DR. KELLY DORGAN
Senior Marine Scientist
When was your aha moment?
In my junior year of high school, I worked as an intern at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science
(VIMS). I liked biology and invertebrates, but I did not realize how diverse they were in the oceans
until I started working at VIMS, and that was really exciting. I worked in the lab there for two
years in high school and three different summers in high school and early college. I spent a lot of
time identifying animals that lived in sediment.
Who has inspired you during your career?
I've been fortunate in working with several really good scientists who were also great mentors.
Linda Schaffner, an ecologist at VIMS, was my mentor in my first internship, and she introduced
me to science and was a great role model. I also learned a lot about how to do science from my
PhD advisor, Pete Jumars at University of Maine and my post-doc advisor, Mimi Koehl at UC
What are your current research projects?
I am currently working on several different projects. One is focused on the impacts of the oil
spill on sediment communities at the Chandeleur Islands, the barrier islands off the coast of
Louisiana and Mississippi. We are trying to determine whether communities differ in sites that
were oiled during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and those that were not, and we're also
relating the communities to the mechanical properties of sediment. We will be measuring
sediment stiffness, which determines how hard it is for a worm to move the sediment aside
when burrowing, and fracture toughness, a measure of how hard it is for a worm to make a
crack grow through sediment when it's burrowing. Worms burrow through muds by extending
cracks through the sediment.
I'm also studying how animals affect sound speed in sediments. People use acoustics to map
sediment type and look at the bottom of the ocean. Their acoustic measurement predictions
don't work nearly as well in areas where there is a lot of biological activity. The animals will
change the density of the sediment, which will affect sound speed and change the scattering
properties. We are trying to figure out how different groups of animals alter those acoustic
properties, which will be helpful in using acoustics to map the bottom of the ocean.
Another project is focused on the functional morphology of complex jaws of worms. We are
taking videos of how these jaws move in and out when the worms protrude their jaws and grab
food. We are looking at an herbivorous worm and a carnivorous worm and comparing how they
use their jaws and what the structures of the jaws are to try and figure out whether we can
relate the structure of the jaw to what the animal is eating. It's a more interesting question than
you would necessarily think because of the implications for understanding worms from the
fossil record. Worms have soft bodies so their jaws are the only parts that are well preserved in
the fossil record...they are the only trace we have of ancient communities of worms. People have
studied the fossils and tried to relate fossil teeth to teeth of existing species, but if we can more
generally say that this shape of tooth is more useful for eating a particular thing, then it would
tell us more about these early communities of worms.
congratulations on your NAS Gulf research program early-career research fellowship!
Thank you. It's a neat program. It comes with funding that is fairly open-ended, so I can use it for
whatever research I am interested in. It's nice to have a lot of freedom in what I can do with it.
They also provide career development opportunities, including a leadership and communication
workshop. I have a couple of mentors, an in-house mentor and a mentor that they assigned to me
who is an expert in my field. We are going to be attending a Gulf Research Program Advisory Board
Meeting, which will increase our connections with other people interested in the Gulf. I was excited
to get the funding, but the opportunities that are coming with it are probably just as valuable.
[Click HERE for DISL article]
where is the most interesting place you have travelled?
I went to Antarctica in 2010 for an Antarctic Polar Biology Course, which is an NSF funded course
for grad students, post-docs, and early faculty. It's an international course intended to train people
who are interested in doing polar research on the logistics of working in Antarctica...basically trying
to expand the polar programs. I was at McMurdo Station, which is on the Ross Sea, for four weeks.
The group included twenty-five students, five faculty, and seven TAs from ten different countries. A
few of my colleagues from that class and I have discussed a return trip in the future.
[Click HERE for Dr. Dorgan's website and Antarctica photo]
Advice for aspiring females looking to pursue a career in science?
Perseverance. There's a lot of rejection in science, failed experiments, and difficult obstacles to
overcome. Creativity. A lot of my work is developing new methods and figuring out how to solve
problems. Self-awareness. There's plenty of criticism in science. It's important to be your own
biggest critic and also to welcome criticism from other people. Being aware of what you know and
where other people can help you is really important.
Dr. Dorgan with her dog.
"THE MOST REWARDING THING ABOUT TEACHING IS SEEING STUDENTS STRUGGLE WITH REAL-WORLD PROBLEMS AND FIGURE OUT SOLUTIONS ."