It’s a little after midnight aboard the exploration vessel Nautilus as Taylorann Smith, ’18, posts on social media: “This for sure makes the Top 10 Coolest Things I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
What Smith is seeing, via a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) named Hercules, is a variety of scavenging creatures banqueting on the corpse of a baleen whale — including bone-eating Zombie worms that cover the carcass in feathery scarlet plumes.
“When a whale dies, its body can fall to the ocean floor, serving as a huge food source for a variety of marine animals,” Smith explained.
A few days earlier, Smith witnessed a shrimp and newborn octopus in claw-to-arm combat at 10,500 feet (spoiler alert: the baby escapes).
These are moments Smith dreamed of while studying biology at Ball State and couldn’t even imagine as a little girl. Growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs with her single mom and older sister, she recalls a loving home but also struggles that led to periods of poverty and homelessness.
Those experiences “made me a stronger person,” she said. “It amazed me how my mother was able to raise two girls on her own working minimum wage jobs and even help send us through college and on to get master’s degrees.”
Creativity combined with science
She remembers her first glimpse of the ocean as a child, watching a National Geographic special on TV. It stuck with her, and she began to wonder about a career in science. But when she decided to attend Ball State on recommendation of a friend’s parent and a campus visit, she couldn’t decide if she was really cut out to realize her dream.
“I was afraid that I wasn’t ‘smart’ enough to pursue a career in science, and that I should pursue my creative interests instead. I learned that science was my passion, even if I wasn’t a ‘genius,’ and that I could combine my creative interests with science.”
Key to that realization was Gary Dodson, now professor emeritus of biology, and his wife, Jill.
“They were there for me every step of the way. They encouraged me to continue with science and to keep pushing myself even when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Learning how to do research in a sophomore environmental microbiology lab was pivotal. So was being a teaching assistant for an entry-level biology course, where she encouraged students to use their creativity to think about science.
She also explored her creative side through lasting friendships made during her freshman year. Cast in one of those friend’s short film, Smith ended up winning Best Actress at the annual student Frog Baby Film Festival. She also wrote an award-winning essay her freshman year on the topic of biracial identity.
“Being biracial and queer,” Smith said, “only makes my work that much more impactful.” By her words and actions, she hopes to be an example for others who may not know that many different kinds of people can succeed in science.
From Ball State to the open sea
After college, she won a full scholarship to spend a semester at Duke University’s Marine Lab, where she conducted independent research on the effect of ocean acidification on ecological systems along the North Atlantic coast. She gave two presentations and wrote a paper on the topic.
This Fall, she began graduate studies at California State University, Northridge, known for its stellar marine biology program.
She took a sabbatical from her studies in October after being selected for a coveted internship aboard the Nautilus. The 64-meter (211-foot) research vessel is documenting and surveying unexplored regions of the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Among the ship’s tools are two ROVs, underwater robots that probe to 4,000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface to collect and record data. All dives are livestreamed on nautiluslive.org and saved on YouTube.
Her duties included recording scientific observations, documenting sample collections, and taking screen captures of significant sightings. “I also was responsible for processing the physical samples in the lab and summarizing the dives into reports for other scientists.
“This internship has been the best experience. I’ve met so many incredible and diverse scientists and have seen parts of the ocean very few have seen!”
This Fall, Smith was featured in National Geographic’s special “Women of Impact” issue that included her role model, Sylvia Earle. Smith met Earle when the renowned oceanographer visited Ball State in Spring 2018.
Looking back at her recent accomplishments, Smith feels blessed by an amazing network of love and support.
“I was born a dreamer, and throughout my life I’ve learned to understand just how brave dreamers are. Don’t silence your heart due to fear. Let it shout.”