People of PACE: Ivona Cetinić Studies the Ocean’s Microscopic Organisms

A woman stands in the center left of the image wearing a white clean suit which covers her whole body including her head. She wears a white mask that covers her nose and mouth and blue gloves on her hands. Behind her are three other people wearing the same clean room gear. Two of those people are standing on a lift and are slightly above the woman in the foreground. Behind all of the people is PACE, which is large and box shaped, and is black colored with a light reflection off of it.

Ivona Cetinić is a biological oceanographer in the Ocean Ecology Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

What is your favorite ocean or atmospheric related book or movie?

I’m a science fiction fan. Definitely “Abyss.” I don’t know why, but it’s been my favorite ever since I was a kid. I’m sure there are better ones, but it’s the only one that comes into my head movie wise. For a movie it was always, always, always “Abyss.”

What is your background? What do you do for PACE?

The image is primarily taken up by the large trunk of a tree on the right side. The left side of the image shows the background of a forest landscape. A woman is centered in the image, wearing jeans and a black jacket. She is hugging the trunk of the tree, but the tree is much larger than her and she cannot fit her arms around the trunk.
Phytoplankton cannot be hugged, but trees can 😊. Image Credit: Mary Jane Perry

I am an oceanographer. I am interested in phytoplankton community structure and how it interacts with the environment, and also how the environment interacts with phytoplankton community structure. That’s how I ended up developing better tools to study phytoplankton.

For PACE, I am in charge of anything that has to do with biogeochemical processes in the oceans. Not just phytoplankton, but also the elements (such as carbon) and energy that phytoplankton move around, and other types of carbon, sediment, or organic material that float around the ocean. So, I take care of those algorithms and make sure that they look nice and pretty once we launch.

What are you most looking forward to during launch?

The launch itself, since I have never been to a single launch. So I’m excited for the countdown, and being surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues, and everybody enjoying that moment.

What are you most looking forward to post launch?

The first light images and the first data. I’m looking forward to getting to start playing with the data as soon as I can get my hands on it. We’ve been testing algorithms and I just want to get some real data!

The image is comprised of four of the same phytoplankton, each taking up one quadrant of the image. The phytoplankton is shaped like a hexagon, and each corner of the hexagon has an additional spike coming off of it. They look slightly like snowflakes. The hexagon and spike parts are bright white colored, except the bottom left phytoplankton is more of a dark blue color. Inside the middle of the hexagon is an orange color.
Microphotographs of phytoplankton species Dictyocha speculum. Image credit: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dalhousie University, Rajashree Gouda

Do you have a favorite phytoplankton?

I shouldn’t have favorite children! But there is one that I really like a lot – it’s called Dictyocha speculum. It’s really cute. This “guy” looks like a little star, and to me looks a little bit like the star on top of the PACE logo.

Since PACE will be looking at all these different colors of the ocean, do you have a favorite color and why is it your favorite color?

I think you’ll see me in black all the time, which isn’t a color. It’s really hard to define color because the color is dependent on the thing as well as the light that is bouncing off that thing. And when something is black, that means that eats up everything, all the light. There’s nothing coming back towards your eyes, that’s what black is. I think it just kind of goes back to my teenage years everyone was comfortable person in black. But when it comes to real colors, probably purple, lilac, bluish.

What advice would you have for aspiring oceanographers who are interested in working for NASA?

Never give up. Never surrender. Really jump at any opportunity that opens up to you, just because you will never know where it’s going to lead. And it might not lead right to where you want to go, but it’s much better than sitting in one spot and thinking “Oh, what would be happening, where would I be if I didn’t take that opportunity?” Just try to jump on any opportunities out there. I was lucky to have the doors open every time and I was just jumping in everything that was available to me. I think that’s the route that got me to NASA.

A woman is centered in the image wearing a bright red outfit with white, black, and blue patterns and designs in circular shape on the back of her outfit. The woman has down black hair with blue streaks through it. She is carrying a drum that rests on the top of her head. The drum has the same pattern of red, black, white, and blue colors on its face.
Ivona carrying her drum during one of the performances of Batala Washington. Image Credit: Robert Werner

What is a fun fact about yourself? Something that people might not know about you?

I like music a lot, and I play many instruments. Currently, I play drums in an all-women, Afro-Brazilian band.

What is one-catch all statement describing the importance of PACE?

PACE will give us a view of the ocean and atmosphere that we have never had before. It opens up so many possibilities that we don’t even know about. I think PACE is going to give