Sikes, Elisabeth

Associate Professor
Areas of Interest: 
Paloeceanography, Marine Organic Geochemistry.
My Story: 
Sikes, Elisabeth
Liz getting into ALVIN, 1982.
I’ve always been a water rat. Some of my fondest earlier memories are of the times spent at my grandmother’s house, on her dock at the lake. Summers were for swimming, fishing, canoeing, being with the water. I learned from my grandmother, a master birder and naturalist, the names of the fish, the names of the plants, and the names of the birds. The enduring lesson in that was how to look at a bird carefully enough to identify it. I would ask about a bird I saw and her reply would be “Did it have a fat beak or a narrow beak? Did it have white lines on its tail?” She also gave me the desire to go find out what it was I had seen. Not only do I come from a family with a naturalist streak, I come from a family with real wanderlust. When I was in first grade my parents, who were teachers, up and moved us to a small atoll in the middle of the tropical Pacific. The island we lived on was even smaller and we lived in a house with the beach and the reef flat just outside our back door. I would frequently go at low tide, down to the reef flat and tidal pools to look at all the different creatures there. When we went on picnics with my family I was either snorkeling or tide pool gazing. I was always looking to see what was there, seeing what I could find, seeing if I could find something different, exploring. Almost always that exploring was under water.

By the time I was in high school I was living back in my home town in Connecticut. There, I was near the water as much as possible. My best friend had a sailboat and we sailed and explored Long Island Sound every moment we could. My brother and I also explored the town woods every chance possible. My affinity for water was also expressed in more traditional ways too: I swam competitively and later when I moved away from the ocean to go to college, I rowed with the crew. Every day out on a river – how can you beat that for a sport?

In school, I loved most of my science classes. But I never imagined myself as a scientist. Things I liked weren’t what I would have called science—it was nature. But in science class they sometimes explained the things I was fascinated by – what was a cloud? Why did the seasons change? How did science go from being a class in school to being what I wanted to do? In high school, I took a microbiology elective and my other love – food and cooking came together in science – how do you make yogurt? What about sauerkraut? beer? Wine? What is the chemistry involved in pickling cucumbers and cooking a steak? You mean food and cooking can be science? Suddenly chemistry was fun and relevant. In college I was I planning to major in science but I was not committed. Neither chemistry or biology really excited me as much as I hoped. Again, I was lucky with an elective I took—oceanography. I never looked back. Oceanography is part of Earth Science and it brings together my love of science and my love of the outdoors. Geosciences and oceanography explain the world you see around you, something I had been thinking about all my life. I declared my major in Environmental Science that semester. Only afterward did I ask my advisor what kind of job could I get with this degree and found out there are many. As a senior, I became an official “water rat” in the department which is what they called the student fellows who did field work with my advisor on the Connecticut River. The fellowship gave me the opportunity to write a senior thesis on that research. It was my first taste of real research, I was hooked.

Sikes, Elisabeth
Liz snorkeling in Saddleback Cay, 1983

Even after getting my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t sure about being a scientist – so I taught high school Chemistry for 2 years before deciding to go to graduate school. While I was teaching I realized that it wasn’t just the science facts that interested me. It was the realization that if you do science you are involved first and foremost in discovering things as part of your job. That senior thesis had shown me what I really liked about science. I followed my desire to discover to grad school, first at UNC Chapel Hill for a masters in oceanography where I worked on coral reefs. I loved the tropical field work, but I became interested in climate. So, I went to the Joint Program at MIT/WHOI to study paleoceanography. It was in grad school I got my first chance to really “go to sea” and work on ocean-going ships to collect my samples. My first cruise was investigating deep reefs which involved working in the research sub ALVIN. The challenge of working and living at sea is something I still enjoy—although it’s not all fun. I think my sailing experience helps there, knowing how to prepare and bring everything with you, how to still work when you are sea-sick, and how to know when it’s just too darned rough to do anything. I think being an oceanographer makes me appreciate nature more than most people.

When I finished grad school I both got married, (to another oceanographer) and moved to Tasmania, Australia where both my children were born a few years later. There, I began to work in the Southern Ocean, which is where I still do my field work. Working in the ocean around the Antarctic can be very challenging when the weather is bad, but it is also exciting. There I saw my first iceberg, my first whale, and my first penguin. The Southern Ocean is a marvelous place for bird watching! After a few years in Tasmania we decided to move to New Zealand, where I worked at the University of Auckland and then again a few years later we followed better jobs to Rutgers- but I still travel back “down under” almost every year for field work. Clearly my desire to explore and travel is still strong. But it is the discovery that keeps me going. My research specialty is understanding the Southern Ocean’s influence on climate. We know the ocean is important in controlling the world’s climate, but the Southern Ocean is where all the oceans mix and we know it is one of the places in the ocean that has the most influence on climate. But what we don't know is exactly how that influence changes climate… there is still so much still to learn.

732-932-6555, ext. 518