Research Insights Series: An Interview with Gemma M. Sahwell

An image of Gemma Sahwell
Gemma M. Sahwell 
PhD Candidate, Princeton University, Department of Geosciences

As a Geosciences major, I am fascinated by ocean biogeochemical cycling and reconstruction of past climates and marine environments by way of biological proxies. Yet, I have also found myself intrigued in environmental movements and storytelling, particularly with the narratives of the land histories of indigenous communities in the backdrop of anthropogenic climate change and U.S. colonial history. 

With growing interest in both fields, I enrolled in Professor Allison Carruth’s ENV238: Environmental Movements: From Wilderness Protection to Climate Justice. Here, with luck, I met an incredible preceptor who shed some light on the interdisciplinary nature of her research and inspired me to delve deeper into my own multifaceted interests. 

A PhD candidate student in the Geosciences department, Gemma M. Sahwell is currently a member of both the Blue Lab and the Higgins Research Laboratory. Curious, I reached out to her to see if I could speak with her a bit about her research. 

Join me below to hear about her experience.

Rebecca Cho (RC): What is your research about? What is your role as a researcher in the Blue Lab and the Higgins Lab? 

Gemma Sahwell (GS): I have so many projects going that this is a hard question to answer! Broadly speaking, my scientific research is focused on evaluating the efficacy of shallow-water carbonate rocks as archives of seawater chemistry through geologic history. This is important because seawater chemistry can track changes in solid earth and climate (i.e., atmospheric and oceanic) processes through time – and understanding how the earth system has worked in the past can bring us new insights into how we can imagine earth’s future in the face of natural and anthropogenically driven changes. In the Blue Lab at Princeton, I am focused on building elements of environmental storytelling into my scientific work. I’m doing this by tracking the provenance of a few of the fossil coral samples I am using as archives for seawater chemistry. So far, I’ve done a deep dive into the history of one of my fossil corals from Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. I found that it was actually collected as a part of a United States Geological Survey (USGS) expedition to study radiation leftover in the landscape after the US government detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands during the cold war.

RC: How did you become interested in this subject and how did you come about your research topic?

GS: After I graduated from Barnard College in 2019, I briefly worked as a research assistant in the department of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) doing scientific literature-based research to find studies that tracked evolutionary changes in coral that corresponded with changes in seawater chemistry. I was applying to graduate school at the time and when I came to visit Princeton, I had a really invigorating talk about this with John Higgins, who would later become my adviser. A lot of his work has focused on evaluating shallow water carbonates as archives of the seawater changes that I had read about, so it felt like a natural fit to keep going down that path of inquiry. My work in the Blue Lab began after describing rocks (specifically coral) as archives of the geological past to Professor Allison Carruth – she really encouraged me to think more deeply about archives and my project, tracking some of my samples’ histories from when and where they lived in the ocean to how they got to my desk at Princeton, blossomed after our first conversations together. 

RC: How did you navigate the development of your project to combine the facets of storytelling and geosciences? 

GS: Since starting to think about coral as an archive of seawater chemistry, an exclusively scientific approach to thinking about coral didn’t (and still doesn’t) feel true to my experience of what coral is or the important role that coral plays in my life and the life of many other people. When Professor Allison Carruth came to Princeton, I was fortunate enough to hear about her plan to start Blue Lab and cold-emailed her with my CV and a request to meet. Our initial meetings challenged me to think more deeply about the scientific work that I was doing in the Ph.D. and to build a part of my work that felt true to my understanding of what earth history archives, like coral, have to offer in terms of different types of knowledge (i.e., epistemologies) that they hold. I have been so lucky to find such supportive and creative mentors at Princeton and Professor Carruth along with other members of the Blue Lab team have really been the ones who have helped me navigate crossing and interweaving disciplines together. So, to answer the question, I think it was only with support from others that I was able to navigate creating the interdisciplinary project I’m working on. 

RC: How has interdisciplinary research changed your perspective (either personal perspective or in the context of your professional path)?

GS: Looking into the provenance of some of the coral in my collection has opened my eyes to the unfortunately extractive nature of geological research. A lot of times we, as geoscientists, plan expeditions to go into an environment and take from it to answer scientific questions that we have before even visiting the places we sample from. This practice has been done so many times that I think we probably, collectively, have an excess of some types of samples sitting in storage at earth science departments and museums around the world. There are a lot of nuances to that statement –sometimes it is ‘necessary’ to go out and sample more, but I think the work that I am doing is provoking me to ask more questions about how I choose the samples that I use in my scientific work. 

RC: What are the valuable lessons you have learned from pursuing your project? 

GS: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned doing research is to just keep persevering. There will be times where things will go wrong, or progress will be slow and maybe there will even be some outright discouragement to pursue a project because it’s deemed too unconventional. For me, it has been important to pause every now-and-again and remind myself why I decided to go into earth science research in the first place (to ask and maybe answer questions that I find interesting and important to the field) and then keep at my work with that remembrance in my mind and heart. 

RC: What is a piece of advice you would give to students who are interested in pursuing interdisciplinary research?

GS: The advice I would give is to go for it! I would also say that it’s important to build a support network around your work – especially if you are venturing outside of your discipline. It’s good to build friendships and collaborative relationships with experts in other disciplines that could help you process new ideas about your work. And don’t be afraid if the plan for your research changes over time – that’s part of the process of pursuing new ideas.

I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Gemma about her interdisciplinary passions and the work she conducts to pursue these interests. Similarly, I aspire to determine ways in which I might explore my multifaceted interests in geosciences and environmental justice. 

To learn more about the work of investigators like Gemma, make sure to check out the Blue Lab and the Higgins Research Laboratory

— Rebecca Cho, Natural Sciences Correspondent