Cheers to Scripps Oceanography’s Class of 2023

An impressive group of graduates reflect on their experience at UC San Diego and discuss what’s next

This June, more than 200 students at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography officially graduated from their respective degree programs. During their time at Scripps Oceanography, this resilient group of students navigated uncharted waters, completing research and studies while adapting to the challenges posed by the pandemic. 

Now, these graduates are among the latest cohort of movers and shakers with degrees representing their expertise in earth, ocean, and atmospheric science, climate science, science policy, marine biodiversity and conservation, and more. 

The Scripps campus was buzzing with excitement on June 16, when graduates and their loved ones gathered for recognition ceremonies on Pawka Green. Scripps alumna Angelica Rodriguez (BS ‘13, MS ‘14, PhD ‘19), an oceanographic research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, delivered an inspiring speech at the Scripps Undergraduate Recognition Ceremony. She encouraged students to pursue their passions and actively engage with their communities.

At the Scripps Graduate Recognition Ceremony, another esteemed alum, Larry Mayer (PhD '79), chair of the U.S. National Committee for the Ocean Decade and director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, shared valuable insights. Appointed by President Obama as a member of the Arctic Research Commission in 2016, Mayer emphasized the important role of graduate students in understanding our ocean systems.

The pomp and circumstance continued the following day at UC San Diego’s All Campus Commencement. John A. Pérez, speaker emeritus of the California State Assembly and a regent of the University of California, served as keynote speaker at the June 17 event.

Among Scripps Oceanography’s latest graduates are 16 PhDs, 31 Master of Science graduates, 43 Master of Advanced Studies recipients, 116 undergraduate degree recipients, and likely several more graduates who will complete their degrees later this year. We checked in with several graduates from the Class of 2023 to learn about their experience at Scripps and find out where they are headed next.

Pooja Balaji, MS Marine Biology

A person under a pier

Pooja Balaji recently obtained a master of science (MS) degree in marine biology, with a focus area on marine mammals. Balaji’s research examined the temporal and spatial variability of spotted dolphin group sizes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

Balaji’s “absolute favorite” memory from their time at Scripps occurred early on – likely during their second or third week in San Diego. “I took myself on an aquarium date and then treated myself to coffee at Pinpoint Cafe; I just couldn’t believe I was finally there.”

After wrapping up their master’s program, Balaji headed to Sacramento for a role with the California Sea Grant State Fellowship Program. As a 2023 fellow, Balaji is now working with the Delta Stewardship Council - Delta Science Program Science Communication, Synthesis and Decision Support Unit, where their role is mainly focused on science communication work within the Delta and assisting the program’s lead scientist.


Shelby Cossey, BS Marine Biology

A graduate in front of a library

While an undergraduate student in the marine biology program, Shelby Cossey spent much of her time working with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program as an intern with the Dolphin Cognition Lab. She credits Scripps with helping her connect to the Dolphin Cognition Lab, and said that internship experience helped get her “foot in the door” for working as an animal trainer for marine mammals. Cossey finished her bachelor’s degree in the winter quarter, and in March 2023 got a job working for the National Marine Mammal Foundation as a marine mammal care and training associate. 

Reflecting on her undergraduate experience, Cossey said, “I most enjoyed the community I found through Scripps; meeting people with a shared passion and love for marine life has been unmatched. From those I have met in my different classes at Scripps to those I met through my time at the Dolphin Cognition Lab internship, I could not be more thankful for such a great community.”


Ariel Pezner, PhD Oceanography

Portrait of a smiling woman

Ariel Pezner studied coral reef biogeochemistry and ocean deoxygenation as a biological oceanography student, working alongside Scripps advisor Andreas Andersson in the Scripps Coastal and Open Ocean BiogeochemistrY Research (SCOOBY) lab.

“My favorite memories of my time at Scripps came from my fieldwork trips with the SCOOBY Lab team and our collaborators in Taiwan and Japan,” said Pezner. “It was a privilege to see and work on such beautiful reefs and I learned so much from our experiences there.”

In March 2023, Pezner’s research highlighting oxygen loss on coral reefs around the globe under ocean warming was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study captures the current state of hypoxia—or low oxygen levels—at 32 different sites, and reveals that hypoxia is already pervasive on many reefs. This paper earned Pezner the 28th annual Edward A. Frieman Director’s Prize for Graduate Student Research, a Scripps-given award that was established in 1996 to honor the eighth director of Scripps on his 70th birthday. Pezner was also among the 2023 recipients of the UC San Diego Chancellor’s Dissertation Medal, which recognizes outstanding doctoral research.

Currently, Pezner is working as a Smithsonian/LINK Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Flo., where she uses experimental aquaria to examine the impacts of multiple stressors—warming, acidification, and deoxygenation—on Caribbean coral physiology.

