What They Learned: Alexandra Morrison ’18

The chemistry major and environmental studies minor wrote her thesis on the impact of oil spills on the marine environment.

Alexandra Morrison ’18 has always had an interest in the natural world—specifically, how human activity can, and does, affect it. With support from her thesis advisor (and long-time research advisor) Helen White, an associate professor of chemistry and environmental studies, the chemistry major decided to base her thesis on an analysis of some of the oil samples she had collected from beaches in the Gulf of Mexico during a research trip, funded by White’s lab, that she’d taken the previous spring.

“The White lab [has been conducting research] on oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill for years,” Morrison says. “I enjoyed the work that I was doing [in that regard] leading up to my senior year, and ultimately decided that it was the topic that I wanted to focus on.”

The final product, “Rapid Identification and Characterization of Oil Residues in the Coastal Marine Environment,” does more than just identify and characterize oil residues, though—it suggests ways to refine existing methods of analysis.

“Using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy,” Morrison says, “we developed a way to meet the need for a rapid identification method to distinguish different oil sources, which I outlined in my thesis.”

For Morrison, however, the most valuable takeaway from the experience of writing a 40-page scientific paper was personal, rather than academic, in nature.

“[While] I definitely learned a lot about this field of research while completing my thesis,” she says, “I think the most valuable information that I got out of this experience was learning that I really enjoy this type of work and that it is something that I want to continue to do as I move on to the next step after graduation.”


What are the implications of your thesis research?
This research details the persistence of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, as well as oil from other anthropogenic and natural sources, in the Gulf of Mexico. It also describes a new field application of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy: identifying the source of collected oil samples. This has the potential to be a new method of oil source determination for first responders and researchers that is rapid, non-destructive, less expensive, and more environmentally friendly than existing methods. There is still a lot of research that needs to be conducted before this method could be readily used. However, it is definitely an exciting first step.

What are your plans for the future and does your thesis have anything to do with helping to guide your future career path?
This next year I will be working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution continuing some of my thesis work, in addition to being involved with other projects. I will be traveling to Alaska this summer with my advisors to test the model I developed in my thesis and see if it is successful in distinguishing oil sources in a location other than the Gulf of Mexico. I will also be working on a project involving the identification of microplastics through a range of spectroscopic methods, including X-ray fluorescence, infrared spectroscopy, and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The process of completing my thesis helped me to realize that this is the type of work that I enjoy and want to pursue.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.


Photo: Chemistry major Alexandra Morrison ’18 concentrates intently as she pipettes before a satellite accumulation area in the White lab. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Morrison ’18.