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Where engineering meets artistry
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Profile, Women in Research

Where engineering meets artistry

A day in the life of a marine ecosystem modeler

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA scientists from across the country are taking readers inside what a typical day in their life looks like. Today's story comes from Jessica Luo, a biological oceanographer at NOAA's the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL).

This is what they never tell you in school — that scientific research is fundamentally the discovery of the unknown, and that the winding path to discovery is inevitably filled with dead-ends and potholes. At times, it feels like there is more failure than success in our day-to-day work. In our jobs as research scientists, the ability to manage, communicate, and learn from failure is essential. The path to success involves the development of personal grit, effective collaborations, and an ability to effectively communicate your work, both to the scientific community and to society. 

I am a biological oceanographer at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL). My work focuses on marine ecosystems and plankton — the microscopic plants and animals that make up the base of the ocean food chain — and I use computer models to study how these systems interact with the broader Earth system, and how these interactions may change in the future. I earned my Ph.D. in 2015 from the University of Miami, completed a postdoctoral fellowship, and started my current position last year. 

My scientific career started with field-based observations. During graduate school, I studied plankton using imaging systems that were towed behind large research ships. I developed a fascination with zooplankton, their wide-ranging diversity, and how they are impacted by their physical environment. As my research progressed, I became interested in broader-scale questions such as the role of zooplankton in the marine carbon cycle, and how the efficiency of the marine food chain may change with climate change. These questions led me to the world of computer models, namely ocean biogeochemical models and Earth System Models. 

A collage of different types of zooplankton. Credit: Cedric Guigand, University of Miami.

Computer models are effective scientific tools when you are asking a question of a complex, interconnected system where individual relationships can be represented by a series of mathematical equations. Compared to doing field-based research, I’ve found that developing models has a strong design component to it. Developers start with the backbone of the model (what we definitely know to be true), add and test new connections (what we think may be true, or is sometimes true), and repeat until it is stable and behaves well under different conditions. In some ways, you’re an engineer, and in others, an artist, as there is nothing more beautiful than an elegant model. Using these models, we then run experiments to test hypotheses about the structure and function of marine ecosystems. 

Throughout my educational training, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do in my future career. This causes lots of anxiety for people, and I was certainly no exception. To which I say: don’t obsess over “finding your passion” — that’s generally bad advice. Just try things to see if you like them, as discovering what you don’t like is also enlightening, and prioritize developing your own skills along the way. 

There is probably no skill more important to the day-to-day life and long-term success of a scientist than writing. Sometimes my day-to-day life resembles more a professional novelist than a traditional laboratory scientist. In college, one of my hardest classes was an environmental policy class where we had to write three 15-20 page research papers in the span of 9 weeks, and at the end of it, I thought, wow — I don’t think I can go into policy because of the writing load. Guess what? Being a research scientist is also all about writing. But the good news is that effective writing is a skill, and skills can be improved with practice. (I’m still improving!)

Besides the standard writing of research papers, proposals, and reports, communication skills are key for collaborating with other scientists. Science is never done in a vacuum — I rely on a peer network to share difficulties, ideas, and results from our work. Contrary to popular stereotype, science is fundamentally a social enterprise, and maintaining a good network of trusted friends and collaborators, while contributing to the pulse of science within the community, is an essential part of what I do on a daily basis. This occurs through attending conferences and seminars, participating in the peer review process, and attending small team research meetings.

At its best, a research career is highly rewarding. You get to learn new things about the world that no one else knew before. Be flexible and open-minded, and don’t let fear of failure stop you from trying things. And ultimately, try to find something at the intersection of what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, and what society needs — that’s what led me to my current role at NOAA.

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    Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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