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Alumni Portrait: Molly Grear '11 Th'12

Feb 18, 2019   |   by Kristen Senz

Engineer and Marine Researcher

Molly Grear '11 Th'12 in Westport, Washington

Molly Grear's research into the risks marine mammals face from emergining tidal energy technology recently secured her a place on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of young energy professionals to watch.

Bridging biology and engineering, Grear, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, studies the structural mechanics of whale skin and blubber, looking specifically at how it would hold up against the blades of various energy turbines. At her lab in remote Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, Grear conducts experiments on samples of flesh from orcas and other marine mammals. She then uses the tools of quantitative analysis to understand the results.

“I am really lucky to be both a computer modeler and a laboratory scientist,” says Grear, 28.

Her dual focus on renewable energy and saving whales from harm has generated public interest in her work – something she takes seriously as part of her obligation as a scientist.

“It’s really important to me to be a scientist that’s facing forward and working hard to communicate my research, to engage the public,” she says.

Grear found out early on, however, that not all audiences respond well to the photographs of bloody whale skin that she initially included in her presentation slides. Challenged by her academic adviser to find another way to illustrate her work, she started drawing her own illustrations to show her findings. She and a friend also have begun work on a comic book about tidal energy.

“Art was always something that I dabbled with, and it lets me tap into that creative side and keep things balanced,” she says. “For me, drawing around my research is a really good outlet.”

Grear employs her artistic side to illustrate her research

Grear, who teaches engineering classes at UW, enjoys sharing her illustrations with her students and talking with them about the importance of communication skills for scientists. Like many engineers, Grear says, she didn’t pay much attention to honing her writing skills as an undergrad. But nowadays she’s actively working to improve her style and voice through free writing – a daily, stream-of-consciousness exercise that keeps the words flowing.

“A lot of science is writing,” says Grear. “Between grant proposals, abstracts for conferences, writing up results, I spend about a third of my time writing. As I’m getting more into engineering education, I’m encouraging a lot of writing, and trying to describe why it’s important and how best to communicate your ideas.”

The daughter of two physicians, Grear was interested in mechanics and biology from a young age. On the outskirts of Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she grew up, Grear’s father used to mow tracks into the fields by their house. She and her friends would ride their modified go-carts around the field in the hot sun. “Those are some of my best memories growing up,” she recalls. “My dad was definitely a tinkerer. He built us all sorts of stuff.”

Grear also enjoyed retreating with a good book. Throughout her childhood, she read just about anything she could get her hands on. And she was inspired by her mother, who worked hard throughout Grear’s teenage years to build her own business – a radiology clinic for women.

When it came time for college, Grear had no desire to specialize.

“I didn’t really want to decide between the hard sciences, and I felt I could still go to grad school in science,” she says. “I came to Dartmouth mostly because I wanted to try something new and be somewhere different… The broad engineering degree at Thayer kept the most doors open.”

At Dartmouth, she came close to finishing minors in studio art and biology. She was active in the Dartmouth Outing Club, where she met her now-husband, Ben Hughey ’12. But her study abroad experience is what set her on her current course. She and a group of other students visited eight different ecosystems in Costa Rica and Little Cayman and worked on several research projects over the course of the trip.

“You really got the chance to cross-pollinate and look at problems in a different way,” she says. “I feel like most of my research chops and ability to ask questions about a place and a system were developed during that program. It was a good foundational experience for me.”

Grear leads a workshop for middle school students visiting the UW labs as part of a field trip.
She uses a turbine made with a 3D printer to demonstrate how electricity can be generated by the flume.

She decided to pursue a job at a national lab after graduation, and her project for Thayer’s advanced ENGS 89/90 course helped her land one. She and her team developed a diffuser-augmented hydrokinetic turbine – a way to make energy from moving water. The project was in line with ongoing research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Seattle. In 2012, Grear joined PNNL as a research assistant and has continued to work there on various marine science projects throughout her doctoral studies.

Grear expects to receive her doctoral degree in June and says she isn’t sure what will come next. She hopes to continue doing research, she says, and imagines a career in academia. For now, though, there’s still an ocean of possibilities before her.

“When I look five years in the future,” she says, “I see myself as a professor, combining research and teaching, but for now, I really want to be open to different opportunities.”