Scripps Student Spotlight: Margaret Morris

Geophysics PhD candidate researches how to locate submerged archaeological materials using marine acoustics

Margaret Morris is a sixth-year PhD student about to graduate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. She is a member of the Human Ecology Lab and the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology. Originally from Jefferson City, Mo., she received her undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from Brandeis University. Morris is currently studying applications of geophysics and acoustics in underwater archaeology and the acoustics of whale bones in the geophysics curricular group. Morris is co-advised by John Hildebrand, distinguished professor of oceanography at Scripps;  Isabel Rivera-Collazo, assistant professor of biological, ecological, and human adaptations to climate change at the Department of Anthropology and Scripps;  and Petr Krysl, structural engineering professor at Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.  

Morris learning to measure the speed of sound in different materials to prepare for a student cruise led by Vanessa ZoBell.


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

Margaret Morris (MM): When I visited Scripps for the first time, I felt like I could be happy here. The geophysics graduate students and faculty were people I felt good being around. I also believed that my time here would be interesting and worthwhile. I liked that Scripps is well-respected for interdisciplinary research and that it has resources for graduate students to try many things. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

MM: I am interested in improving how we can use geophysical acoustics to study underwater archaeology. At Scripps, I am researching how we can see submerged stone tools using sonar technology, and how we can search for stone tools on the continental shelf offshore Southern California. I also look into the vibrations of baleen whale ear bones to support research that explores how their hearing works.


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

MM: I came to Scripps without knowing exactly what I wanted to work on. I heard my current advisor, Isabel Rivera-Collazo, talk about her lab and how I could do lab work, fieldwork, and computer work all on the same project. After meeting with her, I got excited about the idea of doing work that could benefit society. Soon after, I met my other advisors, John Hildebrand and Petr Krysl, and also got excited about combining acoustics models with experiments I could do at my house. I originally became interested in science as a kid because I liked being able to test how things work. Now I am drawn to projects because I like the methods and the process of how I get to test things.


Morris testing her piloting skills with the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) aboard R/V Bob and Betty Beyster.

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

MM: Work-wise, the days are different. Some days I work in my office on the computer making plots or looking at simulation results. Plots range from sonar profiles and maps of ancient channels off Del Mar, Calif. to natural vibration frequencies of fin whale ear bones. I have simulations of the fin whale ear bone vibrations, as well as vibrations of stone artifacts. Instrumentation could be equipment used to record those vibrations and/or the sonar profiles. On other days I go to the lab and work on instrumentation or analyzing sand. Some days I sit on my office floor, hit rocks with sticks, and record the sounds, while other days I take measurements out in the field. Wednesday afternoons I have tea and cookies with geophysicists. Often I will take a short walk outside or have lunch with other students. 


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

MM: Sometimes I have an idea for a graph or plot to make. When it is made, I get excited when it looks beautiful and helps me understand something. I do have fun getting the data, but seeing it all come together is something I find very satisfying.


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

I have had many. Since my first year, I’ve had great conversations with some of the geophysics faculty who have shaped my approach to science. My research advisers have taught me so much, both directly and by example. Isabel encourages everyone in her lab to be humans first and to really think about who our research affects and how. John has shown me that I don’t need to put myself in a box and that it’s okay to explore a variety of questions and try new techniques. Petr has shown me that I can trust myself and trust others I work with. I also look up to Ross Parnell-Turner, a geophysics professor at Scripps who also acts as one of my committee members. He showed me ways to be a better teacher when I was a TA for his course, and he has spoken with me about my research and career path. All of these people and more have been awesome to be around.


Morris troubleshooting a collaborator's sub-bottom profiler in a 'small tank' for fieldwork in Florida.

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

MM: One of the most consistent challenges is wanting and trying to do things I’ve never done. This leads to another challenge of how to ask for help. It is difficult to know what to prioritize since there are so many things I either want to or feel I am expected to do. Learning how to deal with these challenges is ongoing, but I feel that I have come a long way since I started.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

MM: I am not sure. I feel like I could do many different things. For now, I am planning to stick around after I defend to continue some of my PhD research.


You can learn more about Morris on the Human Ecology Lab’s current lab member page.

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