teacher and colleague who already is making significant contributions in biological and ecological oceanography,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“She is rapidly becoming a leader on the national and international scene.”

“Both of us (Schmittner and herself) getting this award says a lot about COAS and Oregon State,” Benoit-Bird said. “It shows we have a lot of energy here and that the quality of faculty is exceptional.”

In her travels, Benoit-Bird has found the geography and oceans of New Zealand “spectacular” and so much like Oregon. She sees the Hawaiian custom of working barefoot in boats an important cultural difference that “challenges your assumptions and makes you see things in a different way.”

She’s married to Chad Waluk, a faculty research assistant who works alongside her aboard ship, which makes being at sea for weeks on end feel more normal. In her free time, she paints with oils and recently has gotten involved in digital scrapbooking – a hobby that’s “a great way to fill the down time” without having photographs and paper scraps flying everywhere when rolling about on the waves.

Working with her hands on engines and scrapbooks is good, Benoit-Bird said, but for the scientist within,  the important thing is each question that life and the ocean present.

“The questions are always ahead of the equipment you might need to answer them,” she said. “If you wait to have a tool to discover something, if you only think inside the box, you’ll never get to the next level.”
~ by Ed Curtin

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