A Conversation with Dr. Margaret "Meg" L. Estapa: Celebrating 20 Years of Beckman Scholars
Then: 1998 Beckman Scholars Program Award Recipient, Carleton College
Now: Assistant Professor of Geosciences, Skidmore College
AMBF: Prior to college, were you curious about a career in science?
ME: Yes, I was definitely curious about a career in science as I loved my high school chemistry classes. However, as the first in my family to pursue a career in science I didn’t really know much about the paths I could take.
AMBF: What exposure did you have to knowing what research in a laboratory would be like?
ME: Prior to college — no idea, besides what I’d experienced in classes!
AMBF: When you heard about the Beckman Scholar opportunity, what inspired you to apply?
ME: The encouragement of my professors at Carleton College, primarily. As a sophomore, I knew I wanted to try my hand at research, but I’d never applied for a scholarship like this one before.
AMBF: What was your research focused on? What were the results?
ME: I focused on photochemistry of gas-phase, organometallic compounds. What started out as an experimental project with some instrumental hiccups along the way evolved into a more theoretical project as I developed an interest in computational chemistry.
AMBF: What was the most memorable part about working with your mentor or working in the laboratory?
ME: Learning how to take instrumentation apart, troubleshoot it, and write computer programs to interface with it are skills I still use today in my research. I was fortunate to develop the confidence to “tinker” mechanically and computationally with my lab and field tools early on as an undergraduate. That confidence has served me well throughout the rest of my career and I try hard to instill it in my own undergraduates now!
AMBF: How did the experience change your thinking about science and conducting research?
ME: Doing research is so often a matter of running a test, finding out something unexpected, reformulating your hypothesis or building a new tool, and trying again. It takes a lot of stubbornness and tenacity to work through these moments and view them not as failures but as a step forward along a convoluted path. My undergraduate research helped me develop this attitude at exactly the right time in my career.
AMBF: Where did you go after graduation and where are you now?
ME: By the end of my senior year I’d developed an interest in chemical oceanography (after an off-campus study experience and some courses at Carleton). After graduation, I taught oceanographic field research at Sea Education Association for four years and completed another summer research fellowship in Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Then I completed a PhD in Oceanography at the University of Maine in 2011, studying photochemical reactions of marine organic matter. I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2014 and now I am an Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.
AMBF: Did you continue doing scientific research?
ME: Yes, I’m still doing research! My current projects center on the biologically-driven part of the ocean carbon cycle. I use robotic floats carrying optical sensors, satellite remote sensing, and traditional geochemical methods to conduct my observations.
AMBF: Do you have any advice for undergraduates considering a research career?
ME: Take advantage of opportunities to try out different types of research projects, especially ones that let you integrate different approaches (modeling, fieldwork, and laboratory experiments). Don’t be discouraged if things don’t always work as you expect them to.
AMBF: Did you meet Dr. Beckman in person, and if so, what was most memorable about meeting him?
ME: After twenty years, I have to be honest — I can’t remember! I do remember the summer research conference held for all the Beckman Scholars — that experience was a good one.