Meet Linda Waters
First-place honors in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences category at this year's Graduate Student Research Symposium went to Linda G. Waters for her poster entitled, "The effect of nutrient constraints on cellular division rates and their consequences for maintenance of a benthic subpopulation of the bloom forming dinoflagellate Karenia brevis."
Waters grew up in Florida near the Kennedy Space Center, and with an engineer father, technology was present in her life at a very young age. And she says that since ". . . my mum is from India and dad from Great Britain, I also grew up with a strong desire to look at the world as one continuous environment and have a very global perspective of environmental issues."
Her undergraduate years were spent at both the University of Manchester, England, and at the University of Florida , where she earned B.S. degrees in both physics and zoology in 1997. Waters, then, worked at Science Applications International Corporation in Raleigh for a few years as an air quality modeler and later at the Duke University Lemur Center as a primate technician. "Exposure to research instrumentation being used for behavioral studies there got me interested in the idea of collecting data from animals without altering their behavior so I decided to return to graduate school. At NC State, I found a professor who specialized in being one of the only researchers in the country who was designing the kinds of devices that interest me."
Waters is currently a doctoral student in Marine Science, and she says that her focus has shifted from her original goal of learning instrument design towards using such devices to collect information about biological organisms. Her interests have shifted yet again since she's been working with another NC State research group on a project on the seafloor in Antarctica. She would like to ". . . direct my future towards building and then applying novel instrumentation to address my questions about animals on or near the seafloor and their effect on and interactions with the physical environment, advancing our abilities for data acquisition from a region of the planet that we still know comparatively little about."
The focus of Waters' graduate research is 'red tide' (Karenia brevis), large concentrations of microscopic plants that appear most frequently near the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The plants forming the blooms have toxins that kill fish and cause respiratory problems in humans. Waters is looking at the ". . . months before blooms occur and . . . the potential for populations of cells to be surviving offshore near the bottom of the ocean in low light conditions where they could later be pushed onshore with the bottom water by strong winds."
Waters also investigated the nutrient levels to see what concentrations of nutrients were needed in order to support cellular growth. She measured and compared nutrients from several different locations in the Gulf of Mexico. "Then I used a robot that behaves like plankton and chooses whether to swim up or down depending on programmed responses to light and nutrient levels to assess if these nutrient levels would result in a population that remains near the bottom of the ocean. I'm now examining the changes in the swimming behavior of the cells as the bottom depth increases and comparing that to the wind patterns on the west coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico to determine if the dominant direction of the bottom water would push cells along the shoreline or push them into deeper water where the cells would die from lack of sunlight."
A unique outcome of this study was the development of the robot -- an instrument invented by Waters' advisor, Dr. Tom Wolcott, and built in their lab. Although similar to other oceanographic devices in that it can move up and down a water column, it is a unique because it can choose both speed and direction of swimming in response to changes in the immediate environment. "In other words, if it is behaving like the phytoplankton that causes red tide, it swims faster upwards when it requires more light than nutrients and downwards when it needs more nutrients than light. If it is behaving like a larval crab, it will swim upwards if it is both dark and salinity increases and downwards when turbulence decreases."
Waters hopes that her statistical analysis supports the ". . . preliminary findings that the phytoplankton populations causing red tide (Karenia brevis) can survive near the bottom offshore in deep, low nutrient waters in the Gulf of Mexico . . . ." Once the vertical position of the phytoplankton can be determined in relation to the nutrient levels, computer models can be improved to predict the occurrence of 'red tide.' The results of Waters' study have potential to help both the tourism industry in Florida as well as fisheries management planning.
The Symposium was not Waters' first poster, however -- she has made several posters for conferences in the past. She finds that organizing the information on a poster also helps her decide what to include in her dissertation and in scientific papers. "It allows me to determine what information is useful, what analyses are still missing, and what data doesn't add anything to the point I'm trying to make."
So, what does Waters do when she's not exploring the depths of the ocean? Amazingly, her activities are land based! She says that she has been an avid caver and rock climber for the past 18 years, exploring the underground everywhere from Virginia to England. And since she used to work at Duke, she likes to ". . . sneak back over and see the lemurs whenever I can get away."
Waters has some good advice for her fellow graduate students – decide what you want to do for your career and only then choose the degree track that is most appropriate. "Don't choose to go to graduate school just because you can't decide what you want to do for a job and don't choose to do a PhD over a Masters just because you think it is more prestigious. . . . Graduate school is simply a tool to get the job we most desire."
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