Monica Orellana, PhD

“Understand what you want to learn so you can take off.”


What is your role at ISB?

I am a principal scientist. I work on ocean acidification and understanding carbon’s fate in the Antarctic and in the Arctic ocean.

What is happening in the Arctic currently?

I have had a big project there. The ice is disappearing because of the synergistic effects of increasing temperature and ocean acidification. The effects of clouds are also very important to the Arctic. Generally, clouds serve to cool an environment, but in the Arctic, they have the opposite effect. While we do not have a complete understanding, we do know how fast the environment is changing in the Arctic. One thing that I observed is that the ice extension is shrinking, and is not as deep as in previous years. This year the ice was much thinner in an area that we had sampled compared to previous years.

Did you get to go the Arctic? What is it like there?

I did go to the Arctic, and Allison Lee my technician went to Antarctica. It is beautiful. I think it is the best adventure I have ever done in my life. I went and stayed two months almost near the pole. I am short of words to describe it because it was amazing.

What has your path in science been like?

I would say my experience has been different than most people. When I was nine years old, I felt I wanted to be like Madam Curie. Of course, that didn’t happen, but she really was a role model for me. I always wanted to be a scientist. I grew up in Chile. I went to the university and got a degree in biology, then a master’s in zoology. Then I came to the United States where I got a PhD at the University of Washington. When I arrived here, I was asked to write a couple pages about what was I wanted to do. In Chile my department was zoology, but based on the answers I gave they suggested that I study oceanography. I wanted to figure out how fast different mechanisms were affecting the ocean. I also wanted to study the biology of the ocean. That all led me to my dissertation research on understanding the enzyme that fixes CO2 during photosynthesis. During that time, I also got very interested in single cell analysis. The flow cytometer is a fancy instrument that can measure various parameters of single cells as they flow past an array of lasers. This helps us understand questions about their physiology. In my dissertation, I used flow cytometry for single cell analysis and measured photosynthesis in single cells. This was in the early nineties, so the technology to measure genomics with flow cytometry, as is done now, wasn’t there yet. I dreamed of doing single cell genomics, and this is just now taking off. After receiving my degree, I went to a post doc position in the Bioengineering department at the University of Washington. I went to a lab in BioE where they were working on the biophysics of the mucous. I applied that learning to algae. Most algal cells produce mucus, for many different reasons: warmth in the Arctic, not to be eaten, etc.  The mucous produced by phytoplankton overtime accumulates in the ocean and equals all amount of the carbon we have put into the atmosphere. The ocean and the atmosphere are connected, so we have to learn about how the cells are producing and recycling this carbon and how it is being used. The carbon produced by the cells is sort of like a pump into the atmosphere. The mucous polymer materials have a really important role in the water column as well as in the atmosphere.

What is your favorite part about your career?

I think that going to the Arctic and discovering that the polymers produced by the phytoplankton cells can form cloud condensation nuclei are a couple favorite areas. It was an eye opener and incredible to find out. That aspect of discovery is rewarding. Working here at ISB has been wonderful because of the fantastic culture that allows you to think however you want to think. Also, you are constantly creating, no one is feeding the information to you. You must come up with these new ideas.

When you were younger, is this how you envisioned your life?

I knew that I wanted to be a scientist with a PhD, but it was difficult see that happening in Chile because at that time there were very few universities that offered one. At my university, there were no PhD’s given, except for maybe in biochemistry, so I knew I had to go abroad. I didn’t plan to stay here, but life sometimes takes unexpected turns and you have to adapt.

What has it been like to be a woman in the field of science?

When I came to the United States, I was the only woman in my entering class of oceanography graduate students. It’s not that way so much anymore, but in the past, woman weren’t always believed to be able to do everything that men could do. I think that time has changed, and opportunities are more open. It’s important to work hard and to demonstrate that you can meet challenges.

How do you feel science is perceived by the public?

The public is so far away from science. It is discouraging sometimes, yet we all have the responsibility to educate nonscientists and especially young people. I have worked with other scientists and educators to put together learning modules, and that is how I contribute towards public understanding of science. I am not a politician; I am a scientist, but I can still help with education. Not everybody is going to be a scientist, but I think people at least need to be educated. Education is important at all levels. Sometimes people do not want to hear about climate change for example, so we must educate them.

How do you manage work and personal life?

I am very happy, but it is hard to find a balance of work and personal life. There are times when you are tired. At first, I thought I could do everything, but you have to take care of yourself too. Trust is an essential part of this. You can not do everything yourself, so you must learn to share ideas and trust others.

What would your advice be to students pursuing a career in science?

Passion will get you a long way. If you really want that job, you can learn almost anything. You may not think you are good at something, but it is all a matter of learning. Understand what you want to learn so you can take off and achieve your goals.

ISB High School Interns 2017