Hilde Oliver: Carrying on the tradition of smart, educated women

HIlde Oliver, Postdoctoral Scholar, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Hilde Oliver, an oceanographer studying biophysical interactions and a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Postdoctoral Scholar, comes from a long line of educated women.  Both her grandmother and her mother have PhDs in science, so Hilde is a third-generation woman in science.

“I come from an environment where women were strongly encouraged to pursue science. Not only did my grandmother and mother serve as role models growing up, but they were also always fully supportive of me doing this type of work,” said Hilde.

Midway through her pursuit of her PhD in marine sciences, Hilde was surprised to learn that her grandmother had initially been interested in studying oceanography herself but ended up studying biology. “It was a time when women weren’t encouraged to do that type of work and weren’t really wanted in ship environments. It was interesting to learn that we had similar interests.”

Hilde also attributes her predilection toward the sciences due to living in the small city of Oak Ridge, TN, home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a community oriented toward math and science.  Growing up there instilled in her a “love for all things math and science.” Her interests ran the gamut from biology, chemistry, physics, and math.

During her freshman year, settling in as a math major at the University of South Carolina, Hilde took an Honors Ecology and Evolution class. During this class, she learned how to apply simple differential equations to fundamental predator-prey interactions—knowledge that launched her trajectory as an ocean ecosystem modeler. Hilde went on to earn her PhD from the University of Georgia and headed north to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for a postdoc position with Dennis McGillicuddy and Gordon Zhang.

Studying plankton with models and observations

At WHOI, Hilde is investigating how changing large-scale circulation influences phytoplankton growth in the Mid-Atlantic Bight. She is adding observational work to her modeling efforts using OOI glider data.  “I thoroughly enjoy working at WHOI, where OOI is managed and operated.  It is so exciting to be working in the environment where people are developing and deploying the instrumentation I’m applying in my research.” OOIs physical and biogeochemical datasets have allowed her to study biophysical interactions near the New England shelfbreak as a part of the larger NSF-funded Shelfbreak Productivity Interdisciplinary Research Operation at the Pioneer Array (SPIROPA) project.

Hilde also recently spent 60 days aboard the global-class research vessel R/V Roger Revelle with a team operating a towed underwater microscope system, the Video Plankton Recorder. The scientific team headed to the Pacific sector of the Southern Ocean to assess the chemical and biological conditioning of Subantarctic Mode Water, which is formed north of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The team was in search of coccolithophores, phytoplankton that form calcium carbonate shells.

Due to covid restrictions, the team was forced to depart from Honolulu, traveling all the way from 21° North to 60° South.  The length of the transit to the research site nearly doubled their time at sea. This long transit left the team with only 32 days to conduct their research, which they used to full advantage, including finding coccolithophores.

A solid foundation of support

Many have played pivotal roles in Hilde’s path to the sciences. In addition to her family legacy, Hilde’s PhD advisor, Patricia Yager, was hugely instrumental in encouraging Hilde as a woman in science. Yager taught her the ins and outs of being a female scientist in a field once dominated by men while encouraging Hilde to pursue her own ideas.

“Tish (Patricia) instilled in me the confidence to become independent in my thinking,” she explained. “And, for any early-career person developing that independence is critical. So I am very grateful to her for that.”

Hilde offers that two takeaways from her positive relationship with Yager: “It’s important to work with people you want to work with, particularly during your PhD, for you are signing on for five or more years, a long time if it’s not a good fit. Also, it’s vital to develop a working relationship based on mutual respect so that everyone can positively benefit from the time spent together.”

With these tenets in mind, Hilde hopes to one day build a research program of her own that is highly interdisciplinary, takes advantage of the variety of datasets and tools available, and serves to help early-career scientists advance their own research ideas to their fullest expression.

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