Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler M.S. ’03, Ph.D. ’07 can tell you about double-edged swords. “You can’t have life without nitrogen—no me or you or blue whales,” she says. “But like anything, too much causes a series of negative consequences."
Fulweiler has devoted much of the past 15 years to studying those consequences, specifically how our use of nitrogen—in fertilizers, for example, or from sewage and septic runoff—can cause harmful conditions, such as toxic algae blooms or ocean dead zones. “Our coastal ecosystems are important because they provide services we care about,” she says. “They filter nutrients, and they provide habitats for important organisms, especially fish, which means we also rely on them for economic, nutritional, and recreational benefits."
Fulweiler was honored as a “Rising Star” at the URI Distinguished Achievement Awards in November in recognition of her work, which has played a vital role in better understanding human impact on oceans—and how we can protect against further damage. “I’m an optimist,” she says. “Messages of despair don’t help anybody. We have a lot of work to do and serious issues ahead, but I have no doubt we can do it."
She answered our five questions:
1. How did you become interested in this work?
I grew up in Rhode Island and spent most of my summers either in or on the water. But it actually took me until the summer before my senior year of college before I realized this was what I wanted to do. I was hired to work in [late URI Oceanography Professor] Scott Nixon’s lab the summer before my senior year. Within a month, I fell in love with marine research.
2. What have been some of the most important findings in your research so far?
Overall, I think the key findings of our research are that we have seen how human activities on both local and global scales can drastically impact coastal ecosystems in remarkable and often unpredictable ways. Such results really challenge how we plan and manage for the future.
3. Many people feel the problems of climate change are too huge for individuals to make a difference. Do you think people can make a real difference in their daily lives?
I absolutely think people’s everyday actions make a real world difference. If we demand alternate energy sources or consume less meat, we will help drive the economy toward those options. It has to start somewhere – so why not with you? We also need to expand our actions: pick up litter on the beach, write a letter to your senator, vote – please vote. I think we forget how powerful each of us can be. It's like that quote about the mosquito from the Dalai Lama XIV: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito."
4. What is most challenging about your work?
Time management and funding. There’s so much I want to do, and juggling it all is a constant battle. As for funding, that is always a challenge but it’s been particularly tough over the last few years. Basic and applied sciences are keys to our future and I am hopeful that our government will prioritize science funding in the future.
5. What do you enjoy most about your work?
There’s not much I don’t like about my work. The best part of my job is working with smart, talented, motivated students. It’s an amazing thing to play a role in a student becoming a scientist and expert in their field. Then there is the actual discovery of something - a pattern in the data, a story not told before, a mystery uncovered. That’s a wonderful, deeply satisfying, and addictive moment.
Fulweiler is an associate professor at Boston University. You can read more about her work at www.fulweilerlab.com.
Photo credit: Melody Komyerov