URI oceanography student to combine science, political experience in ocean policy career

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – January 21, 2015 – Newport resident Olivia Ahern is working toward a career as a legislative aide, translating hard science into policies to protect the oceans and environment. Having already worked on five political campaigns before earning her bachelor’s degree, she would seem to have a leg up on her competition. Now she is adding a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography to her resume.

“I had an internship at GSO while I was in high school, and I loved it,” said Ahern. “It was a great opportunity to do real oceanography research when I was only 16.”

Oceanographic research wasn’t the only thing she started early. When she was a child, her mother worked for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, back when he was a candidate for Rhode Island attorney general and governor. Ahern was a volunteer for several of his campaigns. She also volunteered for the Obama/Biden presidential campaign in 2008, was a paid staff member for Whitehouse’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2012, and a fellow on Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2013.

“Senator Whitehouse’s campaign was a full-time job working seven days a week and up to 100 hours a week,” Ahern said. “I was in charge of his campaign schedule and his day-to-day activities, and I helped coordinate his campaign commercials, one of which involved over 100 volunteers at a community dinner in Bristol.

“It was a lot of hard work. You have to be constantly on and talking to people, but that was the aspect that was really interesting to me – the sense of community,” she added.

Ahern’s continuing interest in oceanography led her to jobs at Save The Bay, where she served as coordinator of volunteers, and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, where she works as an assistant environmental analyst while enrolled at the Graduate School of Oceanography.

Her GSO research focuses on marine phytoplankton, which produces about 20 to 25 percent of the world’s oxygen, and how that production may change due to the warming planet. She is studying the global distribution of bacteria that are found on one species of diatom.

“Diatoms rely on nutrients for their growth,” Ahern said. “As the water warms, they may have to become more reliant on the nutrients that are remineralized by the bacteria that live on them rather than on the nutrients in the water column.”

So she is collaborating with scientists at Duke University to identify the populations of bacteria found in the wild, growing various bacteria in her lab, and experimenting with different combinations of diatoms and bacteria.

“I’ve always been interested in population genetics,” said Ahern. “But the technologies we’re using are so cutting edge that it has opened up a whole new field that I didn’t even know existed.”

As she works toward graduation in 2016, she envisions herself working for a legislator in Washington or as a policy aide at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or other government agency.

“My ultimate goal is to write legislation,” she said. “I want to translate hard science into effective, practical policy.”

Photo by Mike Salerno Photography