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Joe O'Callaghan

Dr Joe O’Callaghan is a Coastal Physicist at NIWA.

Getting ready to deploy Manaia – one of the new underwater gliders, from RV Ikat

What do you do on an average work day?
Work days vary quite a bit from week to week. As a physical oceanographer I spend a few months each year out in the field collecting observations of New Zealand oceans. Sometimes this is for several weeks aboard the RV Tangaroa (a 70 metre research vessel) and other times it's smaller coastal vessels which are day trips. Earlier this year I spent two weeks in Doubtful Sound, which is an amazing natural laboratory. It’s great to get out of the office to see and sample the ocean!

Just over a year ago I started working with underwater robots – these gliders collect ocean observations remotely and send it back to me at my computer in Wellington. Here's an interview I did last year with Radio NZ National about the gliders.  Ocean gliders have revolutionised the way ocean observations are made - they can collect data at higher spatial and temporal resolutions that traditionally collected by research vessels, and at a fraction of the cost.

When I am in the office, I spend time trying to understand what all the observations I've collected mean. I do this by testing whether the observations match theories about ocean dynamics. Sometimes this happens, but since many processes interact its usually more complicated than a single theory. It's unpicking these puzzles that I really enjoy.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
I studied Maths and Physics. I completed a BSc at Flinders University in Adelaide, and Honours degree at James Cook University where I got to spend 6 weeks doing field work in New Caledonia and I did my PhD in Perth.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
In the end, yes! But it took me a few years of trying different courses at polytech and university to figure out what enthused and motivated me. When I was doing various courses I tried to think about whether I could the work for a long time and when the answer was no I kept trying until I found something that suited me.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Having a passion for the ocean certainly makes it easier to get through some of the less appealing parts of my work, especially the seasickness! So I would say do something you love or are passionate about as it keeps you going through any tough stuff that may come along.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
Without a doubt a career highlight is starting New Zealand's ocean glider facility. Having underwater gliders roaming the shelf seas is a major step forward for New Zealand ocean science. These autonomous robots will help unlock the dynamics between physics and biology in New Zealand Shelf Seas. It has been a steep learning curve for me but it's exciting to work towards a goal for many years. We started out spending a lot of time trying to justify funding, and now we have several gliders operating in New Zealand. We even have more gliders planned in future!

Other highlights are:

  • Leading two voyages to the West Coast of the South Island. The planning, preparation and execution of a scientific idea is very rewarding. I also feel lucky that I got to see the panorama of the Southern Alps with Mt Cook poking out from the sea, something not many people get to experience.
  • Being a founding member of the Wellington Early Career Researcher (WECR) network. Although I had secured a research position I wanted to improve the success of other early career scientists. It’s pleasing that four years since it’s inception, and against the odds, WECR still exists. This is definitely a testament to the need and value of the early career network.

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
It’s taken me some time to have the confidence and skills to know that my ideas are valid and bringing about significant progress to ocean science in New Zealand. I would like to short-cut this path for other girls and women in science. I feel I can do this best by being one of the many awesome women who are being role models in STEM! A science literate, diverse society is necessary ingredients for fostering innovative citizens.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
There are many articles written about the benefits of diversity in science. The words that have resonated most with me are that ‘sameness leads to stagnation’. A diverse range of ideas and opinions are necessary for progress in science.

Dr Joe O’Callaghan is a Coastal Physicist at NIWA. Follow her on Twitter: @JoeMOCallaghan

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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