Feature Stories 2023: Elizabeth Ells '23: Supporting healthy ecosystems in coastal communities

SMAST student Elizabeth Ells on her boat
Feature Stories 2023: Elizabeth Ells '23: Supporting healthy ecosystems in coastal communities
Elizabeth Ells '23: Supporting healthy ecosystems in coastal communities

PhD candidate Elizabeth Ells studies water quality on Cape Cod and the SouthCoast.

Elizabeth Ells is a PhD candidate at SMAST with a concentration in coastal systems science. With deep roots on Cape Cod, she is studying innovative and alternative nitrogen reduction methods through denitrification to support healthy ecosystems in coastal communities.  

Elizabeth's work involves long days in the field and long nights in the lab, sometimes clocking 18 hours before the day is done. Her motivation for this work comes from a lifelong connection to the ocean and the support of her fellow researchers at SMAST.  

What led you to pursue a PhD at SMAST?  

"I grew up by the ocean, so it's always been an important part of my life. When I was nine years old, I started volunteering with my dad – taking water samples for the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. This laid the groundwork and background for the work I'm doing today and instilled my desire to take care of our local community by protecting our estuaries. 

"As a teenager, I worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the local beaches. As an undergrad, I did a summer-long study testing phosphorous and nitrogen levels in the waters surrounding Cape Cod, which piqued my interest in coastal nutrient management. I knew I wanted to continue this work in graduate school."  

Elizabeth earned her bachelor's degree in civil engineering with a minor in construction management from Norwich University in 2018.  

"After finishing my undergraduate degree, I became interested in SMAST because of the research projects their coastal systems program was involved with, especially the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. I reached out to Professor Brian Howes, and he encouraged me to apply. That year, I joined his lab." 

SMAST student Elizabeth Ells collecting water samples
Elizabeth conducting research in the field

What is the topic of your research? Why is this research important? 

"My research is focused on innovative and alternative approaches to reducing nitrogen and phosphorous in water systems throughout the SouthCoast and Cape Cod. Excessive amounts of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous can be harmful to coastal ecosystems and produce algal blooms that can result in habitat impairments. Those impairments not only harm wildlife but can also create problems for the people in those coastal communities. This accumulation of excess nutrients is called eutrophication. Scientists determine acceptable nutrient levels for each embayment and from this information create total maximum daily loads to comply with the Clean Water Act of 1972.  

"Traditional remediation methods are costly, especially for small towns. My dissertation focuses on alternative methods of nutrient remediation. Specifically, I'm looking at three approaches, using denitrification: oyster aquaculture, permeable reactive barriers, and macrophytes (aquatic plants).  

"This work is important for the health of the ecosystems and the communities in southeastern Massachusetts."  

Tell us about your fieldwork... 

"My work in the field involves taking water samples from water bodies on Cape Cod on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. At various stages in my research, I have collected and incubated oyster samples, collected water and velocity samples from cranberry bogs to determine nutrient loads, and documented the effects of macrophytes in a eutrophic system."  

SMAST student Elizabeth Ells collecting water samples
Collecting water samples

What has been your experience working with faculty members at SMAST? 

"I work with a great team of researchers including Jen Benson, Sara Sampieri-Horvet, and Micheline Labrie, among others. It's also special that our lab is primarily women, which you don't often find in scientific research.  

"The late Brian Howes was my faculty advisor for most of my time here at SMAST, and he was my greatest source of support. He kept me motivated even when we had 5am start times and difficult field days. He knew how important our work is and reminded me why it matters. I have also been working closely with Miles Sundermeyer (co-advisor) and Micheline Labrie (new co-advisor), who have both been incredibly encouraging and helpful. Mark Altabet has offered great support and taught me to use the isotope ratio mass spectrometer in his lab." 

Any advice for future marine science students? 

"Lean into the community here, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Even as we're pursuing our own projects, we all work as a team; no one succeeds alone. My lab-mates offer to run my samples in the lab while I'm out in the field, and I do the same for them. As an SMAST student, you find yourself growing with others through all the failures and successes you experience together. And, the journey is not linear, so be patient during unexpected turns."  

What are you most proud of? 

"I'm proud that I was able to combine my background in engineering with marine science; I started with very little background in marine science, so I've learned a lot since coming here. I'm also proud to have been a part of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project and to continue that project's legacy. It will be extremely satisfying to see this work completed. 

"I feel very lucky to be in the coastal systems program doing this work that will have real impact on communities on the Cape and the SouthCoast." 

What is your favorite thing about your SMAST experience? 

"Working with the people I've been able to work with. Especially when you're working an 18-hour day out on the water and in the lab, it helps to have a strong support system like the one we have here. It's science, but it's also like an extended family."  

What comes next? 

"I'm scheduled to defend my dissertation in December 2023. I'd like to teach, so I'll be seeking a post-doc position after I'm finished with my PhD. I'm also looking forward to spending time with family and my new nephew. I couldn't have done any of this without the support of my parents, siblings, and partner." 

SMAST PhD student Elizabeth Ells with her research poster