Dr. Sonya Legg is a physical oceanographer in the Princeton University Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program and the Associate Director of the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
Following a bachelor’s degree in physics from Oxford University (1989) and a PhD in physical oceanography from Imperial College (1993), she had postdoctoral appointments at the University of Colorado, and University of California Los Angeles, the latter as a recipient of a NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral fellowship. Prior to moving to Princeton in 2004, she was a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for 7 years. She is currently the co-chair of the Mentoring Physical Oceanography Women to Increase Retention (MPOWIR) program, a nationwide early-career mentoring program.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I am a Senior Research Oceanographer at Princeton University, with a Lecturer appointment in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences graduate program. I am also the Associate Director of the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System (CIMES), a Princeton University cooperative institute with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (NOAA-GFDL) housed on the Princeton campus.
I am a physical oceanographer (i.e. I study the physics and dynamics of the ocean) and my research focuses on turbulent mixing in the ocean. I am particularly interested in mixing due to breaking internal waves (underwater waves in the ocean interior, which rely on a stable density gradient – lighter water above denser water), and in mixing in deep ocean currents of dense water flowing down sloping ocean sea-floor topography. The mixing of heat and salt in the deep ocean interior is a vital piece of the large-scale ocean circulation, and influences the meridional overturning circulation (aka the ocean conveyor belt), the frequency of El Nino events and the heat uptake in climate change scenarios, contributing to sea-level rise.
My research largely uses computer simulations, of both the small-scale turbulent mixing processes, and also of the whole climate system, where I examine how the mixing influences the climate. I also use applied mathematical theory to interpret the results, and I have been to sea on ocean research ships a couple of times, to directly measure ocean turbulence.
In my role as lecturer I teach graduate classes and supervise graduate students and in my role as Associate Director of CIMES, I am involved in efforts to increase diversity in Climate sciences through internship programs and visiting faculty programs, as well as participating in outreach activities. I am also the co-chair of the Mentoring Physical Oceanography Women to Increase Retention (MPOWIR) program, a US-based nationwide program for mentoring early-career women in my field.
What do you love the most about your job?
Going to sea is fantastically exciting (especially my last cruise, to the Southern Ocean, with icebergs, whales and penguins)! I love problem solving, and figuring out something no-one else knew before. I enjoy working both in team projects and one-on-one with students and postdocs, and supporting my mentees. I love travel, so I enjoy participating in conferences, workshops and summer schools around the world.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
My initial career path was relatively straightforward – from undergrad in physics, to 3-year PhD in physical oceanography, followed by 2 consecutive postdoctoral appointments. The most difficult stage was looking for a “permanent” job, in a location where my husband (who is in the same field) could also find work. For 7 years, we worked 90 miles apart, living in the middle. Then with 2 kids, this commuting became too much, and we eventually found 2 jobs in a different lab.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
Cross-disciplinary interactions (e.g. physics/dynamics interactions with biology/chemistry). More extensive data coverage in the ocean interior through autonomous instruments (e.g. under ice-shelves, in the deepest part of the oceans). Greater connections between data and computer modelling through real-time data assimilation. Greater connections between marine science and social impacts (e.g. sea-level rise, water resources, fisheries).
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
• Elimination of harassment and bullying from research environments, whether in the university or lab, or at sea or in field environments. There should be zero tolerance of harassment at sea.
• Increasing use of autonomous instruments and remote participation in research cruises and conferences will make it easier on ocean scientists with families, by reducing the need to travel.
• Institutional support (e.g. providing overnight nanny-services) for scientists with families who need to travel.
• Better recognition of all the different ways people can contribute –e.g. teaching, mentoring, outreach and communications, developing data sets and code-bases – not just using research publications as the only measure of success.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Find yourself multiple mentors, at a variety of career stages, and with different skills and perspectives.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
Marine science includes many different scientific disciplines and combines theory, computer modelling, laboratory experiments and ocean measurements to increase our understanding of important problems affecting many people around the world.
Social Media Links
I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Sonya Legg for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at email@example.com if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions and the biography belong to Dr. Sonya Legg. All photographs have been used with the permission of Dr. Sonya Legg.