Sonia Ortega

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Degree                                             Ph.D.
Position                                           Program Director
Department                                     Division of Graduate Education
Organization                                   NSF
I became interested in ecology while in college. I was majoring in Biology at the U. of Costa Rica and had the opportunity to do lots of field trips. I also took a course with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). My college professors were very supportive and encouraging. We had to do research projects. I realized I wanted to do field biology mainly in marine related habitats.sonia_ortega_profile
After I completed my Master’s degree I went to work in Nicaragua directing a shrimp farm project. I returned to the US for my Ph.D. I worked at the Duke Marine Lab as a researcher prior to my coming to the National Science Foundation. My training is in marine ecology. I conducted research on tropical rocky shores and also on oyster populations in North Carolina. My first challenge was to adapt to a new culture and language when I came to the US. While growing up and living in Central America I never saw myself less capable than others. However, when I came to the US I was labeled “a minority woman” and realized that the label had implications I didn’t know existed. I realized that I had to constantly prove that a “minority woman” can be as capable as anybody else. My scientific background was essential to get a position at the National Science Foundation. I needed the credibility and also needed the background to be able to communicate and interact with other scientists. I took a turn in my career and dedicated myself to science administration instead of doing research. I realized that I could make better contributions by being at NSF than from doing research. I’m currently on leave from NSF and I’m working with the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico in charge of Education and International Activities.
While in graduate school I was looking for positions as a researcher. I worked as a Research Associate at the Duke Marine Laboratory for a couple of years and then came to the National Science Foundation. This was initially a temporary position. I’ve been at NSF for 12 years. My position title is: Program Director in the Division of Graduate Education at NSF. I started my career way before the Internet was around. I had no clue about careers other than academia.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
Keep the options open, broaden the possibilities of jobs and careers. Look for opportunities where you hadn’t thought before. Network as much as you can. Find good mentors.