Interview

What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

I was born in New York City. When I was about five or six, we moved to Seattle, and that's where I grew up. I was an adventuresome kid. I used to get in trouble doing all sorts of funny things. I was into sports and did a lot of athletics. I don't think I even started reading until I was in third grade. I guess I just wasn't into it. I have no artistic skills whatsoever. I can't play any musical instruments. Even though I am Hispanic, I can't speak Spanish.

I was an only child until I was twelve and my mom remarried. Then I got three brothers and a sister, and I was in heaven. I was such a tomboy, and my brothers and I just played all of the time. We had epic water gun fights. Epic! My mother hated it. The whole house would be sopped. We'd open the windows and bring the hose inside. Every once in a while, my mom would give up and join in.

How did you become interested in science?
I was just good at it. You kind of gravitate to the things that you are good at. I always just had a knack for being able to do math. I always wanted to know how things worked. I always took things apart. I could never quite put things back together again, but I was never hesitant to take something apart, much to my mom's dismay.
How did you actually decide that you wanted to become a scientist?

I never had any intentions of becoming a scientist. I didn't say that I was going to grow up and be a scientist. You just kind of fall into things.

I was in college at the University of Washington and I was good in chemistry. So I was just doing chemistry. Then in my second year, I took an introductory oceanography course, and I liked it. I had a very good teacher, Dr. Carpenter. I was doing pretty well, so he passed my name to a woman named Della Rogers. Della Rogers was the undergraduate advisor in oceanography, and Dr. Carpenter said he thought I should go talk to her.

"Oh. Okay. Yes sir!"

So I went to talk to Della, and she says, "I hear you are doing really well in your oceanography course. We have some researchers here who would really like to have an undergraduate or two to work in their lab. I know you play soccer, but I really would like to see you get a job as an undergrad in the lab. It would be interesting."

"Okay. Sure. Why not?"

She was such a remarkable woman. She was amazing. She talked to me and got me a position in a lab. She paid attention to me. She kept asking how I liked it. And I did. I liked it. I was working in the lab for Jim Murray. I was doing all of these applied things. Things that made sense to me. You are not just working in a lab with chemicals trying to find an esoteric thing that you can't explain to your grandmother. With oceanography you can tell people what you are doing. It made sense, and it seemed like I could make a difference.

So all of a sudden I had my degree in oceanography. Great! So what do you do with an undergraduate degree in oceanography? There are all kinds of things. But Della being Della said, "Well, you should think of going to graduate school in oceanography." She got me to apply to a summer program at Woods Hole. I got in and worked with Ken Buesseler, who down the line become my advisor. I liked oceanography, and I really liked Ken, so I applied to Woods Hole and the University of Washington. The University of Washington said we love you, but you really need to go somewhere else to broaden your horizons. They were right. I ended up at Woods Hole and went on from there. But it wasn't planned.

How did you end up at the University of South Carolina?

When I graduated from Woods Hole, I got this really great position at the University of Hawaii. It was a non tenure-track faculty position, but they gave me several years of hard money so that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I could write my own research grant. They gave me an office. I could go work with people. I also got a NOAA postdoctoral fellowship in climate and global change, and that really helped out. There are all these great fellowships out there, you just have to know about them.

So I was there for three years doing a lot of great research, and I started looking for a real job where I could get a tenure track position. It turned out that all of these universities in the south had positions opening up. So I ended up at South Carolina and have been here for eight months. And I love it.

What challenges have you faced in your career as a woman?

I've been lucky. I've had great advisors and great people surrounding me my entire career. That's not to say I haven't known other people who have not been so lucky. I've never felt that because I was a woman, things were stacked against me.

The only time I've ever been nervous and felt that things were going to be difficult because I was a woman was when I got married and decided that I wanted to start a family. When I was in Hawaii, I decided that I just had to go for it and hope it all worked out. So I got pregnant, and now I have a wonderful two-year-old son named Noah.

I must admit I was one of those who was saying, "Alright, I'm going to work right up until I am ready to give birth. Then we are going to go to work together, and he is going to hang out, and I'm going to work, and it's going to be great!" I don't know what I was thinking! I did work all the way up. I was lucky. My pregnancy was easy. But I'll be honest with you. Mentally, my brain started to go about two months before I was due. I just couldn't focus. I've always been someone who has always been able to focus extremely well, has always been able to get things done, so that was very hard for me. It took me two or three months after Noah was born to get my brain back.

Then there was that first year after Noah was born. It's hard. It's hard to come back to work and get things going. You want to breast feed and all of these things. It was awkward. Carrying around my breast pump to ocean sciences meetings. "Excuse me, I have to excuse myself for an hour." All of these things and I didn't have anybody to help me with them. There wasn't anybody who could say, "Don't worry. I've done it. It will get better." So that was hard.

But people were very helpful, I would bring Noah in. No one had a problem. It was a good community. I was very lucky with that. Nobody said, there's another career that's toast. Now that she's had a baby, forget it.

Then there was a time when I got the job in Hawaii and my husband, who has a masters in oceanography, had also gotten a job with them. They were walking us around through the campus introducing us to people. And so many people introduced themselves to my husband instead of to me because they thought he was going to be the new assistant researcher in oceanography. Fortunately the person who was introducing us around caught on pretty quickly.

And I remember standing too close to the ocean sciences booth and people asking me for coffee or to make Xeroxes.

"What!?"

Or having a secretary yell at me for something because she thought I was another secretary from another department.

"I'm sorry. I really don't know what you are talking about."

What continues to inspire you about your job?

I think what inspires me is just figuring things out. Just going out there and trying to understand what's going on. And coming in everyday and thinking, "Hmm, nobody's answered that question. I guess I better work on it." Just going out and trying to figure it out, and having enough self-confidence to say, "I really think it is this. Oops, my bad. It wasn't that. Maybe it's this."

And you know what I really love is interacting with graduate students, undergraduates, and high school students. I love having them in my lab and asking all sorts of questions about everything. They ask you just the oddest questions that I should know the answer to, but I don't. I can't even begin to tell you about the questions that they ask that really make me think about what I do. It brings me back. What am I doing? What is important? I just love it.

What do you do when you are not working on oceanography?

Oceanography takes a big chunk of my time. I try not to be a workaholic, but I tend to be. I love playing with my son. We go out and do all sorts of things. I still play soccer. I'm out of shape, but I still play and have a great time.

All of a sudden I own a house. So I work on the house. I rewired the upstairs bathroom. It was very exciting. Skills that you pick up in oceanography that you just wouldn't think would be useful for anything. So if oceanography doesn't work out, I'll go become a contractor and make lots of money!

Do you have any advice for people considering a career in oceanography?

I could give the standard advice that you should be strong in science, you should take as many math and science courses as you can. But I think that if you are really interested in oceanography, you should just go for it. If you think this is something that you would really like to do, do it. Go and try it. If you don't like it, you don't have to stay. I think that is the thing that people forget. I guarantee that you will find someone out there who does something that you are interested in and will be happy to take you or to guide you or give you some advice. There are always people out there who aren't so nice. That is true of any profession. But oceanographers in general tend to be a really nice group. So if this is something you want to do, you should send an e-mail. Call them up. Just say hey, I'm interested in doing it. I think you will be surprised at how nice a response and how detailed a response you get.

Claudia Benitez-Nelson

  • Assistant Professor, Chemical Oceanography
  • University of South Carolina

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