University of Washington
Study physics and don’t be afraid of math; they look scary only because nobody had the chance to show you how much fun they can be. You do not need to be an expert, but you need to understand the basics to be able to understand nature.
- B.S., Physics, Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia
- M.S., Oceanography, University of California at San Diego
- Ph.D., Oceanography, University of California at San Diego
What is your current job and what does it entail?
I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. I do independent research inside a laboratory supervised by a principal scientist. My main job requirement is designing, implementing and performing laboratory experiments, writing down the results and publishing them. A very important part of my work is to write research proposals to get money from funding agencies so we can buy equipment, support our institution, and pay salaries. I also review papers from other laboratories to help them get accepted in science journals and make sure they are a good fit to publish in that journal. I am constantly learning new experimental techniques and attending talks by other scientists to learn about new results and new ideas in my area of study. Collaboration and communication with other scientists is very important: I often exchange e-mails with scientists in different parts of the world, and train students or collaborating scientists in the use of equipment in our laboratory. Although I am currently working on pain receptors (nociceptors) of mammals, I still use the skills I learned at Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying the electric receptors (electroreceptors) of sharks. As a graduate student in Oceanography, I studied the behavioral and physiological mechanisms used by sharks and rays to detect biologically relevant electric signals in the ocean. That effort required behavioral experiments with sharks and rays in the ocean and in seawater tanks inside the laboratory. My graduate student job also involved some computer programming and data analysis, the measurement and generation of electric fields in sea water, and electrophysiological nerve recordings from live thornback rays. The main part of my graduation dissertation was electrophysiological measurements of nerve's responses. Science entails long hours and almost non-stop caring about your research, but at the same time is never boring. Every day is different, with new challenges and small scientific breakthroughs. Graduate school requires a great deal of tolerance to frustration, but it is also fun; at school you can feed your curiosity and a fascination for life, physics and the ocean in the company of like-minded friends.
What was the key factor in your career decision?
I chose science when I was a kid because I loved museums and science shows. I decided to study physics because I think it gives you a good mental structure to work in sciences (incidentally, physics was the subject in which I received better grades in high school). I studied oceanography because the scientific work that I wanted to do with sharks and rays was possible in an oceanographic institution and because I love to live near the ocean. The sea has been a happy place for me since I learned how to deal with strong waves at age 10.
What do like most about your career?
I love learning something new every day. I feel freedom and passion when I work, even when it is a preparation task for an experiment. All these are small steps that build up towards the big moments when you see something unique, when you can explain something that nobody understood before, even when you find even more unanswered questions.
What do you like least about your career?
Expending a lot of time looking for funding so you can do research.
What do you do to relax?
I used to read books, watch TV, and do small projects at home. Now that I have a kid I go for walks and to the park more often. I do a lot less reading and I don't watch TV anymore.
Who are your heroes/heroines?
There is a wonderful childhood TV character called "El Chapulin Colorado," or the red cricket in English. The actor Chespirito enacted this fictional hero who was always coming to the rescue when somebody asked for help. His motto was: "nobler than a lettuce, stronger than a mouse." His shield was a painted heart, and his weapons a squeaky hammer, sensing antenna, and miniaturizing pills. He helped people -- risking his own life despite his own cowardice -- against all odds of success. He was funny, and somehow I identified with el chapulin when I was a teenager. Two of my science heroes are Carl Sagan, whose TV series "Cosmos" gave me a first taste of science and gave wings to my imagination, and Yakov Perelman, a Russian author of "Physics For Entertainment" (physics can be fun) and other science divulgation books that made me understand, enjoy and love physics before I learned any calculus or trigonometry.
What advice would you give a student who expressed an interest in pursuing a career in your field?
Study physics and don't be afraid of math; they look scary only because nobody had the chance to show you how much fun they can be. You do not need to be an expert, but you need to understand the basics to be able to understand nature. Pay attention in your biology classes. Open your eyes to what is around you. Volunteer for a few weeks in a laboratory or doing field work; see if you like doing what an oceanographer does every day.
Are career opportunities in your field increasing or decreasing and why?
Career opportunities are increasing in number, but decreasing in variety. Funding for basic research is decreasing, especially if you want to understand a system without obvious immediate application, and academic positions are difficult to get. Nevertheless, a degree in oceanography (marine geology, marine biology, and marine chemistry) would be well rewarded in the marine energy or drug industries, or in the conservation and coastal-management field. A sensory biophysicist certainly has a good set of skills useful for drug, bio-tech and robotics companies.
What will you be doing 10 years from today?
Good question. I can't predict the future, but I would love to continue to be involved in scientific work, making science more accessible for bigger audiences and enjoying my life with my little family.