Claudia Benitez-Nelson

Sector: Research

Field: Science

Occupation: Marine Biochemist


Well thank you again for participating. I’m very excited to talk to you today. Could you please start off with your first and last name and then where you work and what you do?

Sure, so my name is Claudia Benitez-Nelson. I’m from the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment in the University of South Carolina and I’m a Marine Biogeochemist.

Excellent! How did you get in the field? Was there a discovery, was there a eureka moment, wa

s there something that just sparked you to follow this path?

Funny you should ask. I grew up in Seattle, Washington. I went to the University of Washington as that’s what many of us do who grew up there. And I was playing soccer, and I was majoring in chemistry, because that was something that I was good at. I don’t know that I had a passion for it, but it was an easy path forward and I got to play lots of soccer, so that was kind of my focus. My parents really wanted me to do that, because from my background and growing up, things that you did, is you became a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, so my parents really wanted me to be a medical professional of some kind, although I don’t like biology. So, I took marine science 101 … Introduction to Oceanography by Dr. John Carpenter who was the professor emeritus now at the University of Washington and I took the class because I needed 15 credit hours and I had practice and it was the perfect time for me to take this course.

I was a junior and I was thinking it’s going to be a skate class, I can play and long story short, I took that class and I was hooked. I thought oceanography was all whales and dolphins and Dr. Carpenter was this really nice man. And he’d go to me and he was like, “You know you could do chemistry in the oceans.” And I was like, “Oh, sure.” He said, “No, no, you could get a job.” Like that’s like you could make money and it would be okay and then of course he did the next thing and that was, “I have a friend who really would love to have someone work in his lab and I think you would be perfect”. I was like, “Okay”, you know. And I ended up working in the lab of Jim Murray, who I think his name sounds familiar to you all, he’s in ocean sciences, he’s a secretary on many of the awards committees here. So, I got into oceanography by a lark. It was an easy class, and then I never looked back. And that’s how I started.

When I say interdisciplinary because you’re mixing up in the carbons and the things like that. Can you talk a little bit about how the science has progressed and the interdisciplinary aspects of your work that you do?

Oh, it’s so different than when I started. It’s a great time to be a scientist right now. Just in terms of the innovation and the exploration and as you mentioned, just the communication that happens between various, I would say disciplines or groups. I was trained very traditionally in chemical oceanography, which is much more the inorganic. Rocks, minerals, very specific types of chemistry. But I was very lucky in that when I was doing my dissertation at the Woods Hall Oceanographic Institute, they had these crazy scientists who were doing work in organic geochemistry. So, the whole idea that there was chemistry with carbon, you know was really exciting. So, talking with them and then their conversations about trying to understand where this organic matter was coming from absolutely meant you had to talk to the biologists. So even though they have this traditional, you took biological oceanography, chemical oceanography, it’s all oceanography I know, but those different aspects of it, was really critical.

And then this kind of explosion right at that time, of people understanding that you couldn’t just be an inorganic chemist, you had to be an organic chemist. And then if you’re an organic chemist, you probably had to deal with the biology. And then you were dealing with the biology, then yeah, the ocean moves, you know, and you had to deal with the physics and the world became a big place. And that realization that you didn’t have to know it all, you just needed to find really good people that you liked, and you enjoyed working with. You know who could bring their other ideas to the table and that’s always been something that I love to do is just learn about topics that I’ve never explored or understood and to learn them from the people who do them and then say, let’s work together. Let’s go do something fun. So, I think that interdisciplinary is fostered by working with fun people in other fields and I think that makes things a lot easier.

That’s fantastic. You have to have fun with what you do.

You have to have fun with what you do. And when you love the people you work with, you know, and that’s why I love AGU and I love coming to these meetings because you cross paths with people that you may not have ever really talked to before, or a talk title catches your eye, and you’re like, I’m just going to step in and listen to that talk, and then you realize that, you know, all of a sudden, for me, I’m in some mezzo pelagic zone plankton session and I don’t understand a word of half of what they’re saying, but they’re talking about phasic uptake mechanisms and nutrient cycling, oh but I get that, you know, and we can start to have conversations in ways that you never would have thought about.

When did it come up with the oceanography in general? It think Peter Brewer used the term Victorian tool, and then I think you’ve done a lot of satellite work and I just wanted to touch on the progression of the technology and that you now work with students that are growing up with that. Can you talk a little bit about the influence of the technology on science?

Wow. That’s a big question. No. I mean, it’s profound. I mean, it’s profound. I have conversations with some of the more senior scientists talking about getting their slides ready weeks before giving a presentation. Or communicating with their colleagues in other countries and taking weeks for those letters to get back and forth, because they were putting them in the snail mail, right? And how different it is now and just the idea that we can collect and measure so many things at the same time with these autonomous sensors using satellites, I mean, it’s awesome. It’s really great.

I think the challenge is how do we use this technology in a way that is not overwhelming? Is not so encompassing that it can be difficult to get your head around. For me, I think one of the biggest things that I still love to do is to take those individuals who are really interested or really good at using data and these large data sets into the field with me. So, we go into the field and I’ll take samples, and I’m like, so all that data you’re playing with, this is how it’s coming. This is where it comes from. So, these are the strengths and the weaknesses and at the same time, they will run all kind of large-scale models and they’ll say to me, hey, you know, our models are telling us X, why don’t we go look at X? And I’m like, oh, that’s great, yeah, let’s go look at X. So, it allows us to focus in ways that we just didn’t have the ability to, because we just didn’t have enough data.

So, no, it’s a great time to be an oceanographer. You can download satellite data on my cell phone. I’m a radio chemist, so I do a lot of measurements on radio nuclides in the ocean, radioactivity, and now there’s instruments where I can stick a little radiation detector on my phone and when I’m doing work in Fukushima, you’d just be like, either go out and measure the radiation, whereas before, you just didn’t have that ability. So, it’s really opened up the world in many different ways.

Do you see that changing the science, too?

Absolutely. So, for me, I’m doing a lot of work now in Madagascar, South Africa, places that a

re hard to get to that may not necessarily have power or internet. But because the technology has advanced, I can take these instruments out now, plug them up to a car battery or take different types of access tools and we can now do measurements in these really remote areas that we just couldn’t in the past. So, it’s not just opening it up in terms of being in the middle of a desert and looking at the oceans, but I mean really going to remote areas that are fundamentally changing, that are the first areas that are going to be impacted as we know our climate’s changing and it impacts them in many different ways than perhaps we’re impacted here. And to be able to provide help and information, that if it wasn’t for this new technology and these new instrumentation, we just couldn’t bring with us. Just couldn’t use it.

And can you talk a little bit more about how that impacts the society, especially when you’re talking about these remote areas?

Yes, so I’ve been doing some work with a colleague in Madagascar, for example, which is this incredible country. It has all these natural resources, but it’s poor and they have strip mines, deforestation is a big deal. So much of their population depends on ocean resources and tourism and to just go in and just say, hey, either this is the impacts of deforestation, look at all of this erosion going into your coastal waters and the nutrients that are now fundamentally influencing the organisms that live there. This is kind of a deep big deal, and it’s interesting for us because we’d talk about the science. And then you can talk to the communities and they’re like, yeah, we see it. We know. We can see that this is impacting. And we’re like, yeah, so this is how it’s happening, and you’re not … you’re right, these are changes. So, no, from a societal perspective, I mean, this technology is profound in what we can, as scientists, what we can do to help. I think other countries and developing countries we can really play an important role in helping them manage their own ecosystems.

Awesome, that’s great. And what do you most enjoy or have satisfaction with in your job? In your career?

I have the best job in the world. I love my job. I love my job for so many reasons. If you had told me that I would love my job and would love what I do, like 25 years ago, I would have laughed at you because this was not anything, I had ever imagined that I could possibly do. No one in my family does anything like this. I’m kind of the outlier. So, I love just basic research. Just finding the answers to questions, right? For me, just questions, random questions. I love the ability to, if I have a question about something completely different than what I started out on, I can go and look at that question. I kind of don’t have a boss, in some ways, [inaudible 03:35:39] I love interacting with students. I never knew that I would have so much fun interacting with students. They bring new ideas and they ask me questions that I’m like, I should know the answer to that, and I don’t. So, make me think about things in different ways that I didn’t know. Didn’t think about.

And I have a family. I have two kids and I think one of the things that was probably most surprising to me is that given the way my job is, I have a lot of flexibility. I admit it, I work hard, I do, but when my daughter has a soccer game at 3:00 on a Wednesday and I’ve taught that morning, guess what, I leave and go watch my daughter play her soccer game, you know. And yeah, I might work a little bit later, but I don’t have many friends who have that flexibility to go to the 10AM award ceremony or the … So, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to spend time with my kids and they came to Madagascar with me. I was like, come on let’s go. It’s never going to happen again, come on, let’s just go. I love my job. I love everything about my job.

That is important. And important for sure as a female, there’s a balance to life to.

Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. I had both my children before tenure. I was very well supported. Like I said, I think if you are passionate about what it is you do, whether you’re a professor in sciences. I’m not a medical doctor, a lawyer, a business person, you know, you will work hard at that job because you love it. You’ll make it work. Lots of people do.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?

Follow your passion. Follow the things that interest you. There’s a lot of concern about making sure that your family is happy. Like your parents, maybe. A lot of concern about getting a job and I would just say that finding the thing you love most and having that be your job is pretty much the perfect scenario. And that if you just make enough money to put food on the table, life is pretty good. And I’m saying this for someone who was very poor growing up. So that would be my advice is go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, and you’ll succeed.

Excellent. For sure, because as a scientist, it takes a long time to get to that where you can put food on the table and a roof and a car.

Yeah, yeah. My mom is so happy. My dad tells people I went to MIT to study fish poop, but it’s okay, because I went to MIT. I mean that’s what he says, yeah. “She studies fish poop. I don’t know what it is.” Thanks dad, yeah.

Excellent. Well thank you so much.

Your welcome.