Sarah Cooley

Sector: Research

Field: Science

Occupation: Oceanographer




What is your earliest memory of being interested in science?

I can’t remember a single “aha” moment when I realized I was interested in science, because I think science and inquiry were woven throughout my whole childhood experience. My parents have countless pictures of me and my brother, who’s four years older than me, playing with science toys, building Lego creations, pretending to fly to the moon on a spaceship made of couch cushions, catching insects to look at, tending our countless goldfish, dissecting wildflowers, and catching sand crabs.

I definitely had an “aha” moment when I realized that chemical oceanography was a possibility. I’d just completed a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, but knew I’d rather be doing things on boats in and around the ocean. Watching a sailboat tack back and forth one day off the Massachusetts coast while I was musing over my next step after college, I realized that there were, in fact, chemicals in the ocean and one could study them!

What steps did you take to have a career path in academia or research?

In college, I chose a chemistry major primarily because inorganic chemistry made sense to me, and I didn’t have a lot of faith that I’d have as good job prospects if I pursued a literature major. Before my 4th year in college, I participated in an NSF REU program at University of Delaware which helped me narrow down on biogeochemistry, and the summer after I graduated from college, I did another REU at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Both of those were transformative experiences for me, helping me zero in on my interest of pursuing a Ph.D. and working in biogeochemistry, carbon cycling, specifically. I’m still in touch with many of the friends and colleagues I developed during those summer experiences. Afterwards, I spent a year tutoring and substitute teaching in a private school in the town where I grew up while I researched and applied to graduate programs.

University of Georgia offered me a Presidential Graduate Fellowship to come study at the School of Marine Programs there, where I chose to focus on inorganic carbon chemistry and carbon cycling in the Western Tropical North Atlantic Ocean, where the Amazon River joins the Atlantic. I graduated from UGA in 2006.

By then, I thought a tenure track faculty job wasn’t the right path, and I spent about 18 months as a freelance science writer and editor. In 2007, my husband and I moved to Cape Cod, MA, for him to continue working on the Palmer-LTER project, and I began to pursue local opportunities. On the same day, I got offers to work at the American Meteorological Society in their Publications Division, as a technical editor, and to work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as a postdoctoral investigator, working on ocean acidification science and communications. I did both, part time, for two years, until in 2009, I became a full-time postdoc at WHOI. I split my time between research and helping coordinate scientific community activities, as part of the US Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Program Office.

By 2014, I was seeking a new challenge, looking to deepen my work on interdisciplinary science, as well as applying the science in policy. I moved to Ocean Conservancy’s ocean acidification program, where I worked both on conducting interdisciplinary science, as well as policy advocacy to further scientific goals and to include science in policy. I’ve been there since; I now direct the OA program and we are looking to apply many of the same tools and tactics that have been successful at building bipartisan support for action on ocean acidification to address ocean climate change at the US state, regional, and federal level.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

At every step of my career, I have had to specialize a bit more. And that has always felt wrong, like I was closing doors. I think that feeling of being so averse to choosing one path or another has really confirmed for me that I am, at heart, an interdisciplinary scientist who really enjoys big-picture thinking.

Another major challenge for me has been to find my own path through science. My difficulty in settling between the natural sciences and liberal arts in college really underscored that perhaps a “straight science” path wasn’t the right one. But, going through school, you see only the paths of the faculty around you, and most of the faculty who are teaching and mentoring are people who chose a more traditional path to academic professorship. Even those who didn’t may have spent time at national labs (e.g. JPL) before joining the academy, which doesn’t show the breadth of options. So, it’s a bit like I’ve been “feeling my way forward” through career choices. I’ve had some fantastic mentors who have helped me see how I can best put my own skill set to work, and some really generous colleagues who have taught me new methods, tools, and strategies to navigate career choices, professional development, and interdisciplinary work as a whole.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

Where do I begin? On the science side, I need a strong, up-to-date  understanding of advances in ocean climate science. I need an encyclopedic understanding of the latest advances in ocean acidification research, impacts, and proposed solutions.  Lately, I’ve been participating in producing high-level reports, like NCA4, SOCCR2, and IPCC AR6 which helps me stay up to date on the new science and practice my own science assessment and synthesis skills. On the communications side, I must understand how to communicate complex information in accessible ways for non-specialists. I have to understand how humans perceive and process new information that may challenge their world-view. On the strategic side, I need to be able to develop political strategies to advance advocacy goals to incorporate science into policy, or to create policies that support science. I must maintain a global network of specialist colleagues I can call to get the latest perspectives on science findings and needs, or to connect them with political leaders to tell their own stories. On the professional side, I need to manage my team in a way that helps them develop their own professional portfolios, respects their needs and talents, and still remains fiscally responsible.

What’s the most exciting part of your research or teaching?

My favorite thing is being able to quantify progress on goals – a fancy way of saying I love to check things off lists! The types of goals I’m really thinking of here are big, though – they’re helping introduce a new policy, secure increased funding for federal OA research and monitoring, publishing a new synthetic science product, and most especially, changing minds to. On days when we can count increasing bipartisan support for action on OA in the US Congress, that’s a day to celebrate. When we can make sure that resource managers in different regions are planning for OA in the future, that’s also a day to celebrate. It’s a long-game perspective, but breaking progress into achievable steps is incredibly rewarding, and helps us stay energized and optimistic that we CAN make a difference on ocean climate change.

What is the most discouraging part of your research or teaching and how do you overcome this limitation?

The most frustrating part of my work is when everyone thinks ocean climate change is someone else’s problem. Ocean-focused funders sometimes feel that ocean acidification and ocean climate change are problems to be addressed by climate-focused funders, while climate funders feel ocean problems are best addressed by someone else. From an Earth science perspective, the ocean and the climate are tied together inseparably. Likewise, climate policy generally omits considering ocean systems. We are working on changing this, by beginning to work at the international level to add oceans into the climate policy conversation, and to use the science to demonstrate how essential the ocean is to Earth’s habitability.

Another frustrating, but related element, is how humans’ brains are poorly equipped to comprehend long-timescale threats and changes, like acidification and ocean warming. It always seems like a problem for tomorrow… until a low-probability, high-risk event comes calling.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

I wish I’d known that there are niches for people like me who have a hard time deciding how to specialize, and instead of being a flaw, it actually is a strength for participating in certain types of activities like high-level science advocacy and policy development.

I advise every student to participate in communications training; developing oneself as a writer, presenter, and speaker is a key portion of being a scientist of any sort today. Also, when scientists work on climate change issues, it’s important to understand the history and best practices of climate change communications so as not to repeat past mistakes.

I also advise every student to reach out to people who they think might have interesting paths or experiences, just for a quick phone call, a coffee, or even a longer meeting. I was kind of late to doing this, and I think it probably would have helped me find my professional niche sooner.