Tom Connolly - Graduate Spotlight

Physical Oceanography

I eventually wanted to lead physical oceanographic field experiments

When and why did you choose to become an Oceanography Graduate student?

I first learned about oceanography as an undergraduate studying Environmental Engineering. I became interested in the design of marine reserves, and how the movement of water influences the the life cycles of marine species. After graduation, I spent a summer researching the exchange of water across a tidal front east of Cape Cod at Georges Bank, where scientists are trying to better understand the physical environment in order to guide sustainable fisheries policy. I enjoyed the research, and decided that I eventually wanted to lead physical oceanographic field experiments.

Why did you choose Physical Oceanography as your study option?

In high school, my favorite subjects were math and science. When I took fluid mechanics in college, I really became hooked on that particular aspect of physics. My surfing background gave me an appreciation for the complexity of fluid motion, and the desire to understand it. Luckily, our engineering department had several professors with experience in physical oceanography who encouraged me to pursue graduate study in that subject.

Have you participated in fieldwork?

Most of my field work has taken place off the Pacific coast of Washington, as part of the Ecology of Harmful Algal Blooms – Pacific Northwest (ECOHAB-PNW) program led by my advisor, Barbara Hickey. These field experiences ranged from three-week surveys on the 274' R/V Thomas G. Thompson to 1-day mooring recoveries on the 58' R/V Centennial. The primary motivation for this field work was to understand the physical and biological factors that contribute to the generation and transport of harmful algal blooms (HABs), specifically the Pseudo-nitzschia diatom species which can sometimes produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid. While assisting with this field program, I also took measurements for my Masters research on low oxygen bottom water, which occurs alongside coastal upwelling and high primary productivity during the summer upwelling season. I think that field experience is important for any oceanographer in order to have a sense of where the data ultimately comes from and how those measurements can be improved in the future.

What are your plans for this academic year and beyond?

This summer, in addition to research, I plan on continuing my participation in the Pacific Northwest HABs bulletin. This bulletin provides information up-to-date physical and biological information to fisheries managers, and gives early warning of potential HAB events. Last year, my role was to write a summary of the physical conditions on the coast, and describe how they might increase or decrease the risk of HABs being transported from offshore to beaches on the Washington coast. This has been an interesting application of the knowledge that I have gained as a researcher working in this region.

Two years from now, I hope to have a position as a post-doctoral researcher at another institution, applying the skills that I have developed as a graduate student at the University of Washington to another aspect of ocean circulation. Throughout my life, I have been inspired by many great teachers and mentors, so I hope to inspire students of my own one day as a university professor.

I eventually wanted to lead physical oceanographic field experiments