Kyra Han Kyul Kim, Beach Chemist

Kyra Kim is at the beach again, but her Ph.D. advisor won’t mind.

Kim’s research is among the first to explore the biochemistry of the wet sand zone on beaches. This area was thought to be rather unreactive because there’s not much organic matter there. She collects sand and pore water samples along a line perpendicular to shore from land to ocean and at different depths to study the spatial and temporal dynamics of chemical reactions in this zone.

“Freshwater flows under the sand toward the ocean,” says Kim, a DENIN Environmental Fellow. “As saltwater comes up the beach it mixes with freshwater and adds oxygen and reactive organic carbon.”

This carbon from seawater is important for jumpstarting chemical reactions, which can help decrease the amount of land-derived compounds flowing to oceans.

Nitrate is a chief concern. It’s a common fertilizer and a byproduct of poultry waste. Sussex County, Delaware, ranks first in the U.S. in broiler chicken production.[1]Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants, but too much of it can cause algal blooms. Kim is studying how nitrate is processed in the wet sand zone depending on the tide and seasonal cycles.

She’s also looking at future scenarios of sea level rise. For example, how would the chemical reactions change if we expand beaches to make them wider?

Kim loves that she has to be so versatile to successfully do this work. “In the field we’re taking groundwater and sediment samples, so I have to be physically fit. I have to be a problem solver, because equipment inevitably breaks. In the lab, while I’m doing the analysis I have to be agile and efficient with my time and movements because the samples have to be analyzed or stored properly as soon as possible. I have to do the data analysis and prepare publications, so I have to be a statistician and a good communicator and writer.”

Kim took a convoluted path to this field. She originally wanted to study environmental law or human rights law. She attended a private boarding school for high school in South Korea, where she concentrated in English so she could attend college in the U.S. Because the U.S. doesn’t offer undergraduate law degrees, an attorney she was working with recommended a science degree instead.

Kim ended up at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in geology, because it was tops in the field. She became involved in undergraduate research there and really enjoyed the work. She was studying the paleoclimate—looking at the past to see what climate change might bring. She learned all kinds of skills essential to her work now and that convinced her to pursue science as a career.

At UT-Austin, she saw a talk by her current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Holly Michael, about her work on naturally occurring arsenic, a carcinogen, in groundwater in Bangladesh. The social justice aspect of this work sparked Kim’s interest. “Water is an inherently social subject,” she says, because everyone should have access to clean water.

Kim hopes to graduate in May 2019, and is applying for academic jobs throughout the world.

Even before aspiring to a career in law, Kim thought she’d pursue a career in art or music—she’s a classically trained pianist—but perhaps fate stepped in. She broke a finger right before a big audition, and found herself thinking, ok, what else am I good at? Kim still plays piano and sings for small events and church services, but finds it difficult to fit in the practice time required.

She’s recently taken up metalsmithing and gemology to complement her interests in geology and mineralogy. She’s been making some jewelry, and is taking online courses to become certified as a pearl specialist. She may take classes to become a bench jeweler or a gemologist. “Maybe that’ll be my retirement plan,” she says.

by Joy Drohan, Eco-Write, LLC

Photo: Kyra Kim prepares a vibracore motor to take sediment samples at Cape Shores Beach, Lewes, DE. Photo by Erin Field