Patty Standring, PhD Student at University of Texas at Austin studying paleoceanography using benthic foraminifera

Hello! I am Patty, and I am a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). I am also an Air Force veteran. I worked as a Dari Linguist during my 10 years in the military before returning to school to get a bachelor’s degree at UT in geophysics.

Photo of me in front of my microscope at the Institute for Geophysics.

What research are you doing for your PhD? I am studying the paleoceanography of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (~30-40 million years ago). I look for tiny fossil shells from organisms called foraminifera (forams for short) in deep-sea sediments, and then analyze the isotopes in the shells. I specifically study the forams that live on the seafloor, so they are referred to as benthic forams, whereas planktic forams float in the water column. Forams are single-celled organisms and build their calcite shells from elements in the seawater, essentially recording what seawater conditions were like when they were alive and giving us information about the source of water masses, ocean circulation, and climate changes through time. When forams die, their shells are incorporated into deep-sea sediments, so all we have to do is dig up old ocean mud and then we have a record of what the ocean was like a long time ago.

The time period I am studying is important because the global climate was changing from very warm (much warmer than today) to very cold conditions, and ocean circulation was changing. Atmospheric carbon dioxide was much higher than today but declining, which cooled the climate enough that ice sheets developed on Antarctica. As a result of many of these changes certain groups of foraminifera went extinct. I am trying to find out how these climate and ocean changes occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea in the hopes that it will help us understand how modern ocean circulation developed and how it may change in the future as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to increase.

Image of 10 Nuttallides truempyi foraminifera to be analyzed for isotope data. My fingers provide some scale of how small the shells can be.

 

Why did you leave the military to pursue science? I joined the military at age 19 due to lack of employment opportunities and an inability to pay for college. After enlisting, the Air Force trained me in Dari, one of primary languages spoken in Afghanistan. I was a Dari Linguist for six years and reenlisted during my deployment to Afghanistan for four more years. Learning Dari not only gave me a unique appreciation for the Afghan culture but also exposed me to broader geopolitical issues I was previously sheltered from.

Image of me shortly after reenlisting while deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in Dec 2011.

Growing up in southern California, I am familiar with earthquakes, but have been fortunate to not have been significantly affected by them. While deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a northern province in the country experienced a larger magnitude earthquake, resulting in significant damage and casualties, with an entire village swallowed by a landslide. It struck me that a similar magnitude earthquake in the US would not have resulted in the same level of devastation primarily due to the emergency infrastructure of the US and building safety requirements. It made me reconsider what my efforts in Afghanistan were actually resulting in and whether or not I could have a more positive impact on the people I was trying to help.

After my deployment, I began considering what options I might have when my enlistment was up. I decided I wanted to pursue a science career, with the original goal of studying earthquake hazards. I hoped that my military experience would aid in increasing earthquake preparedness and mitigation efforts in countries like Afghanistan.

Me aboard the R/V Brooks McCall in Galveston Bay, Texas, during the Marine Geology Geophysics Field Course in 2018.

Why did you decide to study paleoceanography? After my second enlistment was up in 2015, I moved to Austin and went to Austin Community College (ACC) in preparation for applying to the University of Texas at Austin. While at ACC, I participated in a summer research program where I worked on a group project in a lab studying the permeability and porosity of different types of rocks (how much fluid can flow through certain types of rocks). This experience helped solidify my desire to study geology at UT and gave me confidence in my ability to conduct scientific research. It also instilled in me the importance of promoting participation of 2-year college students in scientific research.

My original goal was to study earthquakes and earthquake hazard mitigation, but my participation in UT’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) Marine Geology and Geophysics Field Course introduced me to marine geology, oceanography, and – more importantly – forams. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on an undergraduate research project with UTIG Research Scientist Dr. Chris Lowery using foram ecology to study sea level change along the Texas Gulf Coast over the last 10,000 years. That project, along with Dr. Lowery’s mentorship, gave me the confidence to pursue a graduate degree studying ancient climate and oceanographic changes in the hopes that they will help us understand modern ocean and climate stability and potential impacts on vulnerable communities.

Me graduating from home in May 2020. Like many things in the last two years, the in-person graduation ceremony at UT was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists? I have a non-traditional path toward science. Although it took me much longer to get to where I am, I believe my experiences make me a better scientist and a more well-rounded individual. I come from a low-middle income socioeconomic background, I served in the military in a completely different career field, and I attended community college before enrolling at UT Austin. These are just a few of what some people might consider obstacles that I overcame to get to where I am now. However, I am who I am because of where I come from, what I have sacrificed for my education, and the path I took to get to this point. As an older student, I feel much more certain in what I want from my education and in my future scientific career. As a military veteran, I have a socio-political perspective that informs my research goals. So, my advice to aspiring scientists is do not be afraid of a non-traditional path. Things like prior work experience and a community college education are benefits because they make you a versatile individual, and able to adapt to changes in ways that students on a traditional path may not be able to. Take advantage of opportunities that may become available to you because you never know where they will take you or how they might change your perspective or your research path.

What do you want your future to look like? My military experience helped me realize how important it is to me to have a positive impact on the lives of others. After receiving my PhD, I hope to find a position working for a government agency like the US Geological Survey or the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. I would like to work on scientific research that informs policy decisions pertaining to climate change impacts, particularly for marginalized communities that are typically more vulnerable to climate change and are underserved with respect to mitigation efforts.

Note from the TS Team: Patty has also written a post on the Student Veterans Research Network that we encourage you to read.