Hilary Palevsky (Christopher Soldt)

Hilary Palevsky wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Nearly $1 million in NSF funding will support the BC scientist's work to make remote ocean monitoring data accessible and accurate in real time

Supported by nearly $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation CAREER Awards grants program, Boston College Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Hilary Palevsky will continue her work to make remote ocean monitoring data accessible and accurate in real time, and produce a series of educational videos to guide students using the data.

Palevsky, whose research focuses on marine biogeochemistry and the mechanisms that enable the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, said the funding will allow her to build upon the work she has done to help scientists use the ocean data collected through the NSF-funded Oceans Observatories Initiative (OOI).

She will also conduct her own research in the “high latitude” ocean, the remote northern and southern waters where the OOI has been collecting year-round data for about a decade.

“I’m very grateful for this award,” said Palevsky, who joined the BC faculty in 2019. “It will make a huge difference and enable me to do the type of work I am really passionate about during the next five years. I appreciate this vote of confidence from the oceanographic community that this work I’ve done in data calibration and quality control is really valued.”

Hilary Palevsky on the research ship

Hilary Palevsky on the deck of the R/V Neil Armstrong with an autonomous underwater robot about to be deployed to gather data at the Oceans Observatories Initiative’s Irminger Sea Array, located 100 miles from the southern tip of Greenland.

The massive OOI endeavor is described as an ocean-observing network “that delivers real-time data from more than 900 instruments to address critical science questions regarding the world’s oceans.” Primary goals of the project are to understand natural changes to the oceans, but also the impact of climate change driven by human activity. The data is collected in some of the most remote maritime locations through a variety of sensors. The information is available to researchers, educators, and the general public at any time.

But before that data can be analyzed, they must be “cleaned” or calibrated to account for the many variables at play as measurements are collected from sensors on buoys and submarine devices beneath the ocean’s surface and then fed from remote locations to OOI databases.

Palevsky has spearheaded efforts to create protocols to ensure that researchers and other users can access data of high quality by using a uniform set of calibration standards. Leading a working group for two years, Palevsky and colleagues wrote a 100-page guide for users to ensure data quality control.

The CAREER Award, a signature NSF initiative to support early-career scientists, will fund Palevsky’s further work in this area as well as her own analysis of biogeochemical activity in the oceans, particularly in relation to climate change. The funding will also support one of Palevsky’s graduate students to sail on one of OOI’s month-long research expeditions to the North Atlantic Ocean to assist in maintaining remote sensors and gather data.

Hilary Palevsky at work in her lab

"I appreciate this vote of confidence from the oceanographic community that this work I’ve done in data calibration and quality control is really valued," Palevsky said.

With the assistance of BC’s Center for Digital Innovation in Learning, Palevsky will also produce a series of short videos that will be made available to educators in order to give students far from the ocean a chance to see how the data is gathered.

“Doing this kind of collaborative science and trying to create products that are usable and valuable for people beyond my research group is a chance to respond to something I saw as a need in the broader oceanography community,” Palevsky said.

Palevsky looks forward to using the data in her own research. She hopes to clarify the mechanisms at play when the ocean transfers carbon from near the surface to its lower depths—a process referred to as the ocean’s biological pump.

Professor and Chair of Earth and Environmental Sciences Noah Snyder said the CAREER award is fitting recognition of Palevsky’s work as a researcher, teacher, and mentor.

“This is an outstanding accomplishment and reflects the cutting-edge work that Hilary is doing with graduate and undergraduate students in her lab,” Snyder said. “The project is to study the marine carbon cycle in the high latitude ocean, which is a hugely important way that anthropogenic carbon gets removed from active cycling.”