From Belgium to the Great Barrier Reef: EAPS Student Brynna Downey models water flow at the Université Catholique de Louvain
Brynna Downey '17 exploring graphs of water flow in the Great Barrier Reef during her internship at UCL.

Exploring one branch of EAPS study allowed Downey to determine which steps to take next in her academic career

Even though she spent the summer miles away from the Great Barrier Reef, MIT-Belgium student Brynna Downey couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was, after all, studying its water flow under the tutelage of Eric Deleersnijder at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. “The overall scientific goal was to see how, where, and when water and fine sediment flow into the Great Barrier Reef,” Downey explains. As an Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences major, Downey is well aware how “fragile” this area is, and how “sediment has greatly increased with human activity inland.” Downey put her knowledge of Matlab and Python to work as she created very simplified models of water flow, using only a few factors to encourage movement, such as the principles of flux and wind. The simplicity of her model was in stark contrast to that of her supervisor, which took five days to run. “[I]t is in the interest of numerical modeling to see whether things can be simplified greatly […] and still get similar results,” she adds.

Making connections and defining paths

This work tied directly into her EAPS course of study at MIT. “Fluid flow […] is a topic directly studied in the EAPS department,” Downey says. At the time of her internship, she was wavering between two different branches within her course. She felt strongly supported by her internship supervisor at UCL, and appreciated the freedom she had in conducting the project. In addition, she had never done a UROP or specific research involving fluid dynamics, and found it reassuring that she was able to meet consistently with her supervisor and advising professor. Despite initial uncertainty that the method would yield positive results, Downey reports gladly that the project was successful. Beyond the project’s results, she also left her internship with a greater sense of what interests her academically. She has pursued coding and similar projects with greater confidence because of the skills she developed at UCL.

Growing professionally and personally

Not only did the internship provide growth on an academic level, but it also guided Downey toward a greater understanding of herself. She initially found it challenging to connect with her co-workers; her interactions with them felt limited in scope. As the summer wore on and Downey’s social circle expanded, however, she found friends who were “easy to talk with and [who] had a more global view.” She found it refreshing to speak with colleagues from Belgium and France who had traveled a significant amount, some even to the United States. Downey reports that through these interactions, her perspective shifted. She recognized that “the broader your perspective is and the more things you’ve seen, the easier it will be to understand others and connect with them in as simple a way as having a lunchtime conversation.” 

Spending the summer doing research in Belgium helped me to shine light on my scientific future because I saw numerical modelling as a whole other way to work with Earth sciences other than just learning more facts.

  • Belgium
  • Internship
  • EAPS