It’s not an exaggeration to say that Alyssa Schultz’s life was changed by her experiences in the R. Ken Williams ’45 Radiogenic Isotope Geosciences Laboratory.
It all began with fish teeth.
Schultz ’17 was majoring in wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M University. She knew she wanted to pursue an advanced degree when she completed her bachelor’s, though her area of academic interest was hazy. No matter what scientific specialty she chose, lab experience would be essential, so she went to work as a research assistant in the Williams Lab. Her job was to sort through samples of deep-sea sediment, searching for the tiny, dagger-like teeth of fish from the Cretaceous period. Squinting through a microscope, Schultz painstakingly isolated the teeth with a miniscule, static-charged brush.
“There’s a lot of isotopic information in teeth and other marine materials,” Schultz explained. Using a mass spectrometer and other equipment in the Williams Lab, these sediments could be analyzed to reconstruct a picture of ancient ocean conditions, including acidity, temperature and the movement of currents, from different time periods.
The samples may have looked like an unremarkable tube of ashy powder to the untrained eye, but to Schultz, stepping into the lab and leaning over the microscope was like gazing through the veil of time to a period when massive reptiles ruled the land and seas.
Like a fish, she was hooked.
Life Under Water
Schultz added an oceanography minor to her degree before applying to the Ph.D. program in the College of Geosciences. Today, she is studying paleoceanography and paleoclimatology, examining ocean life of the past to gain a clearer picture of what the future holds.
Her current research looks at information contained within 4,000-year-old deep-sea corals. These incredibly long-lived organisms are under threat from increasing temperatures and acidification of the oceans. “Their skeletons are literally dissolving,” Schultz said.
Schultz explores the isotopes of boron from core samples of the corals, which live more than 50 meters below the surface in the dark and cold regions of the ocean. “Boron acts like a fingerprint for pH over time, so we can use that data to reconstruct ocean acidity over the lifespan of the coral,” she explained. “We look at how the ocean has responded to different climatic events in the past and use that information to better understand what our ocean might do in regard to current climatic change. Those findings can better inform policy, conservation efforts and ocean management.”
Schultz noted that polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and corals that have been alive for millennia are being destroyed. While some might find this type of research alarming, she is undaunted. “I am motivated to do this work because I see its impact,” she said. “I want to help. I would feel discouraged if I wasn't doing something.”