Next Generation: Maddy Lahm on marine carbon cycling

February 24, 2022

Advisor: Michael Gonsior, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
The oceans are a major carbon sink with comparable amounts of carbon dioxide, a prominent greenhouse gas, to that of in the atmosphere. The pool of marine carbon in the form of dissolved organic matter is the least understood component of the global carbon cycle, so the purpose of my research is helping experts better understand how dissolved organic matter transforms, after it is synthesized by phytoplankton, and is transported to the deep ocean. As human activity continues to affect biogeochemical processes and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is important to try to understand the oceanic carbon storage capacity as our planet continues to change.

Maddy Lahm traveled to to Bermuda and Hawai'i to understand understand how dissolved organic matter is created from its sources and is transported to the deep ocean.

What influenced your career path in science?
My career path in science was heavily influenced by my understanding of the world because I was born deaf. With my limited hearing through cochlear implants and sound processors, connecting with the rest of the world has always been rooted in understanding logic and using critical thinking in anticipation of my needs. I started my undergraduate experience on a pre-medical track, but after recognizing my passion for the environment at a summer job, I applied to graduate programs hoping to put my B.A. in chemistry towards the good of the planet. 

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES? 
I didn’t realize that typically students search for advisors to work with before applying to graduate programs, but I got really lucky that my advisor was able to offer me an opportunity to work on such an amazing project. I knew that working with Michael Gonsior would be a great chance to network with experts in many different fields and explore aspects about each step of my research that I could make a career out of. 

Maddy Lahm stands with the team of UMCES scientists aboard their research vessel in Hawai'i

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
The experiences that stand out the most to me were the two sampling cruises for my research project. On the first sampling cruise—my first time on a research vessel—we sailed off of Bermuda aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer where I was able to work with many different kinds of scientists and experience life at sea. The second sampling cruise sailed out of Hawai’i aboard the R/V Kilo Moana, and it continued to expose me to a career path that I hope to pursue after graduation. 

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
The most important thing that anyone can do to help the environment is pay attention. Pay attention to the news, discussions you have with your peers, and your habits in order to be considerate of how you have an impact on the world. Saving the environment isn’t just about reducing how much electricity and plastic you use, but understanding why we’re having to consider what we can do to protect our planet and our communities. 

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?

Follow your interests—not just what you’re good at or what you think you should do. When I started my undergraduate experience on a pre-medical track, I found that I was limiting myself before I  explored all of my options, and trying new things has worked out great for me. I have also never been the type of student to get straight As. I often didn’t consider myself to be a strong scientist, but I’ve had to learn how to recognize my different strengths that can’t be evaluated through grades. If you’re intimidated by how hard something you’re interested in might be, I would encourage you to go for it anyway because you’re not expected to know everything. You’re supposed to learn and develop the skill from mistakes.

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award, or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important? 
I was fortunate enough to receive additional funding for other opportunities for professional development during my time at UMCES. I received a generous donation from Anne Harrison and a travel award from the Graduate Education Committee. The additional funding enabled me to attend the 2020 Ocean Sciences Conference where I presented my research at an international gathering of scientists in my field, an essential experience for early career scientists. I’m grateful for the investment made in me and in research towards protecting our planet, so I hope to pay it forward one day. 

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
While I am currently in the process of finishing up my research and writing my thesis, I am hoping to schedule my defense for July 2022 before moving onto my career plans. 

What are your future plans?
I found my time on research vessels to be extremely fulfilling while I collected samples for my projects, and engaging with marine technicians and their work was the most exciting part of being at sea. After successfully earning my degree, I hope to be able to continue to conduct science at sea where I get to work on many different kinds of research projects and put my academic background to good use.