Ecologist Spotlight: Cecilia O’Leary

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Cecilia O’Leary for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Cecilia O’Leary

Please state your current affiliation.

Cecilia: PhD student at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, NY in Dr. Janet Nye’s lab.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Cecilia: I’m a quantitative ecologist, so I count things for a living and then try and figure out why there are that many. My PhD work is focused on determining how climate influences fish abundances. I work on developing statistical methods to incorporate climate into population models used to estimate fish abundances. I also work on incorporating climate into our management indices used to decide how many fish we can catch sustainably. Finally, I work on how various assumptions in statistical models influence the solutions to our questions. More of my research info can be found here:

What first interested you in ecology?

Cecilia: My first interest in ecology was in undergraduate. I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist or engineer, but I wasn’t very picky about what kind when I started undergraduate. I went to the University of Richmond, a liberal arts university where the degrees in science are general Chemistry, Physics, or Biology. I took classes in genetics, organic chemistry, physics, cell and molecular biology, calculus, etc. I took one course my sophomore year called Integrative Biology. A researcher came in and presented on mathematical biology, and I was hooked. I had no idea until then that biology could be researched through math. This led me to a behavioural ecology class and my interest in ecology. My confirmation that I had made the right choice came during my first ever field work, cruising down an empty highway with my advisor at the time while Madonna was blaring from the radio, in between collecting soil samples for nematode research at different elevations.

What has inspired you in your career?

Cecilia: I have been very lucky to have a lot of strong and intelligent women in my life, and all of them inspire me in different ways. My mom and my aunts are all very determined women who demand respect in their profession while being very good at what they do. This made it easy for me to step into a scientist role that I desired but was never actively encouraged to do by my teachers until later in my career. Growing up, both of my parents prioritized my education and made sure that I had opportunities available to me, and since have also supported my decision to be whatever I want and never questioned the odd lifestyle of an ecologist.

Cecilia training at the Desert Tortoise Center in the Mojave Desert. Photographer: Lisa Drake. Image provided by Cecilia O’Leary.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Cecilia: My favourite research moment was my first poster presentation at a scientific meeting in undergraduate. I worked in a soil ecology lab (for Dr. Amy Treonis). I remember being SO nervous, but when the time came I rocked it. I was able to answer questions from everyone who asked and have interesting discussions about my research. I even had people hand me their cards to come and work for them after undergrad. That feeling that first meeting left me with was amazing. I keep a journal of all my accomplishments and compliments to fend off imposter syndrome, and the one right after this poster session was my first entry. It said, “You can do this! You were meant to be a scientist!” and I go back to that entry often.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Cecilia: I’m actually really lucky. I’ve met a lot of the people whose research and work I admire through work and talks at various universities, like Dr. Maria Klawe, Sir David Attenborough, Dr. Marc Mangel, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. Rebecca Asch, Dr. Margaret Palmer, and Dr. Jacqueline Gill. I also get to visit NOAA labs each year for my NOAA fellowship and so I meet a lot of the stock assessment scientists and researchers who are leading the way in climate and fisheries research. Dr. Eugenie Clarke and Dr. Vera Rubin would both have been impressive researchers to meet and I’d love to meet Kimberly Bryant or Aisha Bowe.

What is a challenge that you faced as a student/young professional and how did you work through it?

Cecilia: I think one of the challenges that I’ve faced the further up I travel in STEM is the biases against and mistreatment of women in STEM. Every woman is an intersection of different experiences, but I think that many of our experiences are speckled with instances of sexual harassment and (whether subconscious or conscious) bias in the workplace. This systemic issue was present at many different institutions that I’ve worked at with very few institutions implementing tools to support their female scientists and female students. It’s not from everyone, and it’s not always present, but it’s there. On a day to day level, the most frustrating and demoralizing of those is the microaggressions. Statements such as “it’s great to see someone like you interested in math and statistics”, “you don’t look like a scientist!”, “good for you for being good at math”, “YOU code?!”, being talked over, promises to wives that they won’t meet alone with you, or implications from scientists that you are not as competent as them can be difficult to tolerate. They’re subtle and minute, but they add up, particularly for a group of people that is already prone to imposter syndrome. The way that I’m working through it is keeping track of compliments and accomplishments to remind myself that there is a place for me in STEM, learning from and listening to experts on the subject (such as Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Dr. Kate Clancy, Dr. Karen James, and Dr. Jacqueline Gill), and speaking up more and more as I learn about how to change this atmosphere in STEM. I think it’s important to take an active role in being part of the solution, whether through educating or mentoring, and encouraging others (particularly men) to also play an active role in making STEM a friendlier environment for women. There’s little value in finding ways to recruit more women to STEM if we can’t figure out a way to retain them once they’re there. I hope to be a part of solutions to fixing issues with harassment, microaggressions, family leave, child care, and affordability. I also think that it’s important to emphasize that ‘woman’ is one defining variable of a person, and that each intersection of women involves different issues and solutions. A solution for me won’t be the same as for a black woman or for a trans woman because we don’t face all of the same challenges, and so it’s important to listen to all women intersections to hear about their stories and their challenges to come to potential solutions for all women in STEM.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Cecilia: I step away! I give myself a chance to do something fun or work on a different research problem. If I’m becoming discouraged it’s no longer fun, and I chose this career because I love it. My outlets are usually meditating, reading, concerts, or hiking. I think it’s easy to forget as a PhD student that a lot of what we’re working on doesn’t have a solution yet and we’re working on the unknown, so it can be easy to forget that what we’re doing is difficult and can take some time.

You are well versed in a variety of programming languages. Do you have any tips or recommendations for students who are just starting to learn how to program for statistical purposes?

Cecilia: Definitely. Most of what I do now is self-taught (thanks so Stack Overflow), so my first tip is that if you want to learn to code then do it! If you’re an ecologist learning to program for statistical purposes, my opinion is that you should learn R first, it’s free and user friendly. There’s tons of online coding schools, and R studio even has their own ( and one through Datacamp ( When I’m learning something new I’ll go to Codecademy or Udacity. The key to learning new languages is finding a simple task that you want to do and solve it. Coding is something that you really must learn by doing, not reading and memorizing.

Cecilia conducting field work in Antarctica. Photographer: Melissa Rider. Photo provided by Cecilia O’Leary.

You participated in research in a wide variety of locations. What is one of your favorite places that you have worked?

Cecilia: The Antarctic is by far the most amazing place on earth. It’s extremeness, tranquility, and pristineness are a captivating place to have the opportunity to participate in research for an ecologist. Leopard seals are my favourite animal, so seeing them in their natural habitat was awesome. Every time I go there it’s a surreal experience. The last time I was there, there was also a lichenologist so that made every step we took a fascinating learning experience. I also really loved working in the Mojave Desert. Absolutely nothing can beat hiking around in a forest of Joshua trees. Straight out of Dr. Seuss.

What do you do in your “off” time?

Cecilia: Most of my off time is taken up by my border collie-lab mix, Shackleton. I love to hike, kayak, and travel. I’ve made it to six of seven continents, so I hope to make it to Africa before I turn 30! I spend a lot of time reading literary fiction and obsessing over Doctor Who and now Shuri (Wakanda!). I also really enjoy learning how to build robots. Finally, I spend some time working on science communication at my page The Gonzo Scientist ( and @GonzoScientist1), writing both about science that interests me and what it’s like to be a grad student and science woman.

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Cecilia: I do this all the time! I tutor on the side to supplement my PhD stipend, and I’ve met many young students who want to be ecologists or biologists. The first thing I say is even though it’s super hard, keep at math and science classes, we all struggled through! I think many kids have this vision of the crazy mad scientist who is a genius and super weird or dorky. Hopefully now with representation like Shuri from Black Panther in pop culture, it will change that for us and teach kids that scientists are just like them. I let them know that sometimes scientists do poorly in school too and don’t have the top grades. In the end though, its totally worth it. You get to work to understand the world around you and hopefully improve it a little bit. You get to have muddy hands at work as your job. You get to travel to the far ends of the earth, meet amazing people there, and see all the things in the Planet Earth shows firsthand. Who wouldn’t want to see killer whales and penguins in the wild?!

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Cecilia: Mocha. What could be better than caffeine and chocolate?