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Carly Moreno is a doctoral candidate in the marine sciences department. Her research focuses on polar phytoplankton ecophysiology; in particular, investigating molecular mechanisms that underlie their ability to survive in the Southern Ocean. She previously earned her master’s degree in marine sciences from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015 and was a Gates Millennium Fellow.

What made you choose UNC-Chapel Hill when deciding on a program/place to study?

Carly Moreno with penguins
Carly Moreno

I always had a deep interest in marine sciences and learning about processes that govern life in the ocean, and in turn, how those organisms influence their own environment. At my undergraduate institution, I had previously worked with my potential Ph.D. advisor and after talking with him about UNC and potential research opportunities, I decided to apply. But what was really attractive was how friendly and supportive the department was when I came for recruitment weekend. The department culture is rigorous but non-competitive and students are encouraged to follow their interests. Most importantly, faculty members are super invested in their student’s success.

Tell us about your research.

My focus is on studying Antarctic phytoplankton and how they survive in harsh conditions of the Southern Ocean.  Antarctic phytoplankton are very productive, sequester carbon in the deep ocean and produce a large portion of the oxygen we breathe. But a lot of times they can experience changes in environmental variables that can limit their growth, including nutrient limitation, darkness and freezing cold temperatures. Using molecular techniques, I am essentially interested in trying to understand why organisms are found where they are, and if their health and physiology can tell us something about their environment.

How have you built community as a graduate student at Carolina?

I’ve become involved with a couple of groups on campus that are really supportive of minority graduate students — the Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and La Familia, an empowerment group part of the Initiative for Minority Excellence (IME). It was really important for me to find mentors and peers who could understand what it means to be a graduate student coming from a different economic, cultural, or family background. I actually didn’t know about these resources until two years into my program, so I feel lucky that I finally could join these groups, but I do wish I had that mentorship and support in the early phase of my PhD.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your Carolina degree?

I am passionate about the oceans, leadership and educating the public about the need for protecting the environment.  Although I’ve determined that academia is not for me, I still plan to make meaningful contributions to the field during my postdoctoral work and hopefully transition to government research or science policy.

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