URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography alumnae win national science awards from President Obama

Posted on
NARRAGANSETT, R.I., March 18, 2016—Two alumnae from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography are receiving presidential awards given to highly accomplished scientists in the early stages of their careers.


Colleen B. Mouw and Jennifer Miksis-Olds are two of 105 researchers named by President Barack Obama as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor given by the government for early-career scientists. They will receive the awards this spring in Washington.


Mouw, of Houghton, Mich., a 2009 graduate of GSO, is an assistant professor in the Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences at Michigan Technological University. Her research centers on phytoplankton—microscopic marine plants essential to the ocean’s role in regulating global climate and the air people breathe. They also serve as a critical source to marine food webs.


Mouw studies phytoplankton in oceans and lakes from satellites. While the science community has been estimating the amount of phytoplankton from space for two nearly two decades, her work has looked deeper and focused on determining the size of the phytoplankton cells and connecting that information to the concentration of carbon in the ocean. She also studies phytoplankton in the coastal ocean, looking at harmful algal blooms that create problems for aquatic life and human health.


Raised in Muskegon, Mich., Mouw cultivated a love for the water swimming and scuba diving in Lake Michigan. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2000 from Western Michigan University, her master’s degree in 2003 from GSO, and her doctorate six years later, collaborating with James Yoder, professor emeritus at GSO. She worked as a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and started her faculty position at Michigan Technological University in the fall of 2012.


“I grew up loving the Great Lakes, but needed to know what the ocean had to offer,” she said. “GSO was a very formative place for me. It was a wonderfully welcoming community to think about nearly every facet of the ocean. There is no doubt that the level of training I received and the exposure to leaders in the field contributed to success in my career.”


Mouw says she’s thrilled to receive the award: “It was quite a surprise, and a great honor to be recognized in this way.”

Miksis-Olds, of State College, Penn., is co-director of The Penn State Center for Marine Science and Technology, a senior research associate in the Applied Research Laboratory and an associate professor of acoustics. She was recognized for her work in marine bioacoustics—the effects of sound on aquatic life.


Miksis-Olds uses acoustic technology to study life in the ocean. Her field combines biology, ecology, oceanography, engineering and physics. “As climate change, advances in marine technology, and ocean energy exploration impact the oceans, it is a thrilling time to be part of the field,” she says.


“I understand that this award is meant to recognize my research accomplishments in marine bioacoustics, but it is also a recognition of all my past advisers, current mentors and colleagues who have contributed to my research and development as a scientist,” she says.


GSO and URI’s ocean engineering department, she says, were crucial to her development as a scientist. The departments made the integration of biology and engineering possible on the Narragansett Bay Campus, she says.


Raised in Cherry Hill, N.J., Miksis-Olds developed a love for marine life on her first visit to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut at the age of seven. Her attachment to the ocean continued at Harvard University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 1996. It was at Harvard where she first was introduced to acoustics through studying tamarin monkeys.


She received her master’s degree in biology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth in 2000, and her doctorate at GSO in 2006, working with GSO professor Percy Donaghay and James Miller, professor of ocean engineering. After spending nine years at Penn State, Miksis-Olds will start work this summer at the University of New Hampshire to take on a leadership role in the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering.


Nominees of the presidential award work for or receive funding from federal agencies; they are also nominated by those agencies. Mouw’s research is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The U.S. Office of Naval Research funds Miksis-Olds’ research.


“It is extremely gratifying to see our alumni recognized with such a prestigious award,” says David Smith, associate dean of GSO. “We strive to provide an intellectual environment at GSO that helps our students become creative scientists. Of course, our work is a lot easier when you start with truly outstanding students like Colleen and Jennifer.”


President Obama also praised the winners: “These early-career scientists are leading the way in our efforts to confront and understand challenges from climate change to our health and wellness,” the president said in a statement. “We congratulate these accomplished individuals and encourage them to continue to serve as an example of the incredible promise and ingenuity of the American people.”


Pictured above:

Colleen B. Mouw, a 2009 GSO graduate, lowers optical instruments into Lake Superior to measure absorption and scattering of light and water as part of a study to understand phytoplankton in the lake. Photo courtesy of Colleen B. Mouw.


Jennifer L. Miksis-Olds, a 2006 GSO graduate, prepares a fish for a hearing test following exposure to a seismic survey off Western Australia near Scott’s Reef. Photo courtesy of Jennifer L. Miksis-Olds.