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Girl power - from Cape Town to Miami

By Katherine Hutchinson,SAEON Egagasini Node
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I am a PhD student under the Professional Development Programme of the National Research Foundation, based at SAEON’s Egagasini Node.

I count myself lucky to have three inspiring female scientists as my supervisors - Dr Juliet Hermes from SAEON, Associate Professor Isabelle Ansorge from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Professor Lisa Beal from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) in Miami.


Katherine’s research looks at the variability of the Agulhas Current with respect to local and remote winds

With this triumvirate of women as my leaders, I have successfully navigated the first year of my PhD. My research looks at the variability of the Agulhas Current with respect to local and remote winds and attempts to explain why the current is observed to be strongest in summer when Sverdrup theory and ocean models predict a winter maximum in transport.

Prof. Beal can be seen as my main scientific leader, Dr Hermes as my sounding board and academic guide, and Prof. Ansorge as my constant source of encouragement and positive energy. Each of my supervisors brings a different dynamic to the table, and between the three of them I feel supported and confident in my PhD research. Thanks to split funding from the three institutions (SAEON, UCT and RSMAS), I was able to move to Miami for three months to work with Prof. Beal and follow a course on the physics of Ocean Circulation.

My academic adventure in Miami

During my time in Miami, I experienced a massive growth curve in my understanding of ocean dynamics and was able to make great progress in my PhD research. The course I followed specifically looked at how the ocean responds to wind forcing, and while the material was challenging (with long derivations and lots of calculus), it was fascinating.

We looked at why we have ocean gyres, how these gyres can be split into a directly wind-driven “Ekman layer” and a deeper layer, and how planetary waves propagate to facilitate communication between the interior and the boundaries. For the first time I started to grasp the complicated process of how ocean circulation is driven by atmospheric forcing and how this signal is carried across ocean basins to result in the currents and processes we observe.


On International Women’s Day, a group of women scientists in Miami shared this photo of themselves on social media with the aim of inspiring other young women to follow their dreams

My collaboration with Prof. Beal’s research team and our weekly “Agulhas Group” meetings provided a space for me to discuss my newly formed ideas, ask many questions, and in return receive fantastic guidance and comments to move forward and test my hypotheses. I made great progress in the three-month visit, working closely with Prof. Beal and her other PhD student, Kayleen McMonigal.

Women in Oceanography

Prof. Beal is passionate about promoting women in Oceanography. Watch this video where she addresses the topic.

During my time in Miami we celebrated International Women’s Day - a group of women scientists got together to catch up, discuss how our respective research projects are going, and take a photo of ourselves on the RSMAS steps to post on Twitter and Facebook in the hope of inspiring other young women to follow their dreams as we have.

I recently returned to Cape Town after my academic adventure in Miami and am still running on the steam and energy generated from my international experience. I am extremely grateful to my supervisors and their respective institutions for the opportunity, and am inspired by their leadership and the great work of all the female scientists in the field of ocean and atmospheric science.

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