Emma O’Donnell becomes Bermuda’s latest Rhodes Scholar
An ecology student who completed an ambitious thesis with flying colours has been named Bermuda’s latest Rhodes Scholar.
Emma O’Donnell, 22, a Princeton University graduate, was given the two-year scholarship to study environmental sustainability at Oxford University.
Ms O’Donnell said that she found out during a video call around midnight while she was working in London.
She said: “My sister happened to be visiting me during her college break and we were headed off to bed when I got the call.”
Ms O’Donnell added: My first reaction was shock and a little confusion. I couldn’t believe it.
“I was glad my sister was there to share the news in person.
“I also called my parents to tell them and they were so excited and proud.”
Ms O’Donnell, who works as a reinsurance climate change strategy trainee with Aon, did her thesis on recording fish species that lived in coral reefs around Bermuda by testing the waters for their DNA.
She explained that most censuses involved video surveys where a camera with bait was submerged and various species of fish were noted.
But Ms O’Donnell added that this process was very time-consuming and did not always result in accurate data.
She said that, while DNA testing was faster and more accurate, it was a complicated method that undergraduate students such as herself did not learn.
Ms O’Donnell added: “That’s why it was so challenging for me as an undergrad student — I kind of had to learn how to do this entirely new form of analysis.”
Ms O’Donnell said that, despite the challenge, she felt confident in her ability to carry out her research because of her previous work experience.
She explained that she had worked at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences since she was in high school and was familiar with analysing and filtering water samples.
Ms O’Donnell admitted that the pandemic had delayed the movement of her research from Bermuda to her school in New Jersey.
She added: “It made things a lot trickier to have to do everything remotely.
“You couldn’t just walk into a room and have a conversation with someone and say, ‘Okay, can we work through this?’
“I also couldn’t fly back and forth to Bermuda, so it made things very challenging.
“It was just a big learning curve about the need to be flexible, how to control the things that can be controlled to the best of your abilities and how to work around the things that are not so that you have the best outcome possible.”
Ms O’Donnell said that she felt “very comfortable and confident” when she presented her thesis.
She added that she was “ecstatic“ when she learnt that she had won both the Rhodes scholarship and Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology’s prize for the best thesis in ecology.
Ms O’Donnell said that she hoped to work in sustainability within corporate sectors.