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

When I was little I thought I was going to be an artist. I did a lot of drawing. Up until about the 8th grade, I thought I was going to be an artist.

How did you become interested in science?

I came from a science-oriented family. My father had studied physics. My mother only went to high school, but she said math and chemistry were her favorite subjects. So I thought hmmmm. In 8th grade, I had a science class that actually looked kind of interesting.

Anyway, I started getting into science. I was always good at math, and somewhere I realized that there was a connection between math and science, which was not obvious before 8th grade. I started thinking that I might do science although I still had a strong attachment to being an artist.

I think about that time Maria Goeppert-Myer won the Nobel Prize in physics. She was the second woman to win it. My sister and I read the story about her and decided that we were going to win the Nobel Prize together in physics.

Describe your experience at college.

When I went to college, I had decided that I was going to major in physics. I wanted to go to a school that was good in physics. I asked around, and the University of California at Berkeley was the best.

I studied physics and it was great. Then the Vietnam War protests began. I started going to those and kept hearing about how bad science was, how science was helping the war effort. I started wondering, should I really be a scientist. I don't want to contribute to the development of weapons. Then there was the question of whether physicists were personally guilty about the Vietnam War and World War II. Oh dear, it got very complicated. I got more active in the Vietnam War protests at school, and I ended up getting kicked out of school over protests. I was very disillusioned with physics thinking that I was part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I was out of school for a while. During that time, the women's movement had become very strong, and one of the things that women were talking about was getting women involved in trades. So a friend of mine and I learned to fix cars. I did that for a living for a while. I did that for about five years. I worked on foreign cars and rebuilt engines and brakes and transmissions. Then I got involved in the California State apprenticeship program in auto mechanics and I got within three months of my Journeyman's papers when the energy crisis of 1973 got into full swing and I got laid off my job.

How did you get back on the science track?

At that point I had to decide whether to continue as an auto mechanic or go back to school. I was kind of scared because I had been out for more than five years and I just wasn't sure that I could do it. Berkeley had a reentry program at the women's center, so I went back there and saw women who had been out of the job market for 20 years going back to school. They had raised their kids and their husband had had a heart attack and they were going back to school and back to work. And I thought my five or six years was kind of silly. I decided maybe I would go back in environmental science. I wanted to make sure that I got involved in the part of science that wasn't making weapons. I would do good environmental things.

I went back in engineering. I had a really good advisor who suggested the applied math approach and suggested that I should minor in something, so I minored in fluid mechanics. After I was done my advisor said I really ought to go to graduate school. I said "Awe I really don't want to go to school. I want to work." He said "You'd be bored." I said "Yeah maybe." So I went to work as an environmental engineer and I was bored.

I went back to my advisor, and he said "I'm going back to Australia, but why don't you go to Scripps Institution of Oceanography. You'd like that." So I packed my stuff and went to San Diego.

What did you do after graduate school?

After graduate school, I got a postdoctoral scholar position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At this point, I had married one of my classmates, and he also got a position there.

Woods Hole is a very interesting place, but it is a pretty high-pressure place. You are hired there and you have multiple reviews. It's up or out. Either you get promoted or you lose your job. We had one of these reviews coming up every couple of years. It was a pretty difficult time. I think in general the system there is pretty high pressure, but with two people, it's almost overwhelming.

We were there for a total of 13 years. On the very last promotion, the final one, my husband didn't make it. He didn't have a job, and there is nothing else to do in Woods Hole. So we thought we would check Seattle out.

What is the most surprising thing about your job?

When I first pictured myself going into oceanography, I really pictured myself going to sea. And that was the picture I had and the picture most people had. But when I started, I got started working with satellite data and I worked on a computer. I liked it! People would tease me about not going out to sea, but I really enjoyed working with those data.

The less pleasant aspects of the job were not expected either. I pictured having a job as working for someone. I knew I didn't want to do that, so I got a Ph.D. so I could work for myself. But having to raise all of your money. It's really hard. It's still hard.

The positive side of that is that you get to decide what you are going to do. I was explaining that to my son, who's 11, how I decide what I want to do. He is just really impressed about how I decide what to do instead of having somebody tell me what to do. And that's the good side. But then I say I have to get somebody to pay for it. That's a lot harder.

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

Having gone through the women's movement in the '60s and the '70s, it seemed like a lot of things changed for the better for women. I think that is really true. I think things have gotten a lot better. And certainly in graduate school, it did seem like things were better. That overt level of hostility towards women was pretty much gone.

But the more subtle stuff is still there. I had some experiences where people in my department were really not open minded at all about my research. It was always hard to tell whether it was because I was a woman or whether it was my field of research.

Talking to a lot of women about the promotion process, I've found that some very strange things do happen to women. There were times when I asked myself what am I going to do about the unfair situation. Am I going to quit? Is it going to help anything? Then I felt no, if I actually go through the process and succeed, then it will probably be easier for the next woman who has to go through. And I think from the little information I have about women who have gone through some of these career processes after me, it has been easier for them.

Another challenge that women face is of course trying to combine family and career. But my husband pretty much faces the same thing as I do. We share. I have two children, and we share raising those children and taking care of them.

But certainly day-to-day when you are trying to do everything, it can be a real challenge. When anybody asks me whether they can be a scientist and have kids, it's not for the faint-hearted. It can be done, but nobody ever said it was going to be easy. But women that I know who have done both think it is worth it.

What continues to inspire you about your job?

The really exciting part about this job is that I just don't get tired of it. I think it is because there is always something else to learn. You always hear about people getting bored with their jobs. There are parts of my job that I get tired of doing. The bureaucratic side. But the science side is always fun.

I get ideas from the data. I get inspired. I get new thoughts. New ways to think about things from sitting down at my computer and looking at these observations and seeing things that I hadn't seen before.

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

In thinking about what career you want to do, the important thing is to know what you like to do. I figured out that I really like to apply math to science problems. That really doesn't pin down the job exactly, but it really makes it so you have some way to select. When I chose physical oceanography, it was the area in which there was a lot of mathematics, a lot of physical intuition, and that was exactly what I liked to do. That was a really good match for me.

Oceanography is lots of different things. Different kinds of day-to-day job things. A lot of people would really like to go out to sea and make those measurements. They really relate to the ocean by going out there in a ship. If you like to do that, that's great. But it would just be a good idea to look closely at someone who does that job. Think about what it would be like to do that every day, whether that is the kind of thing that you do when you have spare time, or what you like at school.

Kathryn Kelly

  • Principal Oceanographer, Applied Physics Laboratory
  • Professor (Affiliate), School of Oceanography University of Washington

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