Emma O’Donnell, 22, graduated this past spring from Princeton University (U.S.) with a Bachelor of Arts in ecology and evolutionary biology, with high honors. Her undergraduate thesis, “One Fish, Two Fish: Measuring Patterns of Reef Fish Biodiversity in Bermuda Using Environmental DNA Metabarcoding,” was based on research she conducted at BIOS, and it earned her the Princeton Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Prize for Best Thesis in Ecology.
“It was recognition enough to get my degree and high honors, but it felt really good to get that additional acknowledgement of my hard work,” she said.
O’Donnell is an alumna of BIOS’s Ocean Academy, having started with the Institute’s former Waterstart program in 2012 (now run independently by JP Skinner) when she was 13. Inspired by a lifelong desire to become a scientist, she spent three years with Waterstart, then enrolled in the BIOS Marine Science Internship (a two-week immersive research-based program) before continuing on to the next levels. In 2016 and 2017 she worked with research specialist Tim Noyes, first as a volunteer intern, then as a Bermuda Program intern in a full-time summer internship. In 2018, as a sophomore at Princeton, O’Donnell returned to BIOS as a Princeton Environmental Institute intern, and she came back in 2020 as a Bermuda Program intern to begin her thesis research under the guidance of Noyes and zooplankton ecologist Leocadio Blanco-Bercial.
Her thesis used environmental DNA, or eDNA, to monitor the biodiversity of reef fish at several locations across the Bermuda platform, including a range of reef habitats and seagrass beds. Fish eDNA comes from a variety of sources, such as scales, skin cells, eggs, or waste, and it persists in the water column. By collecting seawater samples and analyzing the concentrations of eDNA, scientists can identify which fish species were present in the marine environment, even after they’ve left the immediate area.
“I separated the species we detected into diet types, such as carnivore, herbivore, and omnivore, and compared biodiversity levels and trends over time to a set of data from an annual report called BREAM [Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Analysis and Monitoring Program],” O’Donnell said. “One of our key findings, which was consistent with the BREAM data, is that there are low levels of piscivorous fish (fish that eat other fish, such as grouper) across the Bermuda platform.” These are the same fish that are targeted by many commercial fisheries, and O’Donnell hopes that data from her thesis might provide essential information for future conservation decisions.
Currently, O’Donnell is at home in Bermuda until September when she begins a six-month rotational program with global insurance broker Aon. Her first station will be in London with the Climate Science Unit, where she will be working to assess the impact that climate change will have on the reinsurance industry, as well as what strategies reinsurance can use to mitigate its negative effects. Following that, she will move to New York to work with the Property Reinsurance Broking Team, which she describes as “more on the business side of the industry where weather and climate analysis are used to evaluate risk on property reinsurance opportunities.”
Long-term she sees herself moving into environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG, a term that means socially responsible investing) and helping the private sector become more sustainable, but she isn’t ruling out graduate school in the near-term.
When asked about her experiences at BIOS over the years, O’Donnell said they allowed her to grow and learn in a real-world environment and also provided a safe place to try new things and make mistakes under the guidance of faculty mentors.
“My time at BIOS definitely prepared me for the lab work and independent work required for my thesis in a way that the classrooms and labs at school couldn’t,” she said. “Learning that things can go wrong in research and how to fix them without panicking were important lessons.”