Researching Extreme Environments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A quick scan of Emma Bullock's CV reads like those of many other MIT graduate students: She has served as a teaching assistant, written several papers, garnered grants from prestigious organizations, and acquired extensive lab and programming skills. But one skill sets her apart: "fieldwork experience and survival training for Arctic research."

That's because Bullock, a doctoral student in chemical oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), spends significant time collecting samples in the Arctic Circle for her research. Working in such an extreme environment requires comprehensive training in everything from Arctic gear usage and driving on unpaved roads to handling wildlife encounters - like the curious polar bear that got into her team's research equipment.

To date, she has ventured to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, five times, where she typically spends long days - from 5:00 a.m. to 11 p.m. - collecting and processing samples from Simpson Lagoon. Her work focuses on Arctic environmental changes, particularly the effects of permafrost thaw on mercury levels in groundwater.

"Even though I am doing foundational science, I can link it directly to communities in that region that are going to be impacted by the changes that we are seeing," she says. "As the mercury escapes from the permafrost, it has the potential to impact not just Arctic communities but also anyone who eats fish in the entire world."

Weathering a storm of setbacks

Growing up in rural Vermont, Bullock spent a lot of time outside, and she attributes her strong interest in environmental studies to her love of nature as a child. Despite her conviction about a career path involving the environment, her path to the Institute has not been easy. In fact, Bullock weathered several challenges and setbacks on the road to MIT.

As an undergraduate at Haverford College, Bullock quickly recognized that she did not have the same advantages as other students. She realized that her biggest challenge in pursuing an academic career was her socioeconomic background. She says, "In Vermont, the cost of living is a bit lower than a lot of other areas. So, I didn't quite realize until I got to undergrad that I was not as middle-class as I thought." Bullock had learned financial prudence from her parents, which informed many of the decisions she made as a student. She says, "I didn't have a phone in undergrad because it was a choice between getting a good laptop that I could do research on or a phone. And so I went with the laptop."

Bullock majored in chemistry because Haverford did not offer an environmental science major. To gain experience in environmental research, she joined the lab of Helen White, focusing on the use of silicone bands as passive samplers of volatile organic compounds in honeybee hives. A pivotal moment occurred when Bullock identified errors in a collaborative project. She says, "[Dr. White and I] brought the information about flawed statistical tests to the collaborators, who were all men. They were not happy with that. They made comments that they did not like being told how to do chemistry by women."

White sat Bullock down and explained the pervasiveness of sexism in this field. "She said, 'You have to remember that it is not you. You are a good scientist. You are capable,'" Bullock recalls. That experience strengthened her resolve to become an environmental scientist. "The way that Dr. Helen White approached dealing with this problem made me want to stick in the STEM field, and in the environmental and geochemistry fields specifically. It made me realize that we need more women in these fields," she says.

As she reached the end of college, Bullock knew that she wanted to continue her educational journey in environmental science. "Environmental science impacts the world around us in such visible ways, especially now with climate change," she says. She submitted applications to many graduate programs, including to MIT, which was White's alma mater, but was rejected by all of them.

Undeterred, Bullock decided to get more research experience. She took a position as a lab technician at the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, where she studied methane emissions from seagrass beds - her first foray into chemical oceanography. A year later, she applied to graduate schools again and was accepted by nearly all of the programs, including MIT. She hopes her experience can serve as a lesson for future applicants. "Just because you get rejected the first time does not mean that you're not a good candidate. It just means that you may not have the right experience or that you didn't understand the application process correctly," she says.

Understanding the ocean through the lens of chemistry

Ultimately, Bullock chose MIT because she was most interested in the specific scientific projects within the program and liked the sense of community. "It is a very unique program because we have the opportunity to take classes at MIT and access to the resources that MIT has, but we also perform research at Woods Hole," she says. Some people warned her about the cutthroat nature of the Institute, but Bullock has found the exact opposite to be a true. "A lot of people think of MIT, and they think it is one of those top tier schools, so it must be competitive. My experience in this program is that it is very collaborative because our research is so individual and unique that you really can't be competitive. What you are doing is so different from any other student," she says.

Bullock joined the group of Matthew Charette, senior scientist and director of the WHOI Sea Grant Program, which investigates the ocean through a chemical lens by characterizing the Arctic groundwater sampled during field campaigns in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Bullock analyzes mercury and biotoxic methylmercury levels impacted by permafrost thaw, which is already affecting the health of Arctic communities. For comparison, Bullock points to mercury-based dental fillings, which have been the subject of scientific scrutiny for health impacts. She says, "You get more mercury by eating sushi and tuna and salmon than you would by having a mercury-based dental filling."

Promoting environmental advocacy

Bullock has been recognized as an Arctic PASSION Ambassador for her work in the historically underresearched Arctic region. As part of this program, she was invited to participate in a "sharing circle," which connected early-career scientists with Indigenous community members, and then empowered them to pass what they learned about the importance of Arctic research onto their communities. This experience has been the highlight of her PhD journey so far. She says, "It was small enough, and the people there were invested enough in the issues that we got to have very interesting, dynamic conversations, which doesn't always happen at typical conferences."

Bullock has also spearheaded her own form of environmental activism via a project called en-justice, which she launched in September 2023. Through a website and a traveling art exhibit, the project showcases portraits and interviews of lesser-known environmental advocates that "have arguably done more for the environment but are not as famous" as household names like Greta Thunberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.

"They are doing things like going to town halls, arguing with politicians, getting petitions signed … the very nitty-gritty type work. I wanted to create a platform that highlighted some of these people from around the country but also inspired people in their own communities to try and make a change," she says. Bullock has also written an op-ed for the WHOI magazine, Oceanus, and has served as a staff writer for the MIT-WHOI Joint Program newsletter, "Through the Porthole."

After she graduates this year, Bullock plans to continue her focus on the Arctic. She says, "I find Arctic research very interesting, and there are so many unanswered research questions." She also aspires to foster further interactions like the sharing circle.

"Trying to find a way where I can help facilitate Arctic communities and researchers in terms of finding each other and finding common interests would be a dream role. But I don't know if that job exists," Bullock says. Given her track record of overcoming obstacles, odds are, she will turn these aspirations into reality.

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