Written by Kristen Kusek, Communications Director for USF CMS
Oceanography may seem an unlikely career choice for someone who grew up in Yuma, Arizona and never heard of a career in “marine science” as a kid. Graduate school wasn’t on the radar, either when Erica Ombres pursued her bachelor’s at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After all, no one in her family had earned an advanced degree, she said.
But there was a Teaching Assistant who perhaps changed the course of Ombres’ life.
“In sophomore year the T.A. told me that I’d be great at graduate school,” said Ombres. “I didn’t even know what that meant,” she said.
She would eventually find out. Right after earning her bachelor’s in 2005, this self-described “lifetime learner” earned an M.S. degree in 2008 (studying rockfish) and a Ph.D. in 2013 (studying Antarctic krill), both under the tutelage of Retired-Emeritus Professor Dr. Jose Torres at the USF College of Marine Science (USF CMS).
A book was also instrumental in her career pursuit: “I vividly remember feeling awed by the pages of a Jacques Cousteau coffee table book we’d had at home,” she said. “I was just fascinated by the pictures and the sense of discovery.”
Sure enough, the interdisciplinary nature of oceanography reeled her in, and the cross-disciplinary nature of the USF CMS program felt perfect to Ombres when she was trying to figure out where to go, she said.
“You can’t study the biology in the ocean without also understanding the physics and the chemistry of the ocean and similarly the biology also impacts the physics, chemistry and geology,” said Ombres, “and I really love that.”
Since those early days, Ombres’ career path has been a remarkably straight arrow. After graduate school, she was selected to do the Knauss Sea Grant Marine Policy fellowship (2013-2014) during which she was placed in NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP), and she’s worked there as program manager and grants officer since 2014.
We sat down to talk with her about her career path and time at USF.
Q: How profound was the Knauss fellowship for you?
A: It was a fantastic opportunity. I didn’t get the fellowship when I first applied as a Master’s student. At first I was pretty bummed but at the same time Jose had gotten funding for an expedition to Antarctica, and that became the basis of my dissertation (investigating the effects of season, latitude, and sea ice on the metabolism and stable isotopic composition of Antarctic krill). Looking back I’m glad it worked out the way it did because I got to spend six weeks aboard the R/V Palmer in Antarctica which was an amazing experience. Later, when I applied to Knauss again as a Ph.D. student, I was successful.
It was in Mya’s class when I first learned about the option of working in government versus academia. At the beginning of the Knauss fellowship they did this matching exercise like they do in medical school or sorority rush. It is kind of like speed dating with ~15 interviews with different offices to decide your placement for the fellow year. Prior to this process the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program was not on my radar, I learned by working with the team through the Knauss experience that I liked the people and the director of the program (Dr. Libby Jewett) and their work was really exciting. As a marine physiologist learning more about ocean acidification (OA) was a really natural next step and would allow me to either go back to academia or stay in government.
Q. Did you always know you didn’t want to pursue the tenure-track faculty route?
A. I definitely didn’t always think I’d work at NOAA but I learned that NOAA is about so much more than fisheries. NOAA is working with social scientists, GIS analysts, economists and more. The approach to research in the OA program is three-fold: we want to understand the changing environment, understand how those changes are impacting species, and how that all impacts human communities.
While I wasn’t always sure exactly where my career would take me, what I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be at a Research 1 university. As a graduate student I didn’t see any women in my college with the other things I wanted in life: a healthy marriage and kids. I kept hearing that you can have it all but at the end of the day everyone really has to make choices about what balance looks like to them and in grad school I didn’t see anyone living the kind of life I envisioned for myself.
I have two kids now, ages 4 and 6, have been married for over 10 years and my work is interesting and rewarding. Work life balance is a constant juggling act but I have a supportive team at work and a supportive partner at home and I feel lucky to have that support.
Q. Do you enjoy working in DC, even if there’s no ocean view?
A. I love DC. The conversations you hear in DC can be so fascinating. The person you run into at your kid’s play date is a foreign service agent who spent the last two years in Baghdad. Stuff like that. The conversations are so interesting! It has the benefits of a big city with lots of culture, but has a small town feel which is of course what we wanted for our kids. It’s a bonus that the cultural opportunities like the Smithsonian museums are free, and I love that you hear so many different languages and see and experiences diverse, immigrant communities who are your neighbors. It’s just great for our kids.
Q. How does ocean acidification (OA) rank on the list of ocean challenges in your opinion?
A. While ocean warming and deoxygenation may have more immediate consequences for marine life, the current rate of OA is so fast that natural buffering processes like the weathering of rocks can’t keep pace. OA is a serious challenge and we will need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions and develop geoengineering solutions to ameliorate it. Even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions today, the changes to the ocean chemistry are baked into the system for thousands of years. So in my mind OA is a huge challenge.
Q. Do you worry about your kids’ futures given the environmental changes we’re seeing today?
A. I try not to think about it in the context of the kids, to be honest. My husband is a lawyer working in the political arena and I’m working in this environmental space – so there is great potential for an assortment of “downer” conversations between us. I try to keep it compartmentalized, and I give myself hope by remembering we’re trying to solve it. Government moves slowly but we’re trying. I love that NOAA OAP is funding solutions, such as marine carbon dioxide removal. We’re trying to understand how new technological solutions will actually work long-term in the environment. That gives me hope.
Q: What do you find most challenging about your job?
A: The most challenging part of my job is also the most interesting part of my job. As program manager for an interdisciplinary program that funds research in many different fields (OAP funds research spanning from carbonate chemistry and physiology to social science), it can be challenging to stay up to date with the latest research in each field. While this is challenging, I also find it very interesting as I love learning new things.
Q. What do you love about your job?
A. As a program manager, I love that I am still really connected to the science. I read a lot of papers and enjoy figuring out where the research field needs to go. So sure, on a day to day basis there are a lot of meetings, a fair amount of paperwork, emails and review panels (in grants season) but I like my finger on the pulse of the science. And I work with an amazing team and have a great female role model in our director, Dr. Libby Jewett.
Q: Please recall for us your favorite / most memorable experience at the CMS.
A: I have to say that my most memorable time at CMS was definitely all of the opportunities I had to go to sea, from the Gulf of Mexico to Antarctica. CMS offers plenty of opportunities for students to go to sea and experience different types of research.
Q: You mentioned you first became interested in the USF CMS in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program. Is there anything else about the CMS and its culture, location, etc, that you think is a benefit over say other marine science grad programs?
A: Besides the interdisciplinary nature, the close connections (and physical proximity) to state and federal government (i.e., FWRI, USGS, NOAA) provide access to mentors and potential job opportunities outside of academia for graduate students.
Q: What advice would you give graduate students trying to figure out their next steps post-graduation?
A: I would let them know that there are many options out there besides academia and many different kinds of career paths. Some people seem to know what they want and go straight there, while other career paths seem to meander. There is no 'right' way to do things. Use your network and your advisor’s or other mentors’ networks, and talk to those whose career or career path is interesting to you.
Dr. Ombres spent six weeks aboard the R/V Palmer in Antarctica with her advisor, Dr. Jose Torres – a graduate school highlight, she says.