Blazing trails for science and women

Young researchers awarded for work on coastal system projects
Growing up, Rose Martin and Melanie Garate, third year University of Rhode Island Ph.D. students, did not have role models such as themselves to look up to in the science field.

But last month, after presenting their work at regional and national conferences and walking away with top honors, the young women are poised to change that for future generations of female scientists.

Melanie Garate, left, and Rose Martin

Born and raised in Johnston, RI, Martin’s parents were elementary school teachers. The rest of her family worked in the tile business.

Garate, born in Chile, immigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven years old and grew up in Waltham, Mass.

Although both women came from starkly different backgrounds and followed different paths, they wound up at the same place, in Dr. Serena Moseman-Valtierra’s lab, studying ecosystem ecology and the human impacts on coastal systems.

Martin won Best Graduate Oral Presentation at the New England Estuarine Research Society (NEERS) fall meeting for “From a Spartina patens meadow to a Phragmites jungle: a biological invasion may change coastal carbon cycling.”

At the national Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans In Science (SACNAS) conference, Garate received the Outstanding Graduate Presentation award in Environmental Sciences for “Increased temperatures and excess nutrients may increase greenhouse gas fluxes from coastal systems.”

“These awards mean that they are being recognized in their field for having made significant contributions,” said Dr. Moseman-Valtierra, Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences. “They’re both very early in their career, women in science, giving their first talks, and they won.”

Last year, Martin earned support from Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) through a graduate research fellowship. Garate secured a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship this past year.

Melanie Garate
Melanie Garate talks about her science, educational journey and career aspirations with Central Falls High School students during an RI NSF EPSCoR outreach event.

Gasses, grasses and mussels

Martin’s work focuses on an invasive species of wetlands grass, Phragmites australis, which has been targeted for removal because it crowds out biodiversity. However, Martin is finding that the grass also takes up carbon dioxide at a much greater rate than other plants.

Rather than spending money to remove the grass, Dr. Moseman-Valtierra said, we may find it more valuable than we first thought because of its role in carbon sequestration and, possibly, for long-term stability of the salt marsh ecosystem.

“It’s very dramatic and visible,” she said of the species. “The reed stands taller than your head and it’s extremely dense — nothing can grow in between it. Rose’s work is among the first to look at it in terms of consequences for carbon fluxes.”

Meanwhile, Garate’s research centers on nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas generated by bacterial processes in the soil, which is about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming climate. That strength means even small changes in the levels can hold significant consequences for global warming.

Garate’s research examines the role of clams and blue mussels in the production of nitrous oxide, thought to come from the bacteria in the their gut.

Referring to the analogy of production of methane by cows, Dr. Moseman-Valtierra said, “What we’re finding is that the cows of the sea might be mussels. Think of aquaculture — high density, high nutrients. These conditions could greatly accelerate the release of nitrous oxide by mussels.”

The importance of this finding lies in the fact that we can control clumps or hotspots of nitrous oxide generated by marine shellfish if we cut back on nitrogen pollution to our coasts, she explained.

Rose Martin takes her science and her story on the road with RI NSF EPSCoR to share with Woonsocket middle school students all the possibilities of an education and career in the STEM fields.

Fellowships, mentor make the difference

Martin and Garate said the recognition from their peers was exciting, as were the implications of their work, none of which would have happened without the suport from their fellowships and Dr. Moseman-Valtierra.

“The EPSCoR funding totally supported me during the time I was doing this research,” Martin said. “It allowed me the freedom to focus on my work

Equally important, she added, “Serena is the first female advisor and first female mentor I’ve had. It’s nice to have someone who has gone through the same struggles as a young female scientist. We’ve seen a lot of progress, but there is a long way to go for the representation of women and women of color.”

Garate, president of the URI SACNAS chapter, said she never imagined science as a feasible career until she arrived at college.

“My parents didn’t know to have me take the honors classes,” she said. “They didn’t know what SATs were. It’s a huge learning curve for all students, but especially so for students of color, who perhaps don’t speak English at home or whose parents work all day and they don’t have the support thome.”

Garate credited her parents with instilling a passion for learning and the belief that education was power. Getting to college was the first step, even though she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

“I tried to take advantage of as many opportunities as I could,” she recalled. “I knew I needed to do something, but I just didn’t know what. Then I got my first reserch experience.”

She started at the University of Delaware, transferred to a community college, and then landed at UMass-Boston, where she discovered her strength in biology and earned her undergraduate degree.

Martin said she never knew anyone who was a scientist: “Everyone else in my family sells tile and my parents are teachers, so I’m kind of the odd one out.”

Still, she said, her parents also reinforced the mindset that education was power; that no one could take away her education.

She earned her undergraduate degree at URI and her master’s at University of Connecticut. Her passion lies in research and she hopes to give back to the greater coastal New England community, helping develop resiliency to climate change, as well as continue her outreach efforts to encourage the pursuit of science as a possible career.

Garate said she hoped to secure a faculty position and conduct research in Latin American communities. Currently, she is looking at mangrove systems in Puerto Rico. And, like Martin, Garate wants to give back.

“I also do a lot of outreach for underrepresented minorities,” she said. “That’s what I get excited about. I want to be that role model for the next generation of scientists, whether here in the United States or in Latin America.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle