St. Olaf College | News

Student wins prestigious award from American Geophysical Union

Megan Behnke ’16 takes water samples from a stream in Siberia as part of her research with the Polaris Project. Photo by Chris Linder/

St. Olaf College student Megan Behnke ‘16 has received the American Geophysical Union’s prestigious Lumley award.

The David E. Lumley Young Scientist Scholarship annually recognizes an exceptional student who is investigating global problems in energy and the environment.

As part of her award, Behnke will present her summer 2014 research findings at the AGU Fall Meeting. The conference, which runs December 15-19, is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world.

“I’m excited to share my research and meet with people who are experts in their fields,” says Behnke.

Summer in Siberia
This summer, Behnke participated in the Polaris Project, a multifaceted program that includes a field course and research experience for undergraduate students from around the world. As part of the program, Behnke spent a month at the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy, Russia, where she studied the breakdown of dissolved organic carbon released by melting permafrost.

Permafrost (soil that’s been frozen for more than two years) covers more than 60 percent of Russia, and contains large amounts of carbon. When permafrost melts, this stored carbon interacts with water to form dissolved organic carbon (DOC), which enters the active carbon cycle. The released carbon is often broken down into carbon dioxide or methane, two greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

In her research, which was supervised by Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade, Behnke studied where and how released DOC is broken down along Northeastern Siberia’s rivers and streams. This involved taking a multitude of water samples at various points along each river, measuring the level of DOC in each sample, and comparing DOC levels between samples. This semester, Behnke has been continuing her data analysis and learning new analysis techniques from Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kyle Whittinghill.

Pursuing diverse interests
Before coming to St. Olaf, Behnke took a gap year to explore her interests. She studied Shakespeare at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, backpacked throughout Europe for several months, and worked for a scientific education inventor in her hometown of Juneau, Alaska.

“I’m glad that I took a gap year,” Behnke says. “I came in to college more focused and ready.”

Behnke, a chemistry and theater double major, continues to pursue her interests at St. Olaf. She is a research assistant in two different labs, and also an active member of the college’s Theater Department. This February, Behnke will perform in St. Olaf’s production of Cymbeline, a late Shakespearean Romance.

In the future, Behnke hopes to incorporate her passions into a career as a research scientist.

“I hope to find work that combines my love of the North with the elegance of chemistry,” she says.