Changing the Oceans: Cecilia O’Leary, oceanographer

This week, we welcome Cecilia O’Leary (@GonzoScientist1), PhD student at Stony Brook University in the United States. Cecilia is a quantitative ecologist and OLeary_biooceanographer. In general, she studies marine animal size and age structures (what sizes and ages make up a population) & how environmental and biological processes drive this: often, this is called field population dynamics. Currently, Cecilia is focused on the temporal population dynamics of fish and how climate influences those dynamics, i.e., how do fish numbers change over time. Part of this work involves wondering why scientists observe the number of fishes we see in the ocean, and if large-scale regional climate patterns can describe changes in abundance. We asked Cecilia to tell us about her work and inspirations.


I’ve also studied marine mammals in the past.  I always try and tie my work back to the application of these findings. Often, that means how will a populations response to climate influence the effectiveness of our fisheries management. I enjoy studying both fisheries and marine mammals because of their direct ties to management and importance to the sociology and economy of many coastal places. I love field work and have been lucky enough to participate in fieldwork in the Florida Keys, Mojave Desert, Antarctica, and the Missouri River. The majority of my day to day work now is programming, primarily in #rstats. I’m also all about social change & inclusion in STEM, humanizing the Ph.D. process and the igniting open discussions about the struggles we face as students, and promoting women in STEM. Finally, I absolutely love to talk to students, especially young woman, about what life is actually like as a scientist, so feel free to contact me about speaking to your classroom! You can read more about me, my science work, and life as a woman in STEM here:

I’ve always loved science, especially biology, and knew from a young age that I wanted to be a scientist or an engineer. I used to look for insects with my brothers in our yard and loved programming things. My parents always encouraged me to be a scientist too! In undergrad, I took an ecology course and fell in love with it. That’s when I decided that I’d be an ecologist. Since then, I’ve followed where jobs take me and participated in a bunch of field work and ended up working in oceanography for my PhD. I work in quantitative ecology, so I spend most of my time working on how many animals there are and what influences the number of animals. I develop and apply statistical methods to do this. For my PhD, I’ve worked on flatfish and how both climate and fishing influence the numbers of fish. Fisheries science seeks to determine why there are as many fish that there are so we can effectively manage them. I combine statistics, oceanography, ecology, and math to do this work.


My work is directly related to the well-being of many communities. Fisheries are a part of many local economies and cultures, and my field works to maintain fisheries so that they’re economically, socially, and biologically sustainable. We seek to find the perfect balance of ensuring that local communities can maintain their fishing businesses while ensuring that fish will remain in the ocean for a long time to come.


In my spare time: I volunteered at a local aquarium for a while and worked with kids and adults to show them what was in their local waters! I’ve also done field work in the Antarctic to help with other lab’s projects that study penguins. I love to hike, kayak, read, and build robots!

On my ideal day off: I wake up next to a mountain lake, after a nice cool night camping and looking at the stars! I hike for about half the day, and the rest of the day me, my dog, and my partner explore the woods, read, kayak, and relax.


Welcome, Cecilia!



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