Photo courtesy: Shawnee Traylor CC’18

Exploring Corals, Crocodiles and Carbon Cycling

"The research opportunities offered to me during my time at Columbia have been unparalleled. From the rocky deserts of Oman to the tropical corals of Panama, I have joined expeditions to research the chemistry of diverse environments at a very fundamental level." Shawnee Traylor CC’18

Meet Shawnee Traylor CC’18, an environmental chemistry major with a special interest in carbon sequestration and polar sciences, from Danville, CA. Traylor spends her time in the lab, tutoring and working in the chemistry help room.

When she’s not in the lab, Traylor enjoys hiking, diving, photography and dancing. Traylor is also involved with +Pool, a plus-shaped, water-filtering, floating swimming pool, making it possible for New Yorkers and its visitors to swim in clean river water.

Traylor plans to pursue a doctoral degree in chemical oceanography, and focus on carbon cycling.

What are your favorite memories from your time at Columbia College?

A deciding factor that made me choose Columbia College was my admittance into the Science Research Fellows Program. While I have many favorable things to say about the program, what has stuck with me the most is how personally meaningful this distinction was to me. While I was always curious about the natural world, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity and privilege to spend my time trying to understand it. I never thought of myself as a scientist and never dreamed that that type of life would be accessible to me. Columbia’s recognition and support of my passion and aptitude was incredibly affirming for me; now I can’t imagine doing anything else with my short time on this planet. The research opportunities offered to me during my time at Columbia have been unparalleled. From the rocky deserts of Oman to the tropical corals of Panama, I have joined expeditions to research the chemistry of diverse environments at a very fundamental level.

The support and guidance I have received by the incredible staff and faculty of Columbia will always stick with me. I have been exceedingly privileged to find mentors here who care about my personal development, along with the research, training me to be a better scientist. I have been pushed beyond belief, certainly, by the ambitious and intellectual community here. Between classes, research, work and maintaining a personal life, it is sometimes inevitable to feel like one has no more to give. But rather than reach my limit, my limits have expanded.

I have surprised myself by the fears I have faced during my time here. For most of my life, I have had an intense fear of the ocean — I viscerally remember the knot in my stomach during a forced snorkeling experience on a family holiday when I was a child. The water was crystal clear and the reefs dotted with spectacular tropical fish, but I wanted nothing more than to get back to dry land. Now, I am comfortable (even eager!) to dive dozens of feet under the sea to deploy chemical monitoring systems on the bottom. I realized the limitations I had imposed on myself with this fear, and the desire to understand these environments pushed me to get back in the water, get scuba certified and, most recently, join a research expedition to sample corals off the coast of Panama.

One of the most memorable experiences of my time at Columbia College is a particularly tense day during this expedition. We had deployed a system at a legacy site earlier in the week and needed to return to retrieve the sensors. This should have been a simple operation, but a local informed us after we deployed that a “four meter long and highly aggressive” crocodile had moved into that bay. It had been spotted just two weeks before, nesting on the secluded beach where we had previously enjoyed a tranquil lunch. I have a visceral phobia to crocodiles — just the thought of those powerful jaws makes my blood run cold. And now, we had to send members of our team down into water reported to have a particularly aggressive one? I was not having a good day.

We fashioned metal spears and devised a plan while I scowled stoically at the horizon, anticipating the moment when my eyes would meet those of our enemy. We sent one person down on scuba for retrieval, while the others floated above on snorkels to protect the diver. Each excruciating minute dragged out longer than the preceding one. Slowly, slowly, each piece of equipment was brought back to the boat, and, finally, my beloved team. The elation and relief after the successful operation was incomparable. This experience also epitomizes the reality of fieldwork — while it is at times glamorous and exciting, it can also be exhausting, dangerous or, quite simply, dull. There is plenty of waiting around in the scorching sun or freezing cold. But the real beauty of it all is that the passion for the science makes all the difficulties inconsequential in the face of the great discoveries to be made. I feel so eternally grateful and lucky to be offered the experiences I’ve had at Columbia College. I feel so privileged to be able to pursue research and a career that I am passionate about.

What surprised you most about your Columbia College experience?

I was surprised by the accessibility of most faculty, and their willingness to build meaningful relationships with students. I have also been amazed at the vast network of Columbia alumni and connections. There have been so many chance encounters on planes and trains here and abroad of people connected to the University. That sort of relationship can prove extremely useful when building a career. I remember once, while living in rural Iceland, a glaciologist stationed in Svalbard came by and rented the spare room in my house to attend a local conference. After chatting for just a few minutes, it came out that we had mutual colleagues through the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. I was very impressed by the name recognition and network built by Columbia.

How has your experience prepared you for your postgraduate plans?

The research experiences I have been able to have at Columbia have made me a competitive candidate for research positions and graduate school. Columbia’s role within the City of New York has allowed me to get involved with local projects and gain hands on experience in the field.

What will you miss most about Columbia College?

I will miss being surrounded by this incredible community of ambitious, intelligent and capable people. It is a privilege to be wrapped up in this environment of passion and intrigue, where ideas can come to life so easily.

What are your post-graduate plans?

Immediately after graduation, I plan to continue with my current research [geological carbon sequestration and biological carbon cycling] before applying to graduate school in the fall. I ultimately plan to pursue a doctoral degree in chemical oceanography with a focus on developing new instrumentation to improve our understanding of the natural world.

Published Monday May 14, 2018

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