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Rebecca Helm '07: Marine Science + Study Abroad + Eckerd Experience = Career in Evolutionary Biology

posted on 02/03/2010

Eckerd Alumna Rebecca Helm

by Mary Ellen Collins

Rebecca Helm earned her Bachelor's degree in Marine Science with a Biology track from Eckerd College in 2007. Following her Eckerd career as a Ford Scholar, she received a 2007-08 Fulbright Fellowship to study oceanography study in South Africa. Through a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Rebecca began the Ph.D. program at Brown University's Dunn Lab this year.

Rebecca Helm's dreams of working in marine science developed in childhood, despite the fact that she grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, with no ocean habitat in sight.

"I watched documentaries and science programs and my dad subscribed to National Geographic for decades," she says. "The ocean was the ultimate curiosity. It was equivalent to space - it was that different and far away!" She also entertained thoughts of being a cowgirl or an F.B.I. agent, but by the time she was preparing for college, she was again focused on science. Although she looked mainly at institutions with graduate programs in marine science, Eckerd was also on her list. She admits that Florida Institute of Technology was her first choice - until she and her father came to visit.

"The Eckerd campus was so beautiful and the people so friendly, and professors were really open to have me join them in doing research," she recalls. She majored in marine science with a biology track, and credits the Eckerd experience for providing the necessary foundation for her current pursuit of a Ph.D. on the evolution of development.

"The field that I have chosen for my graduate study is new and incredibly interdisciplinary," she explains. "It demands a knowledge not just of developmental biology and evolutionary theory ... but also genetics, cell biology, chemistry, and even ecology." Despite the fact that the College did not have an evolutionary development biology department, she says she received valuable support from numerous Eckerd faculty members in different disciplines, including Nancy Smith, William Szelistowski, and Jeannine Lessmann, "who really taught me how to think about organisms in a holistic way - taking into account not just the individual, but also the environment."

"All of the professors were really encouraging of my interest in this field. They encourage you to ask questions, not just in class, but to actively think about and explore the topics you're interested in. Students are pushed to develop their own sense of curiosity."

Rest doesn't seem to come naturally to this inquisitive and active young scientist. Rebecca made good use of the January winter terms by creating two self-directed internships - one studying jellyfish and other organisms at the Friday Harbor Laboratories at the University of Washington, and another teaching art and science at IslandWood School in Washington State.

After graduating from Eckerd, she headed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for an internship before traveling to South Africa as the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. Rebecca spent about a year there studying the distribution and abundance of jellyfish along the South African coast, a unique marine environment because of the mix of cold and warm waters.

Before returning home for graduate school, she did a month long stint as camp manager for a walking safari company near Kruger National Park (South Africa), and spent two months in Namibia where she designed a small museum for Gobabeb Training and Research Centre. She says Eckerd's study abroad programs provided the perfect preparation for her African sojourn.

"I traveled to Iceland and Costa Rica. There is no way I could have moved to South Africa by myself if I hadn't done those things - I would never have had the courage. [The travel] pushed me to be a globally-minded human being and to explore all the amazing things that are out there in the world."

Rebecca received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and began her Ph.D. program in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at Brown University's Dunn Lab this year. When she envisions her ultimate professional career, her own passion shines through as she gives another nod to the Eckerd faculty members who inspired her.

"They are so excited and passionate about what they do," she says. "I would love to be a professor. I love teaching and I love science, and being a professor is a great tradition to be a part of - sharing with students what you really love."

This feature is the eighth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.

Read Previous Science Profiles:
Michael Depledge
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Patrick Griffin
Jeffrey Dodge '84

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