David Ortiz-Suslow, Research Assistant Professor, Naval Postgraduate School

David Ortiz-Suslow, Research Assistant Professor, Naval Postgraduate School


Please include details about your educational background and what sparked your interest in atmospheric or related sciences.


My interest in atmospheric sciences evolved over the years from my boyhood fascination with the sea. My mother would take me to Stinson Beach, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, as a child. Some of my fondest early memories come from being simultaneously chilled by the California waters and roasted by the summer sun. My childhood passion, combined with an inherited sensibility for the virtues of academia and an avid consumption of National Geographic--and similar--nature programs, compelled me to matriculate into UC San Diego with the aim of studying marine biology--or similar. As a freshman, I soon realized that beyond a passing fancy I did not have a passion for biology and my chemistry acumen was all-together lacking. Therefore, I filled out the worksheet with departmental letterhead to transfer into the physics program. Regardless of this disciplinary waffling, my interest in studying the ocean persisted. I took classes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, volunteered in a physical oceanography lab, and bought a surfboard. Though I was doctored in Applied Marine Physics at the Rosenstiel School at the University of Miami, my personal love for the ocean has persisted, but my professional interests have metamorphosed. In graduate school, I became enamored with the complex problems of fluid mechanics and experimental methods. A fluid is a fluid no matter its density and my particular media of study has "dried" through my burgeoning career where I have taken a somewhat "go with the flow" approach (pun most certainly intended).


What was your first job in the field and how did you end up in the job you are in now?


My first foray into marine science came to me in an email from a teammate on UC San Diego's ski team (ironic in and of itself). She told me her roommate was a graduate student at Scripps and needed a volunteer to help with an up-coming field study. I quite literally jumped out of my chair and typed a response (with all ten fingers!) in as many words as necessary to simply state: yes. A week later, I was in a wetsuit, holding what was intimated to me as: "very expensive equipment, so please don't drop it," and wading into the surfzone at Imperial Beach up to my chin. That quarter, I spent basically the entire month of October helping in any way I could, much to the detriment of my electromagnetics midterm. However, this first volunteering experience solidified for me my love for the science and the field and every professional decision I have made from that autumn has been rooted in that early experience. I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate through my involvement in another field study that was motivated by some of my graduate work and involved some of those people whom I first met back on Imperial Beach. While NPS is a great institution in and of itself, how I "ended up" there came about through the usual combination of professional stars aligning and a concerted effort to seek out opportunities that synced with my personal goals and desires.


What opportunities did you pursue that you knew would be beneficial to securing a job in the profession?


Attempting to divine how each step in your career will, or could, be, or not be, beneficial to securing a job is supremely difficult to the point of folly. There are so many variables beyond your control that dictate where you end up and when you end up there, that trying to suss this out in advance causes more angst than progress. Of course, I could relate my hindsight perspective, but hindsight has the benefit of hindsight and it will not necessarily help someone in foresight. However, this is not to say that "no plan" is the best plan. Through my many decisions, most poor, some decent, I have attempted to make every step purposefully based on the information available and adapt to the unexpected when it rears up.


What other courses/skills beyond the required math and science courses do you think would be the most helpful to individuals wanting a career in your profession?


There are two "things" I have done in my life that were the best preparation for my particular career and that I lean on almost daily: (1) my 10th grade honors English class and (2) my undergrad job as an outdoor adventure guide. Writing effectively and efficiently is critical for any academic career no matter the discipline. While this advice is repeated ad nauseam from middle school onward, I wholeheartedly endorse this repetition here. While it is possible to reach the upper echelons of my profession and be an abysmal writer, it is that much more difficult and everyone will talk about your abysmal writing behind your back when they hand you awards. For the latter, I felt so strongly about the utility of the skills I learned as a guide: leadership, logistics, budgeting, how to tie a bowline, etc., that I asked my supervisor to write one of my graduate school application recommendation letters, which in hindsight, was probably a poor decision. Regardless, the skills I learned in my guiding program are more practically useful than being able to recall the idealized form of Maxwell's equations, which I can look up anywhere on the internet in 10 seconds.


What is your typical day on the job like?


My typical day "on the job" is spent doing all of the computer work necessary to get funded to go outside and sweat a little bit 12 months from now.


What do you like most about your job? What is the most challenging thing about your job?


The best and most challenging part of my job is the mental stimulation. My work is incredibly engaging and can consume my entire mental faculty. At the same time, because of its engrossing nature my research literally never ends and only "stops" when I make the concerted decision to either go eat a meal or sleep or spend time with my family. The most special, and rare, thrills of my job are having a truly collaborative experience with another colleague(s). The synergy of several minds working together from different perspectives, but oriented towards the same goal is an incredibly exhilarating experience from which the best scientific discoveries originate.


Does your job allow for a good work/life balance? If not, why?


The supreme advantage of academic work is its flexibility. Apart from teaching duties, you are quite literally compensated for thinking, which, hopefully, can be done anywhere at anytime. However, that can also be one of the supreme disadvantages in academic work where the barrier between work and home become blurred into a single domain from where there is no real opportunity for "balance". Striking balance between my professional and personal life requires daily attention and reflection. There are times when needs must require profession to take precedence, and vice a versa. Balance does not mean being able to do everything; balance means compromise, it means accepting that opportunities at work will be missed and opportunities in life will be missed. The goal of having a balanced profession and personal life is that you can maintain a sense of equilibrium. Luckily, working in academia gives you the independence in your work to attempt to make this "ideal" a reality.


Over the course of your career what is the most exciting thing that has happened to you?          


The single most exciting professional opportunity I have had has been to take part in a research cruise on the Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP). This platform is of both historical and scientific significance and I will cherish my time on this "ship" in my memory for my entire life.


Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career?


For as many things I wish had done differently, there are quite as many things I would appreciate to stay the same.


What are some ‘must haves’’ on a resume if a person wants to gain employment in your field?


I have seen deserving resumes stuck in undeserved positions, and I have seen wanting resumes showered with opportunities. That being said, if publications are the currency of academic curricula vitarum, a funded award is a gold bar from the stockpile at Ft. Knox.