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ARCS Scholar Alum Receives Prestigious MacArthur Fellowship

Posted on Thursday, June 23, 2011

Kelly Benoit-Bird, ARCS Scholar alum, was named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow by the MacArthur Foundation. Commonly known as the "Genius Award," the MacArthur Fellowships recognize some of the most high-achieving, creative and groundbreaking individuals working in the arts and sciences today. 

The award carries a $500,000 stipend for the recipient to continue research. 

Kelly, 34, studies the interrelationships of animals in different marine environments, using acoustics and other sophisticated technologies. Her innovative uses of sonar in tracking marine creatures from Humboldt squid to spinner dolphins have led to new discoveries about their feeding behavior, movements and even communication. She is an associate professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) at Oregon State University.

“This is a well-deserved recognition of a tremendous young scientist who not only is creative, but is an exceptionally well-rounded person,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “Kelly has been instrumental in discovering new types of behaviors and structures within marine ecosystems and her observations of these actions occur in time and space scales never before seen.”

Kelly was honored by the White House in 2006 with the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, one of only 56 researchers who have achieved this award. She received the 2005 Young Investigator Award and $396,000 from the Office of Naval Research for equipment for use in her lab just one year after joining the OSU faculty. 

She also received the Early Career Award from the American Geophysical Union and was honored in 2009 with the R. Bruce Lindsay Award for achievement by the Acoustical Society of America.

The Acoustical Society is using Kelly as a model scientist in publications aimed at middle school students.

Kelly studies how different marine species from zooplankton to whales relate to each other in marine environments and throughout time. Her wide-ranging research includes projects on forage fish assemblages in the Bering Sea, schooling of pelagic fish, jumbo squid in the Gulf of California, predation effects on zooplankton, foraging of dusky dolphins and sperm whale diets.

Much of her work utilizes sophisticated acoustic monitoring that allows her to track, for example, the balletic movements of foraging spinner dolphins at night when the use of cameras and lighting would be intrusive. She also creates her own digital representations of the data, and often freehands her own scientific illustrations.

Some of Kelly’s most recent research has focused on the importance of thin layers of plankton that may range over miles of the ocean but are only a couple of feet thick. Kelly and her colleagues concluded that these unusual assemblages are important to the feeding behavior of anchovies and sardines, helping drive the marine food web.

“We were able to create a three-dimensional map of the zooplankton and measure the response of the anchovies and sardines,” she said. “They completely changed their behavior when they encountered the thin layer.”

Just why plankton arrange themselves in the thin layer may be the subject of her follow-up research. Kelly’s studies have been funded by the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and other organizations.

Kelly earned her PhD at the University of Hawaii and received an ARCS Foundation Scholar Award in 2003 from the Honolulu Chapter.