Popularly called “Genius Awards,” the fellowships include a $500,000 stipend to further the recipient’s scholarship. They are presented annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Benoit-Bird, 34, studies the interrelationships of animals in different marine environments, using acoustics and other sophisticated technologies. Her innovative uses of sonar in tracking marine creatures from Humboldt squid to spinner dolphins have led to new discoveries about their feeding behavior, movements and even communication.
“This is a well-deserved recognition of a tremendous young scientist who not only is creative, but is an exceptionally well-rounded person,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “Kelly has been instrumental in discovering new types of behaviors and structures within marine ecosystems and her observations of these actions occur in time and space scales never before seen.
“We had high expectations for Kelly when she arrived at Oregon State,” Abbott added, “and she has exceeded them all.”
Benoit-Bird is the second Oregon State University marine scientist to have received a MacArthur award. In 1993, Jane Lubchenco, a professor of zoology and now NOAA Administrator, also was honored.
Benoit-Bird learned of her own recognition a week ago and was pledged to secrecy by the MacArthur Foundation. The experience, she said, has been “surreal.”
“The foundation called me at 7:30 in the morning and I didn’t answer my phone right away – I need my sleep,” said Benoit-Bird, who is nearly seven months pregnant. “They called back again at 8 a.m. and when I finally realized they were serious, it still took a while to sink in. The last thing they said was, “don’t expect to hear from us again.’”
The only person Benoit-Bird told before the Sept. 27 announcement was her husband.
The fellowship includes the “no strings attached” stipend, which is designed to provide seed money for the recipients’ intellectual, social and artistic endeavors. Benoit-Bird said the five-year support would allow her to “take some risks in my research that otherwise would not be possible.”
OSU President Edward J. Ray said Benoit-Bird, who is the first member of her family to attend college, exemplifies the type of bright, ambitious young faculty members attracted to the university’s growing reputation in the Earth sciences.
“Kelly reflects OSU’s best characteristic – that we’re a place where extraordinary people, often from ordinary backgrounds, come to do exceptional things,” Ray said. “Through her pioneering work, Kelly is making a national name for herself, helping to raise the profile of our exceptional faculty and students in oceanography and marine science, and advancing understanding of marine life.
“We’re very proud of her, as well as excited about the bright future that lies ahead for Kelly.”
In 2005, Benoit-Bird received the Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research just one year after joining the OSU faculty. The next year, she was honored by the White House with a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for scientists and engineers. She also has received the Early Career Award from the American Geophysical Union, and was honored last year with the R. Bruce Lindsay Award for achievement by the Acoustical Society of America.
The Acoustical Society, in fact, is using Benoit-Bird as a model scientist in publications aimed at middle school students.
Benoit-Bird studies how different marine species from zooplankton to whales relate to each other in marine environments and throughout time. Her wide-ranging research includes projects on forage fish assemblages in the Bering Sea, schooling of pelagic fish, jumbo squid in the Gulf of California, predation effects on zooplankton, foraging of dusky dolphins and sperm whale diets.
Much of her work utilizes sophisticated acoustic monitoring that allows her to track, for example, the balletic movements of foraging spinner dolphins at night when the use of cameras and lighting would be intrusive. She also creates her own digital representations of the data, and often free-hands her own scientific illustrations.
Some of Benoit-Bird’s most recent research has focused on the importance of thin layers of plankton that may range over miles of the ocean, but are only a couple of feet thick. Benoit-Bird and her colleagues concluded that these unusual assemblages are important to the feeding behavior of anchovies and sardines, helping drive the marine food web.
“We were able to create a three-dimensional map of the zooplankton and measure the response of the anchovies and sardines,” she said. “They completely changed their behavior when they encountered the thin layer.”
Just why plankton arrange themselves in the thin layer may be the subject of her follow-up research. Benoit-Bird’s studies have been funded by the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and other organizations.