Robert “Bobby” Sanchez, PhD Oceanography

A smiling man in a red jacket

While a PhD student in the physical oceanography program, Bobby Sanchez researched the circulation of glacial fjords in Greenland, working alongside Professor Fiamma Straneo at the Scripps Polar Center. They used a combination of observations and models to investigate how fjord circulation modifies ocean heat reaching glaciers and the export of ice sheet meltwater. “These systems are important to understand because melting glaciers contribute to sea-level rise and the additional freshwater can potentially disrupt ocean circulation,” said Sanchez.

Two experiences stand out as the most memorable for Sanchez during his time as Scripps: participating in fieldwork in the North Atlantic with his whole research group during the summer of 2022, and going to Perth, Australia for a conference followed by “the fastest cross-country road trip!”

Sanchez has stayed on at Scripps to work as a postdoctoral scholar with Professor Sarah Giddings at the Center for Coastal Studies. They are using models to investigate the impact of ocean forcing on the circulation of estuaries, encompassing a wide range of estuary parameters.

Emily Stephens, MAS Climate Science and Policy

Portrait of a smiling woman

Emily Stephens recently completed the Master of Advanced Studies program in Climate Science and Policy (MAS CSP) at Scripps, where she studied the intersection of science, communication, and policy creation and implementation. For her capstone project, she completed an economic valuation of resiliency planning, with an emphasis on nature-based solutions to sea-level rise in the City of Imperial Beach.

Next up, Stephens is headed to Santa Monica where she will work as a senior associate for Gladstein Neandross and Associates, a clean transportation and energy consulting firm. In this role, she will manage projects and assist in advancing the clean transportation and energy industry.

Stephens said she felt “lucky” to be part of the 2022-23 MAS CSP cohort, noting, “I most enjoyed the people who I was fortunate enough to spend this past year with. My fellow cohort members and I spent every moment together laughing, learning, becoming close friends, and making many wonderful memories.”

Manuel Othon Gutierrez Villanueva, PhD Oceanography

A man in a red jacket and beanie at sea

Manuel Othon Gutierrez Villanueva completed his PhD studies in the physical oceanography program in September 2022. Working alongside advisors Teresa K. Chereskin and Janet Sprintall,  Villanueva’s research used math and physics to understand how the ocean around Antarctica works and how it responds to changes in the wind due to increasing greenhouse emissions from an observational standpoint.

He is continuing on at Scripps as a postdoctoral scholar, and has been working with oceanographers Sarah Gille, Matthew Mazloff, and Bruce Cornuelle to understand how ocean submesoscale processes interact with large-scale ocean currents and vortices in the California Current System. Villanueva said it’s important to understand submesoscale processes because they play a significant role in regulating physical and biogeochemical environments in the ocean.

Following the postdoc role, Villanueva said, “I want to continue my career as a researcher or professor at a research-academic institution or university, or in climate change policy where I can apply my knowledge of climate variability and data analysis to tackle climate change in our local communities.”

Picking some of his highlights from his time at Scripps, Villanueva said, “It has been a privilege to do research at one of the best oceanographic institutions worldwide and being able to take breaks and go surfing, freediving, or walking along the beach right in front of the school.” He also enjoyed doing fieldwork, especially in March 2018 when he participated in a 68-day oceanographic cruise in Antarctica where he maintained, collected, and quality-controlled ocean data critical to understanding changes in the ocean around the Antarctic due to human-induced changes.

Eric Walton, MAS Marine Biodiversity and Conservation

A smiling man in a blue jacket and baseball cap

As a student in the Master of Advanced Studies program in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (MAS MBC), Eric Walton focused his research on identifying market solutions to food inequity with an emphasis on sustainable seafood and seafood accessibility.

Next up, Walton is set to join Pew Charitable Trusts as the senior associate of international fisheries and markets. At Pew, his role will involve building international seafood market engagement to support the implementation of sustainable fisheries policies and strategies by Pew's International Fisheries Project team.

Walton most enjoyed engaging with his peers at Scripps, who brought “a wealth of knowledge and expertise unique to them.” Noted Walton, “Scripps seems to have a habit of attracting brilliant, passionate, and empathetic students that are all eager to learn and change the world for the better, and getting to know the students here was absolutely the highlight of my time at this institution.”

Yao Yu, PhD Earth Sciences

A smiling grad student holds her dog

While a PhD student in the geophysics program, Yao Yu worked with professors David Sandwell and Sarah Gille on using satellite altimetry to study the small scale ocean dynamics. She will continue on at UC San Diego as a postdoctoral researcher, and in the fall of 2023 will start the Eric and Wendy Schmidt AI in Science Postdoctoral Fellowship, a program of Schmidt Futures. Her postdoctoral research will focus on the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, a satellite mission to make the first global survey of Earth's sea surface height.

“The SWOT mission will bring revolutionary, high-resolution wide-swath sea surface height data over the global water,” said Yu. “I will also work with people in the computer science department to apply machine learning to science.”

While she has many fond memories of her time at Scripps, Yu has most enjoyed the ocean views, her office on campus, and fun experiences in the lab.

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