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Antonietta Capotondi
Katie Valentine

Antonietta Capotondi

Dr. Antonietta Capotondi is a physical oceanographer at the NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado. She is interested in the influence of the ocean on climate variability and change. One of her major areas of research is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), including its dynamics, diversity, predictability and possible change due to anthropogenic forcing.

Dr. Capotondi is also interested in understanding the climate impact on oceanic physical quantities that are critical for marine ecosystems, such as sea surface temperature, oceanic vertical stratification and upwelling. She explores sources of predictability for ocean conditions in very productive regions, like the California Current System, with particular emphasis on extreme marine conditions, such as marine heatwaves. 

What drew you to your current career or field? 

I became a physical oceanographer and climate scientist somewhat by chance. After receiving a degree in physics from the University of Pisa, Italy, I worked for a few years at an Italian engineering company that designed marine structures for oil exploitation. My work consisted of performing marine environmental studies in support of engineering applications. That experience exposed me to the field of physical oceanography and made me realize that I really liked it. I also realized that performing studies that could be used for specific applications was very gratifying.

However, I also understood that a corporate environment was not the best fit for my curious and inquisitive personality. These realizations motivated me to leave the company and pursue a PhD in physical oceanography in the MIT/Woods Hole Joint Program. 

What projects or research are you working on now? 

At the moment my research is focused on understanding the processes responsible for warm conditions along the west coast of the U.S., and in identifying the primary sources of predictability for these conditions. For instance, El Niño events in the tropical Pacific are usually implicated as drivers of U.S. West Coast warming. However, not all El Niño events have a significant impact in that region, while the extreme warm conditions along the coast that occurred during 2014 were associated with only a weak El Niño. Using a statistical methodology, I have identified more skillful oceanic predictors of U.S. West Coast warming than ENSO itself, and I’m planning to explore possibilities of predicting marine heatwaves along the west coast of North America at seasonal timescales. 

What do you enjoy most about your work? 

The aspects of my work that I find most exciting are the possibility of always learning, the challenge of solving problems, and the opportunities to collaborate with other scientists. 

What does success mean to you? 

For me, success is a measure of my ability to advance understanding of a physical problem and obtain results that can be useful to others. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career/field, or in general, and how have you overcome them?

As a very self-critical and perfectionist person, the first challenge was to learn how to become more assertive of my views and skills in the very competitive scientific environment. This was a challenge that I have slowly overcome by relying on my enthusiasm for doing research and by convincing myself that being “imperfect” was ok. The second big challenge, which many women face, was achieving a balance between motherhood and work. As a mother and a scientist, it is easy to feel inadequate in both areas. However, having children has forced me to use my time more efficiently, and appreciate any time I could spend doing research. It has certainly expanded my potential to grow both personally and professionally. 

What do you hope to accomplish in the future? What do you hope the future for women in science looks like?

This is a very crucial time for climate science. I hope to contribute to a better understanding of our changing climate, its regional manifestations and ways to predict and mitigate disastrous climate conditions. I’m involved in several national and international organizations. I would like to continue these activities in the future to foster increased collaboration and partnership among diverse communities. Some of the scientific problems that climate science is facing are highly interdisciplinary. I believe that women are especially suited for being open to different views, and for participating in a dialogue involving different scientific disciplines. So I hope that the role of women in this capacity is recognized and encouraged as the world is facing increasing challenges. 

Looking back, what would you tell yourself when you were 12 years old? Or what advice would you give to a woman just starting out in her career?

I would tell myself, as well as any young woman at the beginning of her career: “Do not be afraid to make mistakes." As women, we always try to do things perfectly. While striving for perfection is in itself a positive attitude, it can also become a paralyzing and limiting one, especially when trying to find answers to complex problems that may not have clear and definite ones in a highly competitive environment. Accepting imperfection and the possibility of making mistakes is a necessary and liberating attitude that can promote scientific and personal growth. 
 

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