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Serena Illig carries the ocean modelling flame at UCT, nurturing local capacity

By Jennifer Veitch, PDP* Research Fellow, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Between 19-23 February 2018, Dr Serena Illig, supported by Drs Charine Collins and Jennifer Veitch from SAEON’s Egagasini Node, conducted a free regional ocean modelling course using the Regional Ocean Modelling System (ROMS).

The course was attended by master’s, PhD and postdoc students from as far afield as Togo, West Africa.

Dr Serena Illig is an IRD (Research for Sustainable Development) researcher from the Laboratory for Geophysics and Space Oceanography Studies (LEGOS) in Toulouse, France. She is currently based at the Department of Oceanography at the University of Cape Town (UCT) within the International Joint Laboratory, ICEMASA (International Centre for Education, Marine and Atmospheric Sciences over Africa).

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The ocean modelling course was attended by master’s, PhD and postdoc students from as far afield as Togo

World leaders

Dr Illig's expertise lies in equatorial ocean dynamics and its role on eastern ocean boundary systems as well as basin- and regional-scale ocean-atmosphere interactions. In order to investigate these processes, she makes use of a number of different ocean modelling strategies and has become a world leader in regional ocean modelling techniques.

Numerical ocean modelling was first kindled at UCT by Dr Pierrick Penven, who spent time there during his PhD in the early 2000s. After receiving his PhD, he spent much more time at UCT under the auspices of the IRD and then ICEMASA, running several ROMS classes and supervising many South African and African students.

Although Dr Penven remains very involved with southern African ocean modelling, his visits have become less frequent. Dr Illig has been carrying the ocean modelling flame at UCT for the past three years and in doing so has nurtured local capacity.

Free regional ocean modelling course

Dr Illig started the course from the ocean dynamic equations, explained how they are solved numerically and then provided an overview of ROMS possibilities. Her course was methodical and coherently structured, being comprised of lectures, interspersed with hands-on sessions that allowed the students to capture the fundamental aspects of ocean modelling. By the end of the week, every student successfully produced their own ocean model configuration in a region of their choosing and were given the tools to visualise their data.

Despite the very broad range of interests of the students in attendance, each found the course extremely beneficial. Michael Hart-Davis, a Nelson Mandela University master’s student, with expertise in developing a particle-tracking software, said: 'This course has provided me with a great framework from which to build my expertise in modelling. It was great to learn how ROMS works from someone that is passionate about the model and someone that uses it on a regular basis.’

A genetics PhD student interested in marine population genetic connectivity, Sohana Singh, found that the course helped her understand the background of how ocean models work and hopes that she will use the knowledge to run her own model simulations.

Everyone seemed to share the sentiment of Katherine Hutchinson, who has just completed her PhD on the seasonality of the Agulhas Current, that Dr Illig is a fantastic teacher and was able to take very confusing concepts and explain them in a way that was accessible and understandable.

* The Professional Development Programme (PDP) of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation aims to accelerate the development of scientists and research professionals in key research areas.

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