Aitana is a Physical Oceanographer who translates the science behind marine weather forecasts for general users in her role as a Technical Support Liaison at MetOcean Solutions in Raglan.
What do you do on an average work day?
I do a little bit of everything, from interacting with clients to helping designing new features. Some days I spend half of the day on the phone, helping users of our weather forecast platform (MetOceanView) to get the information they need. For example, talking to the harbour master of a port because they are about to receive a vessel and they need to know what the weather is going to be: are the waves going to be so big that the vessel will not be able to enter the port?
I spend some time thinking about what are the needs of the people who work at sea in terms of weather information: if the way we show the weather information is clear enough or if there is a better way to do it. And how to translate very complicated numbers into useful information to help them make decisions that will, for example, make port operations safer.
I still do a little bit of coding related to data analysis and management, I really enjoy those days that I can ‘play’ with numbers!
I also spend some time planning the logistics for oceanographic voyages. For example, for the next Antarctic voyage in February: what are we going to study, which questions do we want to answer, and where do we deploy the equipment to get the best data to answer those questions?
And although my role now it is not directly related to research, I try every day to do a bit of my own research to keep myself up to date and because it’s fun!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
My first years of high school (in Spain) I studied social sciences, history, philosophy, Latin, Spanish (grammar and literature) a little bit of maths and sports (I have been always very keen on sports). But before I entered my last year before University I realized that those papers would close some university options (the way it was organized in Spain at the time meant that you needed some ‘pure science’ papers in the year previous to university to be able to study any science undergraduate courses).
So, in my last year I studied all the ‘pure science’ subjects: maths, geology, chemistry, physics and technical drawing (plus Spanish and history and philosophy; those were compulsory).
After high school I did two years of Biology at university and then I graduated in Teaching because I wanted to be a Sports Teacher. After a few years of working - and sailing as a hobby - I decided I wanted to go back to University to learn more about the ocean. I did a degree in Marine Science, and then a Masters in Oceanography and then a PhD in Physical Oceanography. Yes, I've spent almost half of my life studying…but I love it!
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Actually, yes. Understanding the science behind the marine weather forecasts we provide (waves, wind and currents, for example) helps me in my work every day. Although I don’t actually do the numerical modelling that provide the forecasts, I know how the models work and that helps me communicate to the end user, making the information available and useful for them to make decisions.
I use my science background to talk to the numerical modellers in the company and the developers and make sure that their wisdom gets to our clients. In the same way, I can make sure that the user experience is translated into the scientist’s language!
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
There are no limits!!
It doesn’t matter if you don’t really know what you want to do exactly - just feed your curiosity! Ask questions, read books, experiment, try different things, work hard. Maybe join a maths course, or learn how to code, or join a volunteer program to work with turtles!
Science is beautiful and it has infinite paths, and surely there is one for each young woman that wants to follow it.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
There are lots! My first one would be going to Antarctica back in 2013, which is why I came to New Zealand to do my PhD. Also, last year I had the opportunity to lead my own project to the Southern Ocean: we spent three weeks on board the Tangaroa, it was fantastic!
Being invited to talk about gender inequality in Science on a WikiBomb event I participated in last year. We spent a year building Wikipedia profiles of women scientists in Antarctica, then we launched the profiles at the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) conference in Kuala Lumpur last year, it was a great experience! Learning about all these women was very inspiring. The best thing is that I’m sure there are many more to come!
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Science is a universal language. It is the language used to talk about universal concerns like climate change or the health of our oceans. To be able to participate and contribute to the global debate we need to get better at that language - and it doesn’t have to be only through the higher levels of research.
We can get better at that universal language through encouraging citizens to be interested in science, concerned about how it is being used, to question it and to think deeply about it. And that itself is a great success that can be achieved through any way, whether it is through working in the field, studying or just educating one’s self around different issues.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Diversity is important. If you only allow one part of the population to participate in science then you have a biased view. That means that you only have one side of the spectrum, and that you potentially will only listen to people that think like you.
Without diversity, not only are you not learning new things through sharing, you are also blocking opportunities for developing new ideas.
By exchanging ways to look at things and adopting different methods to think about and solve problems, you start thinking outside of the box, enriching the answers, growing as a scientist (and as a person) and probably coming up with a better solution faster.
Aitana is a Physical Oceanographer working as a Technical Support Liaison at MetOcean Solutions, an Operational Oceanography company in Raglan. She translates the science behind marine weather forecasts for general users. Follow Aitana on Twitter: @AitanaForcen
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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