Oil spill expert CJ Beegle-Krause on her circuitous academic career, responding to Deepwater Horizon, and the art of predicting spills.
by Dan Morrellphotograph by Tomas Moss
CJ Beegle-Krause’s (BS ’82) varied academic interests always resisted a definitive path, but she still somehow ended up with her dream job—because it turns out there is no definitive path to becoming an oil spill expert. Her career has included eight years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), responding to more than 200 spills—including massive events like 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—and developing spill-forecasting methods that have become industry standards. Dr. Beegle-Krause has spent the last five years at the research institute SINTEF (The Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research) in Norway, researching the behavior and movement of spills in Arctic conditions. “I think I have the most fascinating job,” she says with a laugh. How she got there was less relevant than the outcome. “I always wanted a job that I liked,” she says. “I always wanted to not just go to work and do something—I wanted to make a difference.” —Dan Morrell
I received this brochure from Caltech that said, “What’s a nice girl like you doing at a place like Caltech?” I just liked the way they were talking about science from both a fundamental level and an integrated level. And it was also a small school, which I liked the idea of, too.
I started out really being interested in marine biology, mostly because I love going to the ocean and swimming. And I love Jacques Cousteau. But what I liked about Caltech was that I could take classes outside my major and that I had to take physics and math to a higher level than most biologists would be required to at other places. I came through with a really good background, and I had the opportunity to sit in on material science classes and other courses.
I became interested in ocean-scale modeling. My PhD dissertation was a model of the penetration of Freon gases into the ocean. I wasn’t in a hurry to finish, because I was interested in a lot of things, which is both frustrating for people trying to get people to graduate, but also is just within my character.
When I defended my dissertation, it was really interesting because my committee noted, “You’re ready to graduate, but we don’t know what you are.” And I said, “Okay,” and I didn’t go directly into a postdoc. I thought Well, what am I? I didn’t fit into justone department.
Then this programmer job opened up at what is now the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration. I interviewed for the job, and they said, “Wait a minute, you understand modeling, and you can talk to biologists, and you’re interested in chemical transport? Please come.”
I realized that had been the job I was training myself for all this time. I was one of the original developers of the GNOME Model, which is what NOAA uses for its trajectory forecasts. People liked that I could make the physical oceanography approachable to the biologists. After a while, I became interested in doing more science and maybe not getting woken up at 3:00 in the morning so often. I worked for an environmental consulting firm on further development in biological physical modeling, but we decided that I was “too science-y” to work at a commercial company, so I started a nonprofit called “Environmental Research for Decision” or Research4D.
During Deepwater Horizon, I was called back to NOAA, and everybody worked six days a week, at least for the four trajectory modelers. There were two of us on evening shift and two of us on morning shift. At first, we were doing three forecasts a day, and it wound down to just two forecasts a day.
In oil spill response in the U.S., there’s something called the Unified Command. First, there are the state representatives and all the federal agencies that represent the natural resources. Then there’s the Responsible Party—the person that has to pay for it. They’re all in a room together and they decide what’s going to happen in terms of response in the next several days. (The U.S. Coast Guard is the Federal On-Scene Commander and has 51 percent of the vote.) The trajectories we provide help them decide where to move personnel and resources. It’s a map to help people make decisions.
Again, if I hadn’t had that really interdisciplinary training at Caltech, I wouldn’t be able to easily have a conversation with, say, a biochemist working with microbes, and say things like, “Can you do experiments with biodegradation to tell me in detail what the oxygen depletion would be, so that I can put that in the model with the known oxygen distribution, and we can see what the deficit would be?” There are all these really interesting interdisciplinary science questions that people in emergency response need answers to.
Decision-making in oil spills always has to answer five questions. What was spilled? That’s the chemistry. Where will it go? That’s the trajectory. Who will it hit? That’s the resources. How will it hurt? That’s the toxicology. And How do we best respond? The key is putting those pieces together. If I’m going to get called early in the morning, what do I want at my fingertips to be able to answer those questions for someone?
After Deepwater Horizon I thought, I really need to know how to do this under ice. If we’re going to be ready for a spill in the Arctic, where would I go? And SINTEF had a position open. Now I have done field work on ice in a fjord in Svalbard to improve models of under-ice turbulence. My focus now is to try to pick out where research needs to go in order to make better decisions during a response in the Arctic. I think of myself as doing more science for decision support than just science to publish a paper.
Models I have developed have been used as part of the Middle East Peace Process, and in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. I have supported airline disasters, police and family members in recovering people’s remains (The U.S. Coast Guard does search and rescue, while NOAA does search and recovery). From my perspective, I’m much more interested in making a difference than having my name on a paper.