Scripps Student Spotlight: Maya Becker

Geophysics PhD student fascinated by ice-shelf mass change pursues research in glaciology

Maya Becker is a fifth-year PhD student studying glaciology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Originally from Miami, Fla., Becker finished her undergraduate studies at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory before attending Scripps. She is currently advised by Scripps glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Maya Becker: A PhD program was in the back of my mind throughout my time as an undergraduate, but I did not seriously consider it until my senior year of college. Visiting the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus after being accepted helped me to realize that both Scripps and graduate school were the right fit for me. In addition to loving the idea of heading back to a warm and beachy place to keep on learning, I was excited to work with my advisor, Helen Amanda Fricker, on a research problem that aligned well with my interests. I also appreciated the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange offered by Scripps and UC San Diego more widely. Finally, my father, Keir Becker, did his PhD at Scripps, so I grew up hearing quite a bit about the many benefits of going to graduate school in San Diego.


en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?

MB: Here at Scripps, I work with Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist who focuses on changes in the ice shelves and subglacial hydrology of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. As the ice sheet flows under its own weight into the ocean, some pieces of it stay frozen and start to float, forming ice shelves. Ice shelves are a critical piece of the sea-level rise puzzle; while they do not directly contribute to sea-level rise themselves, they hold back, or buttress, the upstream grounded ice that does. I study the various processes by which Antarctica’s largest ice shelves gain and lose mass. These include a small-scale iceberg calving process triggered by targeted ocean melting at the ice-shelf front and a mechanism by which ice is refrozen to the base after being melted off by the ocean. We work closely with polar oceanographers to understand ice-ocean interactions such as these and how they might evolve in a changing climate.

I would like to think that I have been interested in the implications of ice-shelf mass change since childhood. I grew up just outside of Miami, on a barrier island that on average sits only a few feet above sea level. I watched as local beaches underwent regular renourishment to fight erosion, and my community was consistently among the first to be evacuated when a hurricane approached the region and threatened it with storm surges. As I thought I was more interested in the human and socioeconomic aspects of climate change, I initially studied sustainable development in college. I later switched to earth science, and Frank Nitsche (at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) invited me to work on a project to map marks in the seafloor left by icebergs that had run aground off of West Antarctica. I quickly became hooked on glaciology, as it satisfied both my scientific curiosity and my interest in pursuing a societally-relevant research question.


A woman stands in an icy outdoor setting


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

MB: Most of my typical day is spent in front of my computer, answering emails and writing and debugging code to process and display data. I work with a wide range of remotely-sensed data—sometimes with space lasers (!)—and ground-based datasets and try to relate them to one another to create a more complete picture of ice-shelf system dynamics. I also do my best to write an hour a day (even if I do not have a manuscript in preparation) and keep myself updated on recent publications in glaciology and related fields. But I try to make sure to take regular breaks from staring at a screen, which might mean going to a seminar, grabbing coffee with a friend, or taking advantage of Scripps’ location and walking on the beach!   


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

MB: Definitely going to the field! I have been fortunate enough to travel to Antarctica twice for fieldwork related to my thesis research, and Greenland and Alaska once each for glaciology courses with field components. It is incredibly invigorating to work together with a team of like-minded people to collect data toward answering a scientific question. It certainly helps that I get to do fieldwork in some pretty awe-inspiring places! A close second, though, is discussing my research and polar science with non-scientists and/or future scientists. Some of the most thought-provoking questions I have ever been asked about my work have come from people who have no formal training in glaciology. This helps me to stay optimistic in the face of climate change and attacks on the scientific community.


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

MB: There are too many people to list! My parents have always been a huge source of professional and personal inspiration. While I was an undergraduate, Audrey Meyer (at SEA Semester) and Frank Nitsche welcomed me into the realm of physical sciences and gave me the resources and advice necessary to try out new projects that ultimately led me to Scripps. In graduate school, Kirsty Tinto (also at Lamont), who led our field team in Antarctica, inspired me with her unflinching commitment to both our scientific goals and the well-being of the group. My advisor, Helen, is an incredible mentor, and she has taught me so much about what it means to be a great, ethical, and supportive scientist. Finally, I would be lost without the guidance and camaraderie (and commiseration…) offered by the other students and early-career scientists at Scripps and in the polar science and geophysics disciplines.


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

MB: As I am sure most of my peers experience, it is really difficult to achieve work–life balance while in a PhD program. Many of my friends in San Diego are also Scripps students, which makes it fairly easy to spend all of my downtime thinking and talking about work rather than cultivating my non-academic passions. There is also the challenge of saying no to, or not volunteering for, opportunities and responsibilities that distract from my thesis research. From my observations, it seems that women in research are more often “voluntold” for activities that make it harder for them to accomplish their professional goals or advance in their fields. Thankfully, there are many brilliant people at Scripps and in the polar science community who are working to change these facets of our research culture. A final thing that I have recently been struggling with is how to reconcile my desire (and, to a certain extent, need) to travel to remote places and meetings with my desire to reduce my carbon footprint.


en: What are your future plans?

MB: As much as I enjoy my research and certain aspects of academic life, I am not sure that I can picture myself in academia in the long term. Over the past few years, I have realized that there is a strong need for scientists and the scientific perspective in the policy realm. To that end, I am hoping to apply for a few science policy fellowships for the period immediately after graduation; if all goes well, I am hoping that I can transition into some sort of science communication or advisory role for climate and sea-level rise policy initiatives or organizations. That said, I fully recognize that that plan might not pan out, so I am going to cast a fairly wide net when applying for post-graduation positions.

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