Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Scripps Celebrates the Class of 2021

See where some of our graduates are headed next

The pandemic upended the traditional academic experience over the past year, but the Class of 2021 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego persevered through many challenges, often finding creative ways to carry on their research and studies.

Whether attending virtual classes, conducting socially distanced fieldwork and lab research, or defending dissertations via Zoom, Scripps Oceanography students proved themselves to be adaptable and innovative. Now these graduates will enter the workforce using their education and expertise for the benefit of society and the environment. These bright minds will tackle issues spanning the realms of climate science, marine biology, earth sciences, science policy, conservation, and more.

The Class of 2021 includes 26 PhDs, 17 MS graduates, and 30 MAS recipients from Scripps. We checked in with a selection of these impressive grads to see what’s in store next.


Susheel Adusumilli, PhD Earth Sciences

A man in a hard hat works on a boat

While a PhD student in the geophysics program, Susheel Adusumilli studied ice-ocean interactions around Antarctica with Professor Helen Amanda Fricker and the Scripps Polar Center. He used satellite data, computer models of the ocean and atmosphere, and field observations to understand how Antarctica's floating ice shelves are changing and influencing ongoing global sea-level rise. Adusumilli’s research on this topic was published in Nature Geoscience in 2020, which earned him the Edward A. Frieman Prize for Excellence in Graduate Student Research in 2021. This award bestowed by Scripps was established in memory of Edward A. Frieman, the eighth director of Scripps.

“It means a lot to me, especially considering all the amazing research being done by all the graduate students at Scripps right now,” Adusumilli said of receiving the Frieman Prize. “It is also really gratifying that cryospheric science is rated so highly by both the earth science and Scripps communities.”

In the near future, Adusumilli will continue on at Scripps as a postdoctoral researcher, working on sea-level impacts on coastal communities with the Scripps Polar Center and the Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. Then he’ll move to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University for another postdoctoral position next year.


Benjamin Birner, PhD Earth Sciences

Portrait of a smiling man with blue eyes and short brown hair

During his PhD program, Benjamin Birner studied climate sciences and geochemistry under the mentorship of Professor Ralph Keeling. In his dissertation, Birner explored several different applications in which noble gases served as indicators of natural and human-made changes in Earth's climate. He focused on detecting an atmospheric build-up of helium caused by human usage of fossil fuels. To be able to make this measurement, Birner developed a novel analysis system for atmospheric air samples and used it to analyze precious old air that had been archived at Scripps. This work earned Birner a 2021 Chancellor’s Dissertation Medal, one of several prestigious awards distributed annually by UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla and the Graduate Student Association to recognize outstanding doctoral research.

“One of the most important metrics of academic success is recognition by your peers and other academics,” said Birner. “Receiving the Chancellor's Medal is a great honor and encourages me to continue to push the envelope of our knowledge and seek new discoveries. It's a wonderful recognition of the many years of work that went into creating my dissertation and shows me that my work has meaning not only to me but also to others and society as a whole.”

Birner is now carrying on his research at Scripps, working as a postdoctoral scholar with Keeling to optimize and automate some of the atmospheric measurements he made during his PhD program.


Lindsay Bonito, MS Marine Biology

A woman at the top of a mountain

Lindsay Bonito studied marine biology as a master’s student, with a focus on marine policy. Using the federal exempted fishing permit program as a case study, Bonito studied how one component of adaptive management was working to enhance fisheries management across the U.S.

She is currently the Marine Protected Area (MPA) program manager with the Ocean Protection Council (OPC), a position she started while finishing her master’s degree. Her work at OPC supports the MPA Management Program by working alongside state and federal agencies, coastal communities, and tribal governments to identify, coordinate, and fund the best available science for management decisions.


A smiling man on a ladder

Michael Fong, PhD Oceanography

While at Scripps, Michael Fong studied marine chemistry and geochemistry under Professor Andrew Dickson. Fong’s PhD research looked at factors that affect the quality of seawater pH measurements and the implications for the ability of marine scientists to use pH data to study ocean carbon chemistry.

Next up, Fong will start a postdoctoral research fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the fall, where he will work on a project to characterize the properties of a reference material for the most widely used pH indicator dye for seawater pH measurements.


Karen Gutierrez, MS Earth Sciences

A woman with brown hair sits near a succulent garden

After finishing her undergraduate degree at Scripps, Karen Gutierrez stayed on to complete a graduate degree in earth sciences. For her master's project, which was advised by Professor Chris Charles, Gutierrez looked at oxygen isotope data from coral fossils to better understand tropical Pacific conditions during the time of the coral's growth.

Gutierrez was accepted to the California Sea Grant State Fellowship cohort for 2021-2022. She was matched with a position at the Delta Science Program, a division of the Delta Stewardship Council. This state agency is tasked with managing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with the coequal goals of providing a reliable statewide water supply while maintaining a healthy Delta ecosystem. Gutierrez is hosted by the Science Communications, Synthesis, and Decision Support unit. She is providing support and helping to create different science communication products.


Laura Lilly, PhD Oceanography

A woman on a ladder points to a wooden beam where she signed her name

Laura Lilly studied biological oceanography at Scripps, completing her degree in March 2021. Working with advisor Mark Ohman, Lilly focused her PhD research on the impacts of variability in El Niño event expressions on the zooplankton community in the Southern California Current System, as a way to understand the broader forcing mechanisms that influence different zooplankton sectors.

Currently, Lilly has a postdoctoral fellowship with the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center lab in Newport, Ore., and Oregon State University (OSU). At NOAA and OSU, she is continuing to study zooplankton community responses to different oceanographic drivers, though her work is now focused on the Northern California Current. She is particularly interested in studying zooplankton changes that can help inform fisheries stock assessments and prediction models.

Lilly was also awarded a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2022 to study the oceanographic drivers of pyrosome blooms off Eastern Australia. This project aims to understand the ocean habitat conditions and mechanisms that induce pyrosome blooms off Australia and in the California Current System, and how these blooms impact other parts of the zooplankton community and higher trophic levels.


Timothy Moffit, MAS Climate Science and Policy

A man smiles while standing outside near a pier at sunset

After serving in the U.S. Navy for four years on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, Timothy Moffit separated in order to pursue higher education, a path that led him to Scripps’ Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) Program in Climate Science and Policy (CSP). Moffit said the MAS program helped him better assess climate change-related issues and strategize policy recommendations and outcomes. His capstone research focuses on the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, specifically wind energy.

Next up, Moffit is headed to the Washington, D.C. area to work as a Program Support Specialist for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Moffit will have many administrative responsibilities such as drafting charts and graphs, tracking program initiatives and renewable energy metrics, and serving as a file custodian.

“Much of the work in this office is around wind energy, so my research at Scripps is definitely preparing me for the position,” said Moffit. “I'm excited to continue learning and growing within this field!”


Arturo Ramírez-Valdez, PhD Marine Biology

Portrait of a man in a suit with his arms crossed across  his chest. He is standing near a pier at the beach.

As a Scripps PhD student, Arturo Ramírez-Valdez worked with Professor Octavio Aburto to study how political borders impact our understanding of marine resources, affect management goals, and undervalue conservation efforts. Specifically, he analyzed how species and ecosystems shared by the U.S. and Mexico are managed across the border, the ecosystem services they offer, the economy they represent for both countries, and the challenges of sustainable management.

Currently, Ramírez-Valdez is working as a staff researcher in the Aburto Lab at Scripps, where he is developing transboundary research in the kelp forest ecosystem that connects not only biological communities, but also researchers and stakeholders across the Californias. This research will generate a new understanding of the ecosystem services of kelp forests in the United States and Mexico. Starting in August, Ramírez-Valdez will alternate his tasks at Scripps with teaching undergraduate courses at the University of Baja California at Ensenada. There, he will work as a lecturer in the Marine Sciences School, teaching applied ichthyology and biogeography courses. Additionally, he plans to continue working on research that addresses cross-border impacts on natural resources.


Angela Szesciorka, PhD Oceanography

A woman in a jacket sits on the edge of a research vessel

Angela Szesciorka just completed a PhD in the biological oceanography program at Scripps, where she was co-advised by Professor Lisa Ballance (formerly at NOAA's SWFSC and now at OSU) and Professor Peter Franks. Her dissertation explored long-term changes to the migration timing of blue whales and the complex interactions between ships and whales to understand ship-strike risk.

Next, Szesciorka is heading to Oregon State University to work as a postdoctoral researcher. She’ll be studying bowhead whales in the Arctic with scientist Kate Stafford.


Maxine Tan, PhD Marine Biology

A smiling woman with shoulder-length brown hair and glasses

While a Scripps PhD student, Maxine Tan worked in Professor Andrew Allen’s lab, where she studied nitrogen metabolism in diatoms. Upon graduation, Tan plans to stay in San Diego to work at Synthetic Genomics. There, she’ll be working on algal biofuel strain development and advancement along with assessing the environmental impact of outdoor cultivation of algal biofuel strains.


About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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