Aquatic ecologist Christina Murphy is heading to Chile on a Fulbright grant.
It was a frigid winter night on Chile’s central coast, and Christina Murphy was standing in the surf in her wet suit with a night vision monocular, getting pummeled by waves. She was counting her research subjects — nocturnal, carnivorous crabs of the species Acanthocyclus gayi that hide in algae or rock crevices — unaware that she would later regard the experience as one that cemented her love for her work.
It was, however, an unsurprising revelation — Murphy has wanted to be a scientist since the age of six, and has never question that career path.
“I’ve always wanted to be a professor, ” Murphy says. “I got shot down as a kid. But I like getting up in front of crowds. I like talking to people. As I’ve gone further in my education, it’s a given.”
Murphy has pursued her goal throughout her education and has seized opportunities to focus on it at Oregon State University, where she was an IE3 Global intern in Chile and performed reseearch on the coastlines of Washington, Oregon and the Galapagos Islands. Now Murphy, who earned University Honors degrees in biology, fisheries and wildlife and international studies , is planning to use her research and international experience as a Fulbright scholar.
In March 2009, Murphy will return to the small coastal town of Las Cruces, Chile, to continue her work with Acanthocyclus gayi, called simply “la haiba” by the locals. She will study how these predators behave when the algae is tall, which allows more crabs to take refuge in a given area. “These crabs have a big impact on their communities,” Murphy says. “They eat a lot of invertebrates.”
The idea, Murphy says, is to understand how large oceanographic processes, like upwelling, can affect the habitat in which predators live. More upwelling, which brings nutrient-rich water to the surface, means that the crabs’ algal habitat will grow long.
“You can tell how conditions that are coming from the bottom up, like upwelling, influence top-down effects, like predation. We can help put together a model that will extend to large coastal areas and get a bigger picture,” says Murphy.
Murphy will focus on more than her own research when she is in Las Cruces. She plans to mentor local high school students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do hands-on work with a scientist. “It’s great to get to help someone in the field,” says Murphy. Her knowledge of U.S. pop culture, like the band My Chemical Romance, helps her earn points with the Chilean teenagers, as well.
Murphy credits the international and research opportunities she had at OSU, as well as an engaged faculty, with helping her develop as a scientist and a citizen. “The willingness of OSU faculty to work with undergraduates is unusual. It makes the difference between a lackluster education and a future for someone,” she says.