Brooke Sienkiewicz traded in her winter jacket and insulated rubber boots for a wetsuit and fins.
The applied biology Ph.D. student came to UMass Lowell to research corals in the Caribbean with Biological Sciences Asst. Prof. Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn after spending roughly two years in Alaska conducting seasonal fieldwork on fish populations and Arctic lakes.
“They’re two very different landscapes, and while I will always love Alaska and that kind of climate, I might be partial to tropical work,” says Sienkiewicz, who grew up in Duluth, Georgia.
Sienkiewicz first experienced Caribbean fieldwork while taking a tropical island ecology course as a biology major at Georgia State University.
“We went to St. John for a week,” she recalls. “It was my first trip out of the country, and my first time seeing coral reefs. I just fell in love.”
Sienkiewicz graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2020 and decided to join the workforce to get more fieldwork experience. The COVID-19 pandemic made the job search more difficult, but she ultimately found a groundfish observer position with A.I.S. Inc., a North Dartmouth, Massachusetts-based environmental services company that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration subcontracts. 
With A.I.S., Sienkiewicz joined commercial fishing trips in Alaska to collect data on fish populations for federal fisheries management.
“It was a crazy experience,” she says. “I lived out of hotels and fishing boats, working with fishermen. I learned a lot from them.”
Sienkiewicz went on to conduct research on Arctic lakes in Alaska for the Marine Biological Laboratory. She collected water samples in Alaska before relocating to the lab’s headquarters in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she processed the samples.
“The purpose of that research was to track changes in Arctic lakes as the climate changes,” she says. “Our datasets can contribute to studies on how global warming affects nutrient concentrations in the lakes.”
Having accomplished her goal of acquiring more fieldwork experience, Sienkiewicz decided to go back to school. With the St. John’s trip in mind, she turned to the internet to find professors who work with corals. She came across Gignoux-Wolfsohn’s website and saw that she was looking to hire a Ph.D. student for her lab. Sienkiewicz interviewed with Gignoux-Wolfsohn, and after getting accepted to UMass Lowell, she officially joined the lab as a graduate research assistant.
“I would have gone to school anywhere, but I was very interested in Prof. Gignoux-Wolfsohn’s field of research,” Sienkiewicz says. “She’s an awesome advisor, and I’ve really enjoyed UMass Lowell.”
Through Gignoux-Wolfsohn’s lab, Sienkiewicz has traveled to Belize to study corals at the Smithsonian’s Carrie Bow Cay Marine Field Station.
“The trip was awesome,” says Sienkiewicz, who got her scientific diver certificate thanks to funding from the lab. “I’m so grateful that I get to do field research in the Caribbean.”
Sienkiewicz is assisting with research on stony coral tissue loss disease and coral bleaching. She is taking samples of the coral to analyze the differences between healthy corals and those that have experienced disease or bleaching.
Bleached corals, in which corals expel the algae living in their tissues, may be more susceptible to disease due to stress from abnormally hot water temperatures caused by climate change, an issue that Sienkiewicz is passionate about mitigating.
“That’s definitely my motivation for being in this field,” she says. “I want to apply my research findings to restoration and hopefully policy changes.”