Molly James

PhD student, Department of Marine Sciences at University of Connecticut

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Surround yourself with positive influences, positive role models, who can help you on your path to finding what you love about STEM. Go for it!

What do you do?

I study the physics of the ocean, which means I'm interested in phenomena like tides, currents, and climate change. I am focused on the coastal ocean, so very near-shore processes of the ocean that affect beaches, wetlands, and coastal communities. My research currently involves understanding the dynamics of tidal flooding in salt marshes. These ecosystems not only provide ample habitat for migratory birds and nurseries for fish, but also salt marshes protect the coast from storm damage. We are still discovering how.

Why did you choose this field?

In college, I was torn between majoring in biology and physics. Physics won because of an incredible female professor I had for one of the hardest physics classes I every took. She convinced me that I was capable and actually really good at physics. She made me feel that if she can do physics, I can do physics.

I wanted to try my hands at scientific research, so I applied to work in one of my professors lab for a summer. I worked with ultrafast lasers to study the thermal and acoustical properties of nanoscale thin films that are used in semiconductors and electronics. Although I really enjoyed conducting research, I wasn't passionate about the topic. I then started asking myself what physical dynamics, processes, phenomena really pique my interest?

I entered oceanography after reflecting on my high school summers when I went canoe tripping in Canada. I remembered being fascinated by the water swirling as I pulled my paddle through lakes and rivers. This led me to googling the physics of water and discovered the field of fluid dynamics. Next thing I knew, I had landed an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates at University of California at San Diego in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. My summer there sealed the deal. I worked with an incredibly supportive and encouraging professor, who also convinced me I could pivot into this new field. I decided to apply to physical oceanography graduate programs and pursue a career as a marine scientist.

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

I never realized the opportunities I would have to travel for professional development and engage with scientists internationally. I have attended and presented at 5 conferences and 5 workshops/trainings all over the place; The UK, Puerto Rico, Washington, Oregon, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, DC, and the next large conference I'll be attending will be in Shanghai, China. Networking and the human aspects of science are just as important as the experiments and papers.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I genuinely enjoy the daily struggles of my career with experiments, data processing and coding, and learning. Although it can be frustrating, the feeling of accomplishment is unbeatable when I finally fix a mistake in code or reveal a new feature in my data or another incremental win. I love the interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary nature of oceanography. There's a non-exhaustive list of research questions to explore and even more people I would love to work with on a project. I wouldn't still be pursuing science as a career if I didn't find purpose and fulfillment in the minor tasks as well as the major discoveries.

Best advice for next generation?

In my case, I needed encouragement and support in order for me to own my abilities and gain confidence to work in a field I'm passionate about. I recommend surrounding yourself with positive influences, positive role models, who can help you on your path to finding what you love about STEM. Go for it!

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"Things come to those who ask. Don't be afraid to be proactive. You have your own agency. " - my mom

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