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Moira Décima

Moira (Argentinian American) researches sea life, such as zooplankton and salps, marine food-webs and biogeochemistry at NIWA in Wellington.

Moira DécimaWhat do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?

It’s hard to characterize an average work day, since it can be very different for me, depending on what I am focusing on.

I spend good chunks of my time at sea, in the lab, doing data analyses, writing papers or proposals, or in the inevitable meetings.

Currently I take part in every step of the research process.  I go to sea on research vessels, usually R. V. Tangaroa, and collect zooplankton samples, do experiments, and measure carbon export [how much the ocean captures and stores carbon dioxide gases].

The average day at sea is quite different from the average day on land.  We have 12-hour working days, and they can be quite full-on.  Net sampling, processing samples, CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) sampling and filtering, filling in log-sheets, and entering/processing data make the days go quite quickly.  I also get the chance to work my close colleagues, so I enjoy my time on the ship. 

On some trips, like on my last voyage (SalpPOOP, see below), I get to work with old friends from my doctorate years!  It’s fun that my friends from my university years are now my colleagues, and we get to continue to see each other (despite being so far away) because we share our passion for the ocean and plankton.

Back on land I usually have a slew of samples I need to analyse.  Days in the laboratory can also be quite long and intensive, since typically I need to prepare instruments, get filtered sea-water or other chemicals (depending on what I’m doing), and samples collected during oceanographic voyages are usually in the hundreds.  Still, the laboratory is where I get to see the samples up-close, see what zooplankton critters where present at the time we were out there, or how much these animals were feeding on phytoplankton.  Seeing the whole process through makes me confident in the quality of my data.

Once the samples are processed, I get to do the data analyses and the paper write-up.  To some degree, this is my favourite part of the process, because everything comes together.  It can feel a bit like detective work, because the results and conclusions of the data – in particular when it’s environmental data and not from specific experiments – may not be obvious and require numerical and statistical analyses for interpretation.  I find this work extremely fun, challenging, and where I get to display the most creativity.  There are so many ways of looking at data, analysing it, and tying in the results with other studies/measurements taken at a similar time.  I get to really think about the role of zooplankton, how it affects the food-web, carbon export, and the ocean in general.  It’s quite fascinating, really.

Finally, sometimes I get to do additional fun stuff like outreach.  For instance, last week I spent my work day up north, with students of Leigh school, telling them about my most recent sea expedition, the SalpPOOP voyage, as part of our Curious Minds project.  We also talked about the mobile application we are all collaborating on, to track salps around New Zealand and the VR (virtual reality) experience being developed by AUT where you can swim with salps!

Moira with salps

What did you study at school? And after high school? I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?

In my high school in Argentina, we could choose between three orientations (Science, Humanities, or Economics), and I obviously chose the scientific line, but before that all our classes were pre-determined.  As part of that I got to study math, physics, chemistry and biology, but I also had a fair share of philosophy and psychology. 

I then went to University in Tucuman, Argentina, where I majored in Chemical Engineering.  However, my real passion was biology, so I transferred to the United States to finish my studies with a B.A. in Marine Biology and a B.S. in Molecular Biology.

Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?

In general yes, although in much broader terms.  I am a scientist and oceanographer, so my high school gave me the tools to prepare me for this path but didn’t cover the specific topics I study today (I grew up in a land-locked province in Argentina). 

What I studied as part of my chemical engineering major, which was focused on math, physics and chemistry, also contributed to the tools I use today for conducting my research.  The second half of my university studies in the US were indeed directly related to my career today.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro?

Pay attention to what you love doing, but also to what you believe in doing. 

There will always be things about your job that you will not like, and every day might not include the tasks that bring you joy, but I find that because I deeply believe in the need and importance of what I do, that it makes all the tedious parts of the job OK. 

I worked briefly for a company in which my hard work only resulted in greater profit for the company and had no real positive impact on the world.  I find as a scientist that my hard work at research, as well as the things I do for free (such as reviews, outreach and media communication) are things I believe in deeply, and justify the tiredness at the end of the day.  The days I also get to do the parts of my job that I love are thus double satisfying.

Also think about the lifestyle that your career will give you. It's very important to make sure the things like the working hours, vacation, social interactions (to name a few) of your job are consistent with what you need.  Some people need more structure or more flexibility in their work time and types of activities, and some jobs offer more or less ability to balance a family.

Finally, it is hard to find the job that balances your passion, offers an adequate income, and the right lifestyle. Try and talk to as many women as you can in different professions and jobs, to get an accurate idea of what you might be in for, and what each career can offer.

Moira and friend with water lillies

What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?

The first grant I got with collaborators in the US was to expand a method to study the energetic importance of unicellular (single-celled) zooplankton to larger zooplankton like copepods and krill. With the experiments I conducted, I found that just one amino acid can be used to trace this elusive food-web pathway.  It was a real highlight for me at the time, because it proved that I was capable of formulating scientific questions and projects that merited funding.  Funding is a huge issue in science so being able to articulate hypotheses clearly along with the correct experiments to test these hypotheses, are essential qualities scientists must develop in order to secure funding to do research.

My second highlight concerns my first grant in New Zealand - a Marsden Fast-Track grant to study the importance of salp blooms in waters surrounding the country.  This was an incredible opportunity for me, as I was able to lead my first voyage last October 2018, the SalpPOOP voyage, where we got to study salp blooms in detail, including different species and different areas. We call salps ‘the ocean vacuum-cleaners’ because they can clear most particles in their path.  In addition to this, they produce heavy sinking pellets (poop), that is great for exporting carbon to depth.  However, as many ocean swimmers may know, salps are not always there, and sometimes they just explode in numbers (they ‘bloom’). 

The goal of our voyage was to understand how the carbon fluxes in the ocean are different when the salp blooms are present, and how that affects carbon export and the animals that they feed on (e.g. phytoplankton), and feed on salps (such as oreos/dories and warehou). It was an amazing experience to coordinate such a large project (with 9 visiting international scientists from 4 overseas institutions), with so many complementary studies investigating all the plankton compartments (viruses, bacteria, phytoplankton, microzooplankton, salps, and the rest of the zooplankton community) of the ocean. 

Finally, we had such good luck during the trip that we were able to follow the salp blooms as they aged, and we got to see all the different stages of life-history of Salpa thompsoni (a species of salp).  It’s one thing to study these in a book, but to be able to collect, observe and get data from them is just the essence of scientific discovery that I find so fascinating - and fun!

Moira with guitarWhy do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand? He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?

In the growing danger of climate change we might only have 11 years to change the major trends in our fossil fuel consumption, and we are required to take quick action.  This means we need changes in investments in renewal energy, environmental and societal policies, and personal habits regarding energy use - which affects every person in New Zealand, regardless of their profession.

In addition, STEM engagement is essential to the progress of any country, and essential to dealing with the increasing problems of the world today.  These include all the consequences of climate change, but extend much farther than that - including pollution, antibiotic resistance, habitat destruction, waste production, and depletion of resources such as marine fisheries. 

Solving these problems, however, requires not only STEM research but also the political will to develop policies that reflect the best solutions that are based on sound research.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?

To start, it is a well-known fact that diversity enhances creativity and innovation.  This goes for gender diversity but also for underrepresented and underserved groups, who not only deserve equal access to STEM careers, but also have the potential to highly benefit all these disciplines by bringing in novel, fresh perspectives and approaches.  Gender, ethnicity and culture affect the way we view the world, and fundamentally determines the questions that we can ask – with profound implications for research and science.

Second, as a woman in STEM I have found it sometimes difficult that I am always surrounded by men.  The rules and expectations have been set from decades where the scientific body was comprised mainly of men, whose time, priorities, and manner of working are very different from ours.  At this present time, women in STEM have to constantly push back against these rules and expectations.  If we had an equal representation of women and men in STEM, we would have a culture that represents and respects the needs and skills of both genders equally. 

Finally, selfishly, I want more woman peers because I believe it makes the workplace a better place.

Moira is a half-Argentinean, half-American scientist whose researches zooplankton, salps, marine food-webs, and biogeochemistry, at NIWA, Wellington. Follow Moira on Twitter: @moiradecima

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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