Going to Sea, Sea, Sea

A COD alumna went to sea, sea, sea
To see what she could see, see, see

Ellen Briggs may have grown up in Carol Stream on the Illinois plains, but today, the 29-year-old oceanographer-in-training says the sea feels like home.

Between here and there, sailing on the Great Lakes opened her heart to the water. College of DuPage Professor Richard Jarman opened her mind to science.

“I went to school to maybe enter the medical field, but I fell in love with chemistry,” said Briggs. “Dr. Jarman really inspired me to stay in chemistry. He made opportunities available for his students to be invited to summer research programs. I got accepted to Argonne National Laboratory, which gave me a glimpse at what life would be like in the professional STEM world. This definitely motivated me to pursue a higher-level education in science.”

After completing most of her elective requirements and introductory science courses at COD, Briggs earned a bachelor’s degree, with honors, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ellen Briggs, aboard ship in the southern hemisphere, signs a float equipped with ocean sensors. (photo by Katie Kirk)

From there, she was accepted into Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. This summer, she landed a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship worth more than $30,000 per year over three years.

“It also pays for most of my school tuition and healthcare, which frees up funds for my lab,” said Briggs.

Given the oceans’ importance to life on Planet Earth, Briggs’ laboratory is a big deal. She’s developing a sensor that measures alkalinity and pH in the ocean. In lay terms, Briggs said, “I’m working on advancing chemical-sensor technology so we can better understand chemical cycling in the ocean and how our lifestyles are impacting the oceans.

“The ocean is intimately linked to everyone’s lives around the world whether they know it or not,” said Briggs. “For example, more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere is a product of marine photosynthesis.”

Briggs said climate change is affecting the oceans in many ways, including rising sea levels, acidification and changing circulation patterns. “The consequences of these three main concerns will be far reaching and will impact fisheries, coastal cities, weather patterns and more,” said Briggs.

“Climate change is real. All of our energy needs to be devoted to addressing what we are going to do about it rather than arguing whether or not it is real.”

The job won’t be easy or inexpensive, she said.

“The oceans are very difficult to study because of their inaccessibility and expanse,” said Briggs. She knows firsthand, having just returned from a research expedition in the southern Pacific Ocean from the Antarctic Circle to Tahiti.

In addition to her love of the sea, Briggs was drawn to work that melds many disciplines: materials chemistry, electrochemistry, analytical chemistry, materials science and engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

While Briggs said such fields are sometimes associated more with men than women, the male/female balance is increasing every year and it’s never been an issue for her.

“Everyone knows I pretty much do whatever I want,” said Briggs. “My parents didn’t always like the choices I made (dancing rather than school) but they supported me and were very excited when I did decide to give school a go.”

As for any classrooms with more men than women, Briggs said she didn’t notice. “I’m a very self-motivated person, so the room could have been filled with aliens for all I cared, and I would have put forth the same effort.”

At top: Briggs and a fellow researcher, braving the waves to gather seawater samples collected at different depths in the ocean. (photo by Steve Showell)

 

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