Olivia Williams

Olivia Williams had a strange finish to her stellar undergraduate career at Boston University. As BU moved to online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, she headed home to her parents’ house near Seattle, completing her final semester 3,000 miles away from campus. Williams, a double major in Earth and environmental science and English, presented her senior thesis defense via Zoom. BU commencement ceremonies have been postponed until who-knows-when, perhaps August or September.   

By then, Williams hopes to be in Corvallis, starting her doctoral degree program at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences under the guidance of Assistant Professor Christo Buizert. She’s had a little help getting started: Williams is the 2020 recipient of the CEOAS ARCS Scholarship. The ARCS Foundation provides support for promising doctoral students in the first three years of their studies, and there’s never been a better time for a student to have a reliable source of support as they undertake a graduate degree.

Williams’ journey to Oregon State began long ago. As a young girl growing up in Kirkland, WA, near a large park, she collected rocks, sticks and other specimens of the natural world. She always wanted to know the name of every flower and tree. “I have always been a curious person,” she reflects, “and science appealed to me as a way to uncover the story of the world around me if you know how to look and what tools to apply.”

Encouragement came from her family, including her beloved grandfather, Hill Williams, who was the science writer for the Seattle Times for decades and author of a popular book on Pacific Northwest geology.

At first, she thought she’d be a journalist, like her grandfather, but she wanted to feed her passion for science as well. She chose Boston University because it was a great place to allow her to follow both paths. She embraced her dual majors by conducting undergraduate research and serving as managing editor of the Emerald Review, a student Earth and environmental sciences publication. Her senior thesis project focused on the sources and timing of export of silica from New England salt marshes.

A suggestion from one of her BU professors led her to consider graduate school at CEOAS, and a visit to campus (just before the COVID-19 stay-at-home phase) sealed the deal. In Christo Buizert’s lab she’ll examine polar ice cores for evidence of past melting events. “The project I’ll probably work on will be looking at xenon-nitrogen ratios in ice cores to determine whether they can be used as a tracer to date these past melting events, and to see if they line up with our current understanding of the timeline of glacial processes,” she explains.

As for the English degree, it is not going to simply sit on a shelf. Williams sees it as central to her holistic education, another way to interpret the world around her. “I like having insight into the way that stories get told. I think that’s really valuable for someone who studies paleoclimate because what you’re uncovering is essentially the narrative of the planet, and having a knowledge of storytelling and literature helps to be able to present that narrative in a coherent way,” she says.

Williams’ ARCS scholarship, supported by generous ARCS donors Elisabeth and Peter Lyon, will provide a leg up: $6,000 a year for three years, to be spent on any expenses that will help her keep her graduate career going. At first, that might mean things like basic living expenses, and later, it could support travel to scientific conferences and other degree-related expenses.

Williams is grateful for the opportunity the scholarship has allowed, especially in this time of tremendous uncertainty. “Even with my summer job plans on hold, I know that I’ll be able to take steps to establish myself in Corvallis, buy groceries and such,” she says. “And in future years I’ll be able to go to conferences and do other things that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. I really appreciate the support.”

ARCS Foundation supports science by supporting scientists

Olivia Williams is one in a long line of CEOAS ARCS Scholar rock stars. The ARCS Foundation is a national organization founded by a group of philanthropic women in 1958 in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik rocket. The founders feared that U.S. science was falling behind, and decided the best way to support American leadership in science was to fund young scientists directly with unrestricted scholarships. The organization now has 15 chapters across the U.S.

The Oregon chapter supports students at OSU, the University of Oregon and Oregon Health & Science University, including one or two CEOAS Ph.D. students every year since 2011. Some CEOAS ARCS Scholars are supported by individual donors, some by one of two endowments matched by university funds, and some by the Oregon ARCS chapter as a whole. All of these students have excelled, studying everything from ice cores to ocean dynamics to volcanic processes.

For example, Nancy Williams (Ph.D. ’18, no relation to Olivia) studied carbon dynamics of the Southern Ocean under the direction of Associate Professor Laurie Juranek; she is now an assistant professor at the University of South Florida. Atmospheric scientist Katie Verlinden earned her Ph.D. in 2018, and is now a senior scientist with consulting firm Applied Ocean Sciences. Biological oceanography student Kelsey Lane, a recent ARCS Scholar, is just getting started on her CEOAS Ph.D. studying foraminifera, single-celled organisms that record critical climate information in their shells.

The ARCS investment in Olivia Williams and scores of other CEOAS students will pay off in the years and decades to come, with the scholars’ engagement in research, teaching and leadership. To learn more about the Oregon ARCS chapter, go to oregon.arcsfoundation.org.

Posted June 25, 2020 by Nancy Steinberg

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