Kelly Benoit-Bird: Sounding the Deep
Associate professor, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University. Age: 34
When her cell phone rang at 7:30 one morning last September, marine scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird eyeballed the caller ID and decided it was a prank or a wrong number. Seven months pregnant and in desperate need of some quality shut-eye, she turned over and went back to sleep. But when the phone rang again half an hour later, she relented, picked up, and croaked a groggy hello. The Oregon State University [OSU] faculty member had let the first call from the MacArthur Foundation go to voicemail. As Benoit-Bird listened, she learned she had won one of the foundation’s coveted “genius grants.”
METHOD: Benoit-Bird was told that she had been selected as a MacArthur Fellow because of her use of innovative acoustic gadgets to paint a dynamic picture of the inner workings of marine food webs, from the largest predators to microscopic plants. The first in her family to attend college, this daughter of an auto mechanic designs and makes the listening devices herself. “Tools that involve light don’t work very well because light doesn’t travel very far in the ocean,” Benoit-Bird says. “But sound travels extremely efficiently in water, and most marine animals use sound as their means of communication,” making acoustics the perfect method for understanding ocean life.