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danielle su

PhD candidate, Physical Oceanographer, The University of Western Australia & Oceans Institute 

Research can be such a rabbit-hole journey, but what an exciting journey it can be! 

What do you do?

My research looks at how oceanic currents interact with islands to generate productivity hotspots in the Indian Ocean on seasonal and inter-annual timescales. To do this, I build numerical models and integrate them with field measurements from a range of instrumentation like moorings, Argo floats, tide gauges and satellite data. Most of my days are spent coding on the local supercomputer but every now and then, when the funding’s right, I get to go out to sea and help collect these measurements!

 

The Indian Ocean is such a special place since about a third of the world’s population lives around it yet it is the most poorly studied ocean basin. By understanding how the ocean state has changed in the past, these  models can give us an insight into the future. I hope my research will be able to support decision making policies in coastal management and fisheries to benefit the communities in this region.

Why did you choose this field?

My parents inspired a great love of nature in my brother and me. If we weren’t hiking or photographing wildlife, we were out at sea. One of my earliest memories was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef at 6 years old. I thought I was Flounder from the Little Mermaid! Later on, my Dad gave me a book on ‘The Discovery of the Titanic” by Robert Ballard and even though I was rather young to understand the details, the pictures in the book opened my eyes to this whole other world in the deep ocean.

There were other things I fell in love with during my childhood, like dinosaurs, geology (volcanoes!) and astronomy but it was always something that had to do with the natural world.

 

When I started university, learning about how the oceans were connected as a system made me choose to specialize in physical oceanography at the end of my Marine Science degree.

So I guess you could say that from wanting to become a fish, a deep-sea explorer or Indiana Jones, I finally found my way to becoming an oceanographer.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"I never thought I would finally find a community who still have that spirit of wonder in discovery."

Growing up, I felt rather isolated from my peers because of the things I liked to do – no one I knew except my family seemed particularly keen to come digging for critters along the intertidal or be impressed by my rock collection. I guess I never thought that I would finally find a community who could be so passionate about the earth sciences

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There’s a lot of good people doing science out there who simply want to make the world a better place, it’s been humbling to read about their work, to know them and work with them.

Why do you love working in STEM?

My favourite thing about working in STEM is that every day you’re working towards something that you may not have the answer for yet. You try different methods and look at the results to see if there’s a story in there. Sometimes you may not even have the skill sets to ask the questions you want to and that requires you learning something new as well. It can be frustrating at times but it also means that through your efforts, you have the satisfaction of knowing a little bit more than yesterday. Research can be such a rabbit-hole journey, but what an exciting journey it can be!

Best advice for the next generation

Don’t buy into the whole idea that boys are better at some subjects compared to girls. More importantly, don’t let one setback define you for the rest of your life. Math and physics were not my strongest subjects when I was in middle/high school and I always struggled. My wake-up call was when I asked a teacher how I could improve myself and he sighed and told me that even with the right attitude, I didn’t have the natural aptitude. That certainly fired me up because I refused to believe that one’s abilities were pre-destined! At the end of the day, you are the judge of your own abilities and only you will know how far you can push yourself.  

Fun fact

I am obsessed with lighthouses to the point that my parents and I used to do holiday road trips along the U.S east coast just to see lighthouses! I’m also a certified barista which is a handy skill to have considering the coffee intake of academics!