Spotlighting Postdoctoral Scholars at Scripps

Meet postdoctoral scholars and learn about their research and path to science

The National Postdoctoral Association recognizes Sept. 20-24 as Postdoctoral Scholar Appreciation Week—a time to recognize the significant contributions that postdoctoral scholars, also known as “postdocs,” contribute to U.S. research and discovery.  

At Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, postdoctoral scholars are critical to advancing research to understand and protect the planet. Postdoctoral scholarships are considered a temporary appointment, typically ranging from one to three years, to conduct research and receive additional training for an academic or research career. Often considered the next step on an academic pathway after completing a PhD, postdoctoral scholars continue research under the supervision of a mentor or as part of a larger research group. These positions are meant to prepare scholars to become a principal investigator or junior faculty member, and also take on responsibilities like mentoring, teaching, and grant writing. 

“Our postdocs at Scripps Oceanography bring critical expertise, national and international networks, and proven abilities to independently initiate, perform, communicate and publish science in its highest form," said Douglas Barlett, deputy director for research and associate vice chancellor for marine sciences at Scripps Oceanography. 

At Scripps, there are approximately 100 postdoctoral scholars in any given year, funded through a variety of means including institutional support, grants, awards and individual fellowships. The Scripps Institutional Postdoctoral Program is the primary institutional fellowship, offering funding for a broad range of research. The position is recruited annually, and the application for the 2022 award is currently open through Nov. 5, 2021. UC San Diego also offers the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Scholar Program, and at the UC level, the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program encourages outstanding women and minority PhD recipients to pursue academic careers at the University of California. 

To honor postdoctoral scholars at Scripps, we interviewed postdocs from a range of disciplines. Learn more about their research, paths to science, and advice for navigating the transition from PhD to postdoctoral scholar. 

 

Timothy Healy

Burton Lab

What are you researching at Scripps in your role as a postdoctoral scholar?

Timothy Burton

At its core, my research is about understanding how variation among groups of intertidal organisms is generated, and how currently observed variation can inform the potential responses of species to future environmental change. The intertidal zone is an ideal habitat for this work because of the huge amount of environmental variation in tidal regions, and the large latitudinal ranges of many intertidal species. Throughout the majority of my time in academia my work has been in the context of adaptive responses to differences in temperature; however, at Scripps I have been primarily studying how genetic and physiological differences among distinct populations of copepods lead to changes in fitness when previously isolated populations are allowed to interbreed. As current distributions of organisms continue to shift, the performance of hybrid individuals will be critical in determining species-level consequences of environmental change.

Why did you choose to come to Scripps for this research?

I came to Scripps for my postdoctoral research for many reasons, including Scripps’ reputation as a first-class research institution. That said, I think the main reason I came to Scripps was to join the Burton Lab, which was the best possible place to build on the skills I gained during my PhD, and to develop my ability to incorporate genetic experiments into my research. In honesty, it was very fortuitous that I was able to come to Scripps. Early in my PhD, I saw my current supervisor Ron Burton give a weekly seminar at my previous university. From the hypotheses to the approaches to the results, the presentation really captivated my attention, and I knew this was the kind of work I wanted to do as a postdoctoral scholar. By complete chance, right as I was looking for a new opportunity the Burton Lab advertised the perfect position. I applied, my supervisor took a chance, and the rest, as they say, is history.

How did you become interested in this field?

My interest in evolutionary physiology really comes down to three things: a childhood love of the natural world, an unexpected attraction to molecular biology, and a habit of interacting with the right inspirational people at key points throughout my education. In a nutshell, as soon as I discovered that molecular techniques could be used to answer questions about how animals can do all the amazing things they do, I was hooked.

What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab/office)?

I need to cheat a little here and give two most exciting things, because my job really involves two distinct roles: research and mentorship. The most fulfilling part of my work is without doubt assisting the students in the Burton Lab to learn how to do science, and watching their successes as they start off on their own paths through the research world. On the other hand, the most exciting thing about my research is delving into large genetic datasets to gain insights into the immense complexity that underlies traits that impact the performance and evolution of organisms.

Do you have any advice to share on how to navigate the transition from PhD to postdoctoral scholar? 

I think the best advice I could give to a starting postdoctoral scholar is to know what your goals are for your postdoc, commit to making those goals happen, and revisit your goals as you progress through your postdoc. Beyond that, work hard, enjoy the ride and make your research environment a better place for those around you as well.

What do you hope might be next in your professional career?

Ideally, I hope to land a permanent position that emphasizes research, teaching and mentorship in a location that works for my family. Exactly what that will look like? We will have to wait and see.

 

Liz Hetherington 

Choy Lab

What are you researching at Scripps in your role as a postdoctoral scholar?

Liz Hetherington

My research at Scripps focuses on food web ecology in pelagic ecosystems. My main interests are in understanding how energy moves through food webs via predator-prey interactions and how these interactions vary between habitats at different depths. My postdoctoral research is currently focused on the feeding ecology of siphonophores, a group of colonial animals that are related to ‘true’ jellyfish. They are fragile, gelatinous animals that are understudied components of food webs. Our work uses a combination of approaches like trawling, remotely operated vehicles, and blue water SCUBA diving to collect siphonophores. We then use biochemical tracer techniques like stable isotope analysis to examine their diets and roles in the food web. Gelatinous animals are often difficult to collect and have traditionally been considered ‘dead ends’ in food webs, meaning they are not consumed by many predators. Recent work, however, has begun to demonstrate that gelatinous animals play important ecological roles as predators, prey, and sequesters of carbon. Our work on siphonophores highlights the diverse energy flow pathways through gelatinous components of the food web

Why did you choose to come to Scripps for this research?

I specifically chose to come to Scripps to work with Dr. Anela Choy. I was fascinated by her innovative work on pelagic food webs and was broadly interested in the research themes of the Choy lab. Working with Dr. Choy allowed me both to expand my skillsets and apply the skills I developed during graduate school to new habitats and research questions. Scripps is also a distinguished institution, not only for research, but also for public engagement and outreach education. Before graduate school, I was a high school teacher and I remain interested in K-12 education and disseminating research beyond the scientific community. We are currently working on a project with Dr. Cheryl Peach, Scripps Educational Alliances, and the San Diego County Office of Education to build middle and high school curricula focused on deep ocean food webs. Scripps offers ample opportunities to pursue my different interests and a large network of potential collaborators.

How did you become interested in this field?

For as long as I can remember, I have been keenly interested in marine biology and ocean conservation. My research interests progressed as I worked on different projects and figured out which questions motivated me to pursue a career in science. As an undergraduate student, I became more specifically interested in ecology, marine food webs, and fisheries. During graduate school, some of my research focused on the feeding ecology of a threatened marine predator, the leatherback turtle. Through this work, it became evident that our knowledge about leatherback movements and diets is limited by the scarcity of information on their gelatinous prey. This coincided with large blooms of gelatinous animals (primarily pyrosomes) in the California Current, which further piqued my interest in the roles of gelatinous animals in open-ocean ecosystems. 

 What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab/office)?

Conducting fieldwork is always exciting because every research expedition is unique. With each operation, whether it’s a trawl or remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive, we don’t completely know the types of animals we’ll encounter. There are animals that we expect to see, but there are often surprises, too. As a postdoc, I’ve also had exciting opportunities to use ROVs to collect very fragile animals that are otherwise difficult to collect intact. More generally, there’s something special about being at sea on a research expedition. It allows you to be fully immersed in science, work cohesively as a team, and be somewhat disconnected from the typical chaos of life. There’s nothing quite like trawling all night and watching a beautiful sunrise over the ocean with your favorite colleagues!

What do you hope might be next in your professional career? 

While I’m not sure what the next phase of my career will bring, I hope to continue doing research that contributes to our understanding of pelagic ecosystems and the impact of humans on these ecosystems. I hope to have the opportunity to communicate science broadly beyond the research community, whether it’s formally through teaching or working for a government agency or NGO. Most importantly, I hope to continue working with enthusiastic, thoughtful people who motivate me to be a better scientist and human. 
 

Ellen Knappe

Hydrogeodesy Lab and Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes

What are you researching at Scripps in your role as a postdoctoral scholar?

Liz Hetherington

My postdoctoral research focuses on monitoring the motion of the earth’s surface due to hydrologic loading. The weight of water stored in snowpack, groundwater, soil water and other subsurface or surface reservoirs is enough to cause the surface of the earth to deflect downward, up to 4 centimeters seasonally in extreme examples. I utilize geodetic observations to monitor surface motion and calculate the amount of water that produces these motions. My work combines geodesy with hydrology in order to isolate signals in geodetic time series to quantify water storage at the earth’s surface at varying temporal and spatial scales. The eventual goal is to integrate these geodetic observations into existing hydrologic and watershed models and tools. 

Why did you choose to come to Scripps for this research?

During graduate school, I wanted to eventually work with Dr. Adrian Borsa, one of the researchers at the forefront of the field of hydrogeodesy. After meeting with him, we realized our research interests and thoughts on how to advance the field were aligned. Together with my graduate advisors, we wrote a large collaborative grant to continue work in hydrogeodesy. The grant was funded and I started a joint postdoc with Adrian at IGPP and with the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes.

How did you become interested in this field?

I’ve always been interested in the processes that shape and define the world around us. Geology and geophysics allow me to understand how the mountains I climb were built, how the rivers I fish snake through the landscape, and why the valleys I camp in look the way they do. I got into the field of hydrogeodesy because I was using geodetic observations to study how continents break apart and became interested in utilizing the datasets I was already familiar with in a new way. Also, as a native Californian, I’ve always realized the importance of water and this research allows me to contribute to better tracking and estimation of water storage. 

What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab/office)?

I’m lucky enough to spend a portion of my time out in the field. I’ve been able to travel to some amazing places and experience them in a completely different way than if I was there for fun alone. As part of my work, I’ve been able to visit Nepal days after the 2016 earthquake, fly around the state of Alaska via helicopter, and make Ethiopia and Kenya my home for multiple winters in a row. I love being in the field and seeing the places and the communities behind the data that I’m working with. 

Do you have any advice to share on how to navigate the transition from PhD to postdoctoral scholar? 

Try working with scientists outside your immediate field. I’ve learned so much working with hydrologists and atmospheric scientists and seeing my work from an outside perspective. It pushes you to consider new and different approaches and offers fresh insight.  

What do you hope might be next in your professional career?  

I hope my next position will allow me to continue to challenge myself. I love problem solving and learning new things, and hope that will always be part of my career. 

 

Jose Martinez-Claros

Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes 

What are you researching at Scripps in your role as a postdoctoral scholar?

Jose Martinez Claros

I'm currently working on improving the prediction and characterization of atmospheric rivers (AR) prior to their impact on the U.S. West Coast. My goal is to develop a conceptual model of AR origin and evolution that is able to accurately characterize ARs, taking into account the physical principles behind the average behavior of moisture in the tropics. 

Why did you choose to come to Scripps for this research?

The Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) is a rapidly growing research team within the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It is the best place in the U.S. to study atmospheric rivers, because of their impact on the water resources in California and many other places, and how that affects the lives of all inhabitants. In addition to the working environment and excellent reputation of Scripps, living and working in the beautiful city of San Diego is another great reason to come work for CW3E, even amidst a global pandemic. 

How did you become interested in this field?

By accident. My research work during my PhD journey, which was mainly focused on tropical meteorology, is seemingly unrelated to atmospheric rivers, which are known to affect regions far from the tropics, such as California. One of the case studies I was working on during my PhD years provided a unique opportunity to study the link between the tropics and the extratropics, manifested through the generation of an atmospheric river in tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Western Atlantic, observed during the NASA CPEX 2017 airborne research campaign. As I neared completion of my PhD, I wanted to continue this kind of research where I could expand my perspective and with the mentoring and funding support to do so. CW3E was the ideal place to achieve these personal research goals. 

What do you hope might be next in your professional career? 

I wish to continue my journey through academia, either as a full-time research scientist or as tenure-track faculty with both teaching and research work goals. I also hope to become a voice for underrepresented minorities, where I can motivate early-career scientists to follow their dream journey and work to make sure they have the resources and mentoring to stay on the path to achieve their goals. I also wish to use my knowledge and skills to bring awareness on how extreme weather events impact the lives of the most vulnerable first, and why this must be a priority in a world with a dramatically changing climate.

 

Yackar Mauzole

Marine Physical Laboratory 

What are you researching at Scripps in your role as a postdoctoral scholar?

Yackar Mauzole

I am currently working at the Marine Physical Laboratory, as part of the Monsoon Intra-Seasonal Oscillation in the Bay of Bengal (MISO-BOB) project. My research focuses mainly on fronts, filaments and eddies in the Bay of Bengal.

How did you become interested in this field?

The response here is twofold: First, having a background in fluid mechanics, I was originally interested in learning more about environmental fluid dynamics, and looked for an opportunity to get into either atmospheric sciences and/or oceanography. In the end, I did an internship in oceanography at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which sparked my interest in the field. I found that physical oceanography has the right balance between math and equations, and questions about the nature surrounding us. Also, there will never be a shortage of science questions to answer about the ocean!

Second, my interest in satellite oceanography comes from my PhD research. Again, I found in this research the sweet spot between working in physical oceanography and what I enjoy doing (as a dry oceanographer who doesn’t go to sea and works from my laptop), i.e., making beautiful images of the ocean from space, relying on large satellite datasets, and trying to explain oceanic processes from remote sensing observations.

What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab/office)?

I am now working on the Bay of Bengal, located in the Indian Ocean. This is a brand-new area of research for me, and there’s so much to learn! From the monsoons impacting the remote-sensed observations because of heavy cloud cover, to a reversing boundary current, to salinity dominating most surface oceanic processes there, it’s fascinating to see how much the region differs from my previous region of interest, the California Current System.

I love that in addition to sea-surface temperature (from my PhD) and altimetry (from my postdoc at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), I get to add another satellite ocean variable to my work, with sea-surface salinity now! I am also starting to work with in-situ data collected from research cruises, which I appreciate.

Do you have any advice to share on how to navigate the transition from PhD to postdoctoral scholar? 

Start early! The advice I had received was to start looking for a postdoc position within the last year of my PhD. In my case, it took close to a year from the first email I sent to my first postdoc advisor, to the moment I started my new position at Caltech/JPL. In between, I had applied to several positions, and didn’t get any success for several months. I’ll add that from where I stand now, I would strongly suggest PhD students to give seminars at the universities and institutions they would be interested in working at, towards the end of their PhD. This way, they can introduce themselves and their work to the community, and hopefully make lasting connections with potential advisors and collaborators. If possible, rely on your advisor’s and mentors’ network to get introduced to more senior people, and facilitate meeting scientists beyond Scripps. Do not hesitate to reach out to the alumni of Scripps, first to figure out if the institution they are at fits your future plans, but also hopefully to get better prepared to apply. Lastly, make sure you have an up-to-date CV and a personal page showing off your work, to refer interested people to.

What do you hope might be next in your professional career?

I hope to become a professor of oceanography one day; I enjoy teaching and doing research, and would love to contribute in educating and bringing up the next generation of oceanographers. While nothing is certain, and the competition is fierce for faculty positions, my aim is to become one of the few Black professors out there, especially to represent physical oceanography further in the community. The current lack of representation in our field is quite severe, and I aspire to become an advocate in earth sciences who will champion for others to have access to more opportunities and amplify the voices and contributions of everyone.
 

Brendan Reilly

Paleomagnetics Lab

What are you researching at Scripps in your role as a postdoctoral scholar?

Brendan Reilly

I am a marine geologist that studies stratigraphy, paleomagnetism, and paleoclimatology. I am particularly interested in how we can use sedimentary records of Earth’s magnetic field to better understand the climate evolution of polar regions on geologic timescales (hundreds to millions of years). Paleomagnetism is particularly useful for developing the chronology of sedimentary sequences, which in turn can be used to study the timing and pacing of the paleoclimate signals recorded in the same sediments. At Scripps, I am focused on studying a more than 300-meter-thick sedimentary section recovered near Antarctica that spans the last 3.3 million years—which includes an interval of time when Earth transitioned from relatively warm conditions to colder conditions. My goal is to develop a high-enough resolution chronology to be able to understand how the Antarctic Ice Sheet responded to changes in Earth’s orbital configuration during past warm conditions around 3 million years ago and during the intensification of the ice age cycles following 2.6 million years ago.

Why did you choose to come to Scripps for this research? 

Before coming to Scripps in late 2019, I sailed with Scripps Professor Lisa Tauxe to collect sediment cores on an International Ocean Discovery Program expedition to the Scotia Sea, near Antarctica. I was interested in using paleomagnetic methods to study the chronology of these sediments and what that chronology tells us about Antarctic Ice Sheet and Southern Ocean dynamics over the past few million years. Lisa and the Scripps Paleomagnetic group have a long history of studying both how sediments record past variations of Earth’s Magnetic Field and how high latitude sediment cores can be used to study past ice sheet dynamics. So, Scripps was a natural fit to come and pursue my research interests and broaden my perspectives on the field of paleomagnetism.

How did you become interested in this field?

I became interested in marine geology later than many people I work with realize. As an undergraduate I studied business management with a minor in environmental studies; however, following graduation and during my time with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, I realized how fascinated I was by the natural world and decided I wanted a career in the earth sciences. After my AmeriCorps service was over, I started taking earth science classes, which eventually turned into me pursuing an MS degree in geosciences studying sediment cores. During that time, I had the opportunity to join a six-week oceanographic expedition to Antarctica. I loved that experience and was really inspired by the other scientists I met while at sea. I then decided that I wanted to get a PhD so I could continue going to sea and continue studying the seafloor’s record of Earth history. 

What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab/office)? 

I have had the opportunity to explore and learn about some of Earth’s most remote and beautiful places through field work, from ‘Iceberg Alley’ offshore Antarctica to the fjords and glacial valleys of Northern Greenland. These adventures can be quite exciting, including huge storms while at sea, close encounters with wildlife, and recovering new sediment cores from unexplored parts of the ocean. Moreover, during these adventures I’ve had the opportunity to work with incredible teams of people who I have learned a ton from and am constantly inspired by. Our planet amazes me, and I am always excited to learn more about it.

Do you have any advice to share on how to navigate the transition from PhD to postdoctoral scholar? 

The postdoc can be a great time in your career. Just prior, I think it is common for people to be exhausted from their PhDs. You’ve just spent the last five years working on the same problems, asking millions of questions, and learning all the skills you need on the way. The postdoc is a chance to work on something totally new with a new team. But this time you are starting from a stronger foundation and with a better sense of what questions to ask. For me, it was a time that I started to feel much more energized about my science. My only advice is to be open to new experiences even if you are feeling burnt out from graduate school. Look for opportunities that challenge you, but also build on the scientist you’ve become during your PhD.

What do you hope might be next in your professional career?  

I hope to continue studying records of Earth’s geomagnetic and climate histories and to develop field programs to learn more about our planet and train the next generation of marine geologists. In the immediate future, I’ll be focused on two projects that were recently funded by the National Science Foundation. One is to continue studying Antarctic sedimentary records that span 3.3 to 1.7 million years ago. The other is to sail along the west coast of Greenland to recover materials that we can use to study the retreat dynamics of four different marine terminating outlets of the Greenland Ice Sheet at the end of the last ice age (~24-11 thousand years ago).


For more information on postdoctoral scholars and resources available to them, visit the postdoctoral scholar pages for UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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