Scripps Student Spotlight: Charlotte Bellerjeau

Physical oceanography PhD student uses engineering and science to better understand how the ocean moves and mixes

Originally from Oyster Bay, N.Y., Charlotte Bellerjeau is a third-year PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego where she is studying physical oceanography. She earned her bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is currently in the Applied Ocean Sciences (AOS) curricular group at Scripps, which focuses on the interface between ocean exploration and technology. Bellerjeau is researching ocean turbulence and mixing to better understand larger ocean currents as a whole. Her advisor is physical oceanographer Matthew Alford and she works in the Multiscale Ocean Dynamics (MOD) lab.


explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Bellerjeau on the RRS Discovery with the high-speed winch and profiling platform designed and built by the MOD lab to measure turbulence.  

Charlotte Bellerjeau (CB): I didn’t know anything about graduate school and wouldn’t have ended up at Scripps without the mentoring I was privileged to receive during my undergraduate research. I chose to attend graduate school so that I could take my engineering skills from my undergraduate research and apply them to ocean science. When I was searching for schools, Scripps seemed like one of the best places to be able to design oceanographic instruments and then use them in your research.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

CB: My research spans engineering and science, such as improving the sensors used to detect ocean turbulence motions, which are small-scale, random, fluid motions. These ocean turbulence motions result in the dissipation of heat and kinetic energy in the ocean. This process then drives large-scale overturning circulations that move water from the top of the ocean and vice versa, playing an important role in moving heat, carbon and nutrients. More specifically, I focus on internal waves and mixing, which is the combination of different water masses by physical processes, such as eddies, topographic wakes, and breaking internal waves. I look at mixing around steep undersea topography such as seamounts and canyons. By better understanding the turbulence and mixing occurring in energetic hotspots we can better understand larger ocean currents as a whole. I hope to make turbulence sensors more robust by replacing fragile crystalline pressure sensors with a flexible material so they can be implemented in larger data collection programs like Argo, a global network of robotic instruments that collect crucial ocean data on temperature, salinity, currents, and other measurements. The inclusion of turbulence observations in a global autonomous program like Argo would greatly increase our understanding of ocean mixing and turbulence.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

CB: I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember, and was always tinkering with something growing up. I first became interested in fluid dynamics and engineering through sailing and working on sailboats. When I was thinking about graduate school, it seemed like all of my academic and personal interests were leading me toward ocean science.

Bellerjeau enjoying the view while hiking on Santa Cruz Island.

en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

CB: Every day is different, which is part of what I love about this job. My days might consist of working on code for data analysis, developing the latest prototype of my turbulence sensor in the lab, reading papers, meeting with my advisor and labmates, or writing up results for academic journals and conferences. When I can, I like to get to the office early in the morning and leave when there’s still time in the afternoon for a surf or a run on the beach. I also participate in outreach, community education, and mentoring through SCOPE (Scripps Community Outreach for Public Education)SIO-ASK (SIO-Applicant Support Knowledgebase), and organizing with Scripps Oceanography’s branch of the UAW Union. Some of my favorite days are when I get to engage with non-scientists and share my love for science with a wider community. At the end of the day, it is all about opening up the scientific community to include more people and create more seats at the table. 

en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

CB: It’s always an amazing moment to make a breakthrough and see the results after a long time spent on data analysis or working in the lab, especially as a student. It’s the best feeling when I have been working on a project for weeks or months and I finally get data back from sensors or see the plot that answers my burning scientific question.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

Bellerjeau leading a march with fellow union members on the Scripps campus to make graduate school more accessible to people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

CB: One of my biggest role models in research is my mom. She studies the history of enslaved people during America’s founding. I grew up watching her unravel the story of one particular woman named Liss who was enslaved in my hometown in New York during the Revolutionary War. After almost two decades of research, she is just now getting to share Liss’ story with the world and introduce her as a founding figure of this country. I am so inspired watching her work tirelessly to tell the stories of people who have been erased in history. She has set a shining example of perseverance in research and I couldn’t be more proud of her. I also wouldn’t be here without my science mentors, particularly my undergraduate advisor Greg Whiting and my graduate advisor Matthew Alford. I also want to mention Donna Gerren who taught me about aerodynamics and being a woman in a field that has been historically dominated by men.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

CB: Graduate school is an incredibly busy time, and I think a lot of us struggle to step back and see the bigger picture. It’s easy to get stuck working on the tiny details of analysis and lose sight of why I love science and what inspires me. When I have those weeks where I’m getting bogged down in work or struggling with one particular problem, I try to step back and find my North Star, which for me has always been working with people. Searching for purpose in scientific research can be challenging, but also immensely rewarding when you find it.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

CB: I plan on continuing to work in academia, perhaps one day as a university researcher and professor. I’ve always loved teaching and I want to continue making education a part of my work. I hope to pursue community science and similar avenues to engage a broader audience in scientific research. Access to science and science communication are as important as ever as the climate changes.


You can find the Multiscale Ocean Dynamics (MOD) lab on Instagram and X/Twitter at @mod_at_scripps.

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