By Ella Murdock Gardner ’22
Sylvie Alexander ’22 couldn’t tell you specifically what drew her to seaweed, just like she can’t put her finger on exactly what compels her about the ocean. But it’s precisely this magical uncertainty that drives her to learn more. “I don’t know what it is, but it makes me tick,” she says. As a recipient of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship—a one-year grant for independent exploration outside of the United States—Alexander will pursue her interest in seaweed’s social and ecological applications across Norway, France, Chile, Tanzania, and Japan.
During her sophomore year, Alexander took a class in oceanography that “completely rocked my world,” as she says. Her interest in the ocean’s capacity to regulate and mitigate the climate led her to self-design a major called Oceans and Climate Change. Since then, she’s become especially interested in the field of carbon dioxide removal (CRD), which explores methods for sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere in the ocean.
Last summer, while interning at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and contributing to a research paper about Marine CDR, Alexander learned about several “freaky” theoretical techniques for sequestering carbon in the ocean, including splitting carbon out of water with electricity and building giant pumps that would funnel carbon from the atmosphere directly into the deep sea. But she was more intrigued by the simpler, more natural forms of CDR that focus on enhancing current carbon pathways to store more carbon from the atmosphere in existing reservoirs. That’s where seaweed comes in.
Seaweed boasts a range of climate mitigation capabilities. For example, seaweed additives in cattle feed can help significantly reduce the methane that cows produce; seaweed can be converted into biofuel; and seaweed soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting it into biomass through photosynthesis. “The moment I learned about the possibility of climate mitigation through seaweed cultivation, it was like sparks went off,” Alexander says. “As I was learning about communities across the world that already have rich relationships with seaweed—cultivating it for medicines, cosmetics, and food—I realized seaweed could provide a great lens onto the interplay between changing oceans, changing climate, and humanity.”
Alexander will begin her Watson Fellowship in Norway, where she’ll work with both a small seaweed seasoning manufacturer (run by a four-woman team) and one of Europe’s largest seaweed suppliers. From there, she’ll make a short hop south to France to work with two more large-scale seaweed farms, giving her perspective on a more developed, scientific, and highly controlled approach to cultivation. After bidding France au revoir, Alexander will travel to Chile, where commercial demand has overburdened and depleted the country’s wild seaweed stocks; she hopes to learn from harvesters—including the famed algueras (female seaweed collectors) of Pichilemu—about the rich and storied history of Chile’s relationship to seaweed. Her next flight will land her in Tanzania, where roughly 70 percent of seaweed cultivators are women who secure income through processing their crop into cosmetics and soaps. Alexander will round out her year abroad in Japan, where seaweed is an integral part of both the food industry and the culture.
“You can find seaweed popping up in grocery stores here in the United States, but there’s still a lot of resistance to it,” Alexander explains. “Having successfully introduced seaweed into their economy through food, Japan might provide a model for thinking about how to integrate seaweed more fully into other societies.”
For Alexander, planning this worldwide tour was an educational experience in itself. “Cold-emailing people in Japan to ask, ‘Can I potentially come learn from you?’ was a really special part of the process,” she said. “Those conversations would have been rewarding even if I didn’t get the Watson Fellowship, because I definitely want to pursue something related to seaweed professionally.”
Alexander currently works at a company that markets different seaweed products. In the future, she’s hoping to continue the kind of seaweed-based research on climate change she conducted during her semester abroad in Iceland, but she’s ready to follow seaweed wherever it takes her. “I feel like I’m standing on the tip of the iceberg and I don’t even know what’s possible yet, but I’m excited to continue exploring,” she says.