GSO student selected for international research program

URI Graduate School of Oceanography doctoral student Catherine Nowakowski was one of 21 students in the United States selected by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) to participate in its international research program. The Limnology and Oceanography Research Exchange (LOREX) is a National Science Foundation-funded initiative to provide training in international research for graduate students.

With GSO Assistant Professor Kelton McMahon, Nowakowski is working to understand how the warming climate is changing the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. To make up for the limited records for this complex system, the Mystic, Conn. native applies compound-specific stable isotope analysis (CSIA) to deep-ocean coral to reconstruct how their diet has changed through time.

“Coral grows at the bottom of the ocean, and it works like a tree where it builds up rings,” says Nowakowski. “As it builds those rings it’s eating things that rain down from the ocean surface. CSIA allows us to interpret what the coral eats and the processes it has been through.”

While deep-sea coral found in other parts of the ocean can live thousands of years, the coral that Nowakowski studies in the Gulf of Maine is about 50 years old. By combining CSIA analysis on both coral and plankton samples dating back to the 1970’s, she can begin to piece together how climatic and oceanographic changes impact the region’s food web.

As part of her LOREX experience, Nowakowski will spend six weeks in summer 2020 at Dalhousie University in Canada in a paid research exchange. There, the third-year student will work closely with Dr. Owen Sherwood, an oceanographer who uses long-term nitrogen isotope measurements from coral and sediment archives as a tool to both understand the region’s currents and to validate global climate models. Nowakowski will use coral collected from the Gulf of Maine between 2017 and 2019 to extend Sherwood’s data series through some of the warmest years in the region’s history.

With a goal to foster international research collaborations through professional development training, LOREX provides an important opportunity for graduate students like Nowakowski to enhance their skills. “Dr. Sherwood has the tools to process the coral: to polish and cut it, and to age and date it,” says Nowakowski. “I’ll be able to learn in a different setting and bring back new ideas for our lab.”

In addition to her work at Dalhousie University, Nowakowski will benefit from numerous training opportunities provided by LOREX and will present her research at the international ASLO 2021 conference in Spain.

With her focus on large-scale ocean systems not constrained by international borders, Nowakowski is excited to work with the LOREX program to begin building a network of international collaborators to tackle global-scale questions. “Not only will this program directly contribute to the first chapter of my dissertation, but it will propel my future work forward,” she says.