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Sunita Shah Walter: New Professor Profile

October 24, 2018

Could you give a little background about yourself?

Sunita New ProfessorI was an undergraduate at Columbia University where I spent most of my time in the chemistry department and couldn’t have predicted that I was going to end up in oceanography. After graduation, I ended up taking an internship with the United States Geological Survey in Woods Hole, MA that changed my life. Most of the people I graduated with went to work for a pharmaceutical company or they went to graduate school in chemistry and, at the time, I didn’t want to do either of those things. But my internship allowed me to go to sea for the first time and get my hands in mud. I loved it and found a reason to go to graduate school, although I chose at that point to go to the University of Michigan in atmospheric chemistry. But that just wasn’t my thing, so I started over again, went back to marine geochemistry and got my PhD from Harvard.

What’d you do after you got your PhD?

I did two post-docs, one at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. which was funded by the National Research Council, and then another one at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at the National Ocean Species Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (NOSAMS) radiocarbon facility. After those, I went back to Cambridge and was a research scientist at Harvard followed by a short detour into research support and the government contracting industry before coming to UD. 

What’s your focus going to be at UD?

My background is in organic geochemistry and isotope geochemistry, and I use those techniques to understand the role of microbial populations in carbon cycling in the ocean. I have an ongoing project focusing on the cool ocean crust near the mid-Atlantic Ridge and I hope to continue previous work that I have done in the Arctic Ocean as well as develop a research program in the coastal environment around Lewes. Most of the daily work is extracting, purifying and analyzing microbial lipid biomarkers, and, when there is enough of a sample, measuring carbon isotopes. 13C is a good tracer for carbon metabolism and 14C is a good tracer for the carbon sources that microbes are using.

Why is it important to know the carbon sources that microbes use?

Microbes are a major driver in organic carbon cycling and decide the fate of organic carbon, or how much organic carbon is turned back into CO2 and released back to the atmosphere versus stored in sediments, possibly for long time scales. The balance between how much organic carbon is stored in sediments and how much CO2 is in the atmosphere has been linked to climate across earth’s history.

What are some of the challenges that come along with studying carbon?

For isotopes and for radiocarbon, in particular, you start with an enormous sample size: tens or possibly 100 grams of initial wet sediment or tens of thousands of liters of sea water filtered. From all of that initial material, the goal is to recover as much of the lipid contained in it and isolate a particular lipid of interest in order to purify that lipid and burn it to CO2. When you are going from a huge sample to a slug of CO2 that you can’t even see, a lot of things can go wrong along the way. And once you have that pure CO2 sample, you package it up, cross your fingers and send it away to an accelerator mass spectrometry facility like the one in Woods Hole, MA or in Irvine, CA. You don’t get to see the measurement, you just get a spreadsheet with the results back by email and sometimes the spreadsheet entry says ‘sample lost’ which is, of course, a huge disappointment after all of that work. 

Could you talk about the moment when you realized that this is what you wanted to do?

I think, and this is probably true of a lot of people in oceanography, going to sea is incredibly inspiring. It gives you a perspective on why you’re doing the research that you are doing. You see exactly where your samples are coming from, the context, and the difficulties and uncertainties that are part of the process. It’s very real.

What was it that made you want to come to UD?

This is kind of like coming home for me because I’m from the mid-Atlantic. The community of people in the School of Marine Science and Policy, and in Lewes, is really collegial and friendly. I found a lot of people here that I would enjoy working with and that I am glad to be down the hall from.

What have been your impressions of the University?

I haven’t spent that much time on the Newark campus but it is beautiful. I really appreciate the architecture. Lewes is a little less formal but I’ve been impressed with everyone’s willingness to help me get settled and build my lab and it is certainly nice to be so near to the water.

Are you teaching any classes?

I will start teaching next semester, and in the fall I will be teaching a field course that will start with Coastal Field Biology and likely morph over time into an oceanography methods course. I hope that will involve taking students out on the Daiber and introducing them to some basic oceanography techniques.

Any interesting hobbies?

Well, I have a 2-year-old and a 4-and-a-half-year-old so I mostly run around after them. We used to spend as much time as we could outdoors with our retriever, hiking, running, biking, skiing, etc. Hopefully that will be in my future again once my kids are older.

 

 

CEOE School & Departments

School of Marine Science & Policy

Advancing the understanding, stewardship, and conservation of estuarine, coastal, and ocean environments.

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Department of Geological Sciences

Discovering how geological processes have operated over various time scales to create and influence the planet’s surface environments.

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Department of Geography

Investigating the interactions between people and the environment and the processes that explain the location of human and natural phenomena.

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College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment • 111 Robinson Hall • Newark, DE 19716 • USA • Phone: 302-831-2841
Geography: 302-831-2294 • Geology: 302-831-2569 • Marine Science and Policy: 302-645-4212 • E-mail: ceoe-info@udel.edu

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