Profession: Associate professor of biological oceanography, Oregon State University
UH degrees: PhD in zoology ’03, Mānoa
Roots: Francis T. Maloney High School, Meriden, Conn.
Personal: First member of her family to attend college
The ocean first fascinated Kelly Benoit-Bird when she was in the fourth grade, but she had no idea that she could turn her interest into a career. Still, she followed her passion, and was recently rewarded with a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly dubbed a “genius grant,” for demonstrating “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”
Benoit-Bird is one of 23 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation honorees for 2010. She was nearly seven months pregnant when she received the unexpected and exciting news that she was chosen to receive the fellowship and accompanying $500,000 prize.
The foundation noted her use of sophisticated acoustic engineering technology to explore the previously invisible behavior of ocean creatures in addressing long-unanswered questions about the structure and behavior of food chains. She explores how ocean creatures find their food while trying to avoid becoming someone else’s dinner. Most of her work is done using acoustics to study where the animals are, what they are doing, how they are moving and how that is affected by their habitat.
Benoit-Bird is trying to unravel the behavioral components of the food web in the ocean—the different interconnections of predator and prey—and how aggregations of food affect their survival. Her innovative research techniques have enabled researchers to map animals and look at their behavior underwater in places where we can’t possibly go.
The new mom is grateful for great relationships with UH colleagues, mentors and peers, who constantly challenged her and pushed her research. She credits scholarships and grants provided by the university for allowing her to become an independent researcher at an early age. She maintains communication with UH cohorts and continues to collaborate on projects with her graduate advisor, Whitlow Au of the Marine Mammal Research Program and UH Mānoa associate professor of oceanography Margaret McManus.
The five-year unrestricted MacArthur support will allow her to pursue the kinds of projects that some funding agencies might consider too risky, but that often produce the most interesting results.
She remains bemused that somebody pays her to do her a job she loves. “We researchers get to do everything, from coming up with an idea, to getting funding, to building and designing equipment, to collecting information out in the field, to figuring out what it means, and then telling the story about it at the end.”