Live Event: March 23, 2017 at 1:00pm Eastern
Mara M. Orescanin is a Coastal Oceanographer at the Naval Postgraduate School where she advises students, teaches courses, and conducts oceanography research. We asked her a few questions about herself and her STEM career to get to know her and her work a bit better before her live event.
Learn More About Mara
What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Hiking/going to the beach with my kids, flying airplanes, and reading books
Do you play any musical instruments?
Yes, piano and am teaching myself ukulele (easier than guitar)
Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
I love yoga for the fitness and meditation (keeps me balanced). Hiking and swimming when I have the time.
What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
What’s your favorite song?
“Let it Go”, thanks to my four-year-old daughter knowing how to play music at home! I’m more of a Beethoven/Brahms fan, myself.
Who do you look up to and admire?
Sally Ride and Jane Goodall
Highest degree attained
Future degree(s) planning on pursuing, if any
Hopefully I’m done! If time weren’t an issue, I’d study medicine on the side.
Carleton College, University of Illinois, MIT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college
Elementary School: Math, music
Middle School: Geography, math (but I wasn’t good at it, tests were/are hard for me!)
High School: Physics, Calculus
What educational accomplishments are you most proud of?
Completing graduate school while starting my family. There were many tough times when I wanted to quit, but thanks to my great support network and belief in myself, I persevered.
What kinds of challenges did you overcome during your education?
I discovered midway through my first PhD attempt that I didn’t know why I was there and what I wanted to do when I was done. It was terrifying and probably the first time I asked myself as an adult “what do you want to do when you grow up”. I started grad school over, studying the beach, and worked my way to the end. It took me longer, but I don’t regret it for a minute
During grad school, I was one of the only PhD students in my department who had children. This made it unfortunately difficult at times, especially if one of my kids were sick or needed to be picked up at preschool. These are examples of the silent biases many of us face when we are different, so it is important to be vocal and accommodating, whether you are the one who is different or not.
Once in high school, I had a math teacher (math was generally my favorite subject), who actually told me that I should not try to pursue an advanced math class, let alone try to have a math-filled career. It was incredibly painful to hear, and thankfully I had the support of my family to disregard that advice, and to take advanced math throughout high school. I went on to major in physics in college (testing out of calculus), and completed a PhD in ocean engineering.
Naval Postgraduate School
What does your organization do?
Educate military officers during their Masters’ or PhD. Perform scientific research in oceanography, among many other disciplines.
What is your role in the organization?
Advising students, teaching courses, and research. This involves fieldwork and getting to spend time on the beach or on the water with students.
Describe your work environment
I have an office in a building on a Navy base. There are many classrooms and lab spaces in the building, and it is one of many on base. There is also a beach lab that stores many of our instruments, boats, and other equipment. When I am in the field, my work environment is the beach.
What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
In my office, I mostly use my computer. When I am doing fieldwork, I wear a wetsuit or waders and we usually use a 21’ RIB (rigid inflatable boat) to deploy instruments offshore. Sometimes we use kayaks to access marsh areas. After we collect data, I return to my computer for analysis and numerical modeling. It’s a good mix of getting outside and sitting at my desk.
Describe a typical day in your job
A blend of visiting my current field site (a state beach), working on writing a paper, and preparing for/teaching classes.
Describe an atypical day in your job
Sometimes things don’t go as planned in the field and we need to make things work. It’s a bit of improvising on the go, and when you are on a boat, you only have the tools you brought with you. I always carry duct tape, zip ties, and a knife, as well as a tool set. One day we were deploying an instrument with divers in an area that had very fast currents, and one of the divers got swept out to sea. Luckily we were in a boat for an easy rescue, but that same week a few fishermen were swept out at the same area and the Coast Guard had to rescue them.
How is the work you do important to society?
The coastline is one of our most vulnerable geographic areas owing to storms (think Hurricane Sandy) and sea level rise. By studying how the beach evolves, we can make better plans for our future coastal safety.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
Growing an independent research program doing something I love.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Time management! There are so many things to do, and the day is too short. It is also hard being one of the only female faculty members in my department.
Other positions not necessarily related to your current career
Preschool teacher: taught me to enjoy the world and tested my patience!
Best job you’ve ever had and why
I’m in it! I get to spend all day doing something I enjoy and find relevant to our society and our future. Doing something you love and find important justifies spending time at work.
Worst job you’ve ever had and why
Drone in a very large corporation. I had little input into what I did and why. I could not change anything, and was forced to adhere to the company methods.
What were you like as a kid?
Independent and curious. I hated being bored, so taught myself to be observant as a sort of game.
What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
I loved everything by Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, and later Kurt Vonnegut.
My parents didn’t have TV while I was growing up, but we did get to watch the occasional movies. I loved Star Wars and Star Trek.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
At age 12: A pianist
At age 15: A pilot
At age 18: An astronaut
When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
On some level, I’ve always known, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school when it hit me like a ton of bricks that I could have a job studying the beach.
Who inspired you on this path?
My husband and my parents: both always believed in me, and encouraged me. My children: for providing me motivation, and asking really hard questions (where does gravity come from?).
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what career might you have pursued?
Pilot or astronaut. I love flying, but never wanted to risk waking up to a day when that wasn’t true, and it is currently a tough career to follow. Still waiting on the astronaut career.
What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career?
Embrace math and physics. Don’t be afraid of not knowing enough; focus on developing your curiosity and tenacity. We are always learning.
What advice would you give students in general?
Follow your curiosity. Work becomes fun when you are engaged and doing something you enjoy. Enjoy the journey, as the road is long. Develop tenacity and patience. There will be many people who will derail you on your path, so don’t be afraid to pick yourself back up and start the journey again.
What are some interesting places you’ve traveled?
Sri Lanka, Maldives, Turkey, India, Japan, New Zealand. So many more to visit, my list is always growing.