Sloan Scholar Spotlight | Michelle Guitard

Paleo-Ocean Detective, Science Communicator, and Advocate for Increased Diversity in the Geosciences

Sloan Scholar Michelle Guitard is a Doctoral Candidate in Geological Oceanography at the College of Marine Science. For her paleoceanography research, she focuses on reconstructing the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet on through the Pleistocene (last 2.5 million years). In addition to the Sloan Foundation Minority PhD (MPHD) scholarship, Michelle’s awards have included the NSF Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (FGLSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate Activity, NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes in Japan, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (honorable mention), and McKnight Doctoral Fellowship. Her PhD advisor is Amelia Shevenell, Associate Professor of Geological Oceanography, in the College of Marine Science.

Michelle Guitard

Michelle Guitard

Tell us about your research  
I am specifically interested in outlet glaciers systems in East Antarctica: how they evolved, how they responded to climate and oceanic forcing, and the timescales on which they fluctuate. To answer these questions, I utilize marine sediment cores collected on the Antarctic continental margin and Southern Ocean. Sediment cores preserve lithological and geochemical signals that we can use to reconstruct regional environmental conditions, including ice shelf extent and sea surface temperature. To reconstruct these variables, I apply various inorganic and organic geochemical tools, including organic biomarkers, and cosmogenic nuclides. My research requires both analytical lab work and shipboard work. To date, I have been on three Antarctic research expeditions: two to the Antarctic Peninsula/Scotia Sea and one to the Sabrina Coast, East Antarctica

In reading your research it is highly interdisciplinary as if you are using different disciplines to solve a mystery – like a detective?  
Paleoceanography, and marine science in general, is very interdisciplinary. It requires a basic understanding of the four marine science sub-disciplines (geology, chemistry, physics and biology) and how they affect each other. Applying knowledge and training from these disciplines to unlock the past requires similar critical thinking skills as a detective who is searching for clues to solve a mystery.     

How was it spending time on research expeditions and working/living for a period in Antarctica?
Research expeditions are incredible, often overwhelming experiences. They include traveling internationally to a port city, transiting three to seven days across some of the stormiest waters on Earth, and working 12 hour shifts non-stop for up to two months. Some days it’s so hectic I don’t have time to think about anything other than the work in front of me. That can make the whole experience pretty overwhelming at times. However, the science is so engaging; I love opening up a new core and knowing that I’m seeing something that is thousands or millions of years old.  I also enjoy learning from the other scientists. Additionally, when work slows down, I get to go outside and see whales, penguins, seals, icebergs, snowy sunrises and amazing nighttime sights like the Southern Lights and the Southern Hemisphere constellations. Expeditions have been the highlight of my graduate career.

Did you encounter evidence of global warming and climate change during your time in Antarctica?  
The climate and oceanography in and around Antarctica are very complex, so it’s hard to say if what I saw along one section of the continent is was part of the system’s natural variability or the result of human-induced climate change. However, recent reports of record high temperatures and rapidly receding glaciers are enough to convince me that Antarctica is feeling the effects of climate change, just like the rest of the world.

Tell us about your USF experiences?  
My time at USF College of Marine Science (CMS) has allowed to me develop a strong foundation in all aspects of research. I attribute much of this to my advisor, Dr. Amelia Shevenell. Through my work in her lab, I have been able to collaborate with scientists outside USF, participate in multiple Antarctic scientific expeditions, and been eligible for several competitive fellowships.  I am very grateful for her support and the support of the university in my pursuit of various research opportunities.

How has the Sloan Program supported your academic and professional career?  
The support I have received from my Sloan cohort and program directors has been really helpful in navigating a research environment. There were issues I encountered as a member of an underrepresented group in STEM that I never anticipated, but I often found the answers within the Sloan community at USF CMS. Feeling supported, as a student and as a person goes a long way in retaining underrepresented STEM scholars. I feel very lucky to have found that in Sloan.

Why did you decide to become involved in science communication activities as a graduate student, including writing a blog on the lack of diversity in the geosciences and contributing to a feature on the current situation within the discipline in the US?  
I think that scientists have a responsibility to give back to the community, and one way to do that is sharing our knowledge. Using writing as an outreach tool evolved naturally because I already spend a lot of time writing for my dissertation. I began writing articles about diversity in the geosciences because the process helped me make sense of the things I was experiencing.

What advice would you give to undergraduates, including minority students who may wish to follow in your footsteps and pursue geoscience careers?  
There are so many ways to be a geoscientist, so don’t feel like you have to fit a certain mold. I think society’s idea of a geoscientist is someone who loves hiking for miles through the desert looking for rocks. That’s one way to be a geoscientist, but you can also study the ocean or space. You can choose to work outdoors, in a lab, or even just on a computer. Your research can deal purely with the physical sciences, or it can include elements of the life and social sciences.

Find a supportive community that you trust, both inside and outside your workplace. You’ll want a community who listens to you, respects you for who you are, and who is willing to help you through tough situations; be willing to give as much as you receive. Sometimes one community won’t provide you with everything you need and that’s ok. In fact, it’s good to have different mentors for different situations.  

What are your plans after graduation?  Right now, my plans are to apply for post-doctoral research positions around the U.S. I really love research, so an institutional or government post-doc seems like the best way to continue this type of work. I think research will always drive my job search, but I am flexible about my long-term goals; I am open to a tenure-track job at a university, working for the government or working in the private sector.

To learn more about Michelle’s research and her experiences:

WUSF Feature

Expedition Antarctica

College of Marine Science