CELS PhD Student Inspires Next Generation of Women in Marine Science


As a young marine scientist and doctoral student at the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), Alexa Sterling is already making big waves in the field of ocean science. Her steadfast determination combined with invaluable mentorship throughout her academic studies has earned Sterling impressive achievements early on in her career. But if you ask her, the most rewarding accomplishment is the inspiration she gives to the next generation of female scientists.  

Pursuing a dual degree with a Masters of Arts in Marine Affairs and a PhD in Biological and Environmental Science (BES), Sterling has received two honorable mentions by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program and has been awarded several federally funded research grants through Rhode Island’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Sterling_NOAAAlexa’s path in marine science began with a high school internship with the Woods Hole Science Aquarium Summer Intern Program, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She later returned to lead the program as a college intern and continues to mentor students as an alumna.

Prior to joining CELS as a graduate student, Sterling earned a Bachelors of Science in Marine Biology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), where she was one of 120 students nationally to receive the prestigious NOAA Ernest F. Hollings scholarship in 2013. The two-year scholarship provided Sterling with training in oceanic and atmospheric science and a funded internship at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

“I interviewed shellfishers on beaches about the perceptions of bio-toxin blooms in their shellfish areas,” says Sterling of her policy-focused Hollings internship, which influenced her decision to pursue graduate study in Marine Affairs at URI.

With the recommendation of her mentor at UNCW, Sterling seized the opportunity to return home to New England and join Dr. Bethany Jenkins’ research team at CELS, where Sterling now studies the unique symbiotic relationship between diatoms and bacteria.

“Diatoms are these small photosynthetic, plant-like organisms that do the same things plants do on land, only in a more complex marine environment,” explains Sterling. “They provide every fifth breath we take.”  

Her research with Dr. Jenkins, associate professor of Cell and Molecular Biology and Oceanography at CELS, took Sterling around the globe to Antarctica this fall to study diatom populations in the Southern Ocean, an area highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. During the six-week research expedition, Sterling and two other URI graduate students collected samples, grew bacteria on petri dishes, and performed microcosmic, or small scale, experiments aboard a research vessel.

When she’s not traveling through Antarctica or studying samples of bacteria in the lab, Sterling leads the URI chapter of the Society for Women in Marine Science (SWMS) along with co-president Jillian Freese, a third-year PhD student. Modeled after the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) original SWMS group, the URI SWMS chapter is an entirely student-led organization that connects undergraduate students with graduate mentors, and welcomes both male and female students interested in marine science.

“I’m particularly proud of the fact that URI SWMS has a diverse leadership board and their activities will also be aimed at broadening participating in the marine life sciences,” says Dr. Jenkins of her hopes for the group, which has already gained fifty members since the fall. 

In addition to the mentorship program, Sterling and the SWMS leadership team also organize career development activities and science communication workshops, helping students improve strategies to make their science more accessible for diverse audiences.

As she works to complete her doctoral degree, Sterling hopes to join the community of experts at the federal level pushing forward scientifically informed policies and educating the public.

“I think it’s really important to have people working on the edge of the policy-driven taxpayer-funded science who are also sharing that knowledge with the next generation.”