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Meet: Ginny Catania

photo of ginny in the field

Research Scientist
University of Texas
Austin’s Institute for Geophysics

Who I Am and What I Do
I am a Research Scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.  My specialty is understanding how ice sheets and glaciers work. In particular I am interested in how the Earth’s great ice sheets will respond to a changing climate. This requires a general knowledge of how ice sheets flow, which is complicated because ice flows differently in different regions depending on the type of bed material, slope, ice thickness, ice temperature etc.   I also need to stay on top of observations of ice sheet change including changes in ice thickness, velocity and extent. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use satellite imagery.  Repeat images (images of the same location at different times) give insight into ice sheet changes. 

I also conduct field research in both Greenland and Antarctica.  Fieldwork allows me to examine regions in detail using instruments that provide data that satellite images cannot.  In particular I am interested in ice flow history (how the ice sheet has changed in the past) that can be observed using ice penetrating radar.  Radar allows us to ‘peer into’ the ice sheets as it provides a picture of what internal layers and the base of the ice sheet look like in cross section (just as you can see layers in a road cut on the highway). I interpret the shapes of internal layers to get information about ice flow history. I am also interested in understanding how basal conditions (material type, bed slope etc) control ice motion. This can also be done with radar observations. 

Lots of different types of skills are required for the kind of work that I do, from mathematician to electrician!  While I spend anywhere from 1-3 months per year in the field, you are most likely to find me in front of a computer – either working on data or writing. This is the bulk of my work. Because of this, a high degree of computer literacy is needed but also a strong background in the physical sciences, a dedication to diligent writing and an adventurous spirit. 

Career Journey
During my undergraduate degree in Canada I had the opportunity to work with a professor studying glaciers in the Swiss Alps and the Canadian Rockies. These experiences were extremely fulfilling to me, and I became very passionate about the outdoors and glaciated regions. I realized that in order to keep doing fieldwork and exploring such beautiful and remote regions I needed to further my education, so I completed an M.S. at the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. at the University of Washington.  It was during this time that I began venturing to the Antarctic for fieldwork.  At first, I went for the adventure, but eventually the science began to pull me back to Antarctica more than the adventure, and now I find that there are a never-ending list of science questions that bring me to the field over and over again. 

Glaciology is a field that pulls on several disciplines including physics, math and geology. I found that I needed more quantitative skills after completing my Geology Master’s degree, and so I attended the University of Washington to obtain a Geophysics degree. This was a rigorous education that included a great deal of math and physics, but I was fascinated to learn how each of these sciences could aid my understanding of the Earth.

What I like most about my job
I think the best part about my job is sharing ideas with other people and figuring things out about how the world works. The fieldwork is challenging but also fun and fulfilling. I get a great sense of accomplishment out of completing fieldwork, because so much goes into planning the logistics and the day-to-day science activities. 

What I like least about my job
The worst part about my job is being away from home when I’m in the field and the long hours that go into work when I’m in town.  Also, I struggle with fitting into the scientific community, which in part comes from a lack of self-confidence but also from being one of a few women in the field of glaciology.

Advice to kids/students pursuing careers in this area
If you’re interested in glaciology, my advice is to take lots of math and physics and apply what you know to the Earth science.  Find a problem that intrigues you and pursue it.  Try to venture out onto a glacier, and if you can’t, see if you are up to completing a master’s degree in glaciology with someone who can take you up on a glacier. 

If your interests lie elsewhere, one thing to keep in mind is not to let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. The work that I do (and others do) may seem challenging and crazy (yes, people tell me I’m crazy to want to camp on ice sheets for weeks on end), but I really love it, and my desire to do it allows me to overcome obstacles in my path including people that tell me that I can’t do it.  Any career that you identify with is obtainable if you want it bad enough.  I really think this is true.

Personal Information
I love to travel, but have nearly exhausted my list of “really cold places,” so am starting to travel to the warm places.  \My next trip/dream is to do a bike tour through Japan, but I am not sure when I’ll fit it in. I love to cook and fix up my house (which needs it!).  I like to build stuff, since working with my hands gives my brain a vacation.  Living in Austin has afforded me plenty of opportunities to see live music and go swimming in springs, which is a new favorite activity.  I used to be an avid cross-country skier but you don’t get much snow here in Texas!  Instead I’ve gotten into bike riding, and I am into building single-speed bikes and riding them through the busy city streets.  I also like to hang out with my friends and making them food; especially really elaborate desserts.

I live in a small house with four pecan trees in sunny Austin Texas.  I never thought I would enjoy it here as much as I do!  I have a fiancé who owns a local shop selling scooters that are fun to ride (and get great gas mileage). We have four cats that keep us up at nights. 

My favorite quote:

We must be the change that we wish to see

Last update 01/08

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Last Updated: May 2005
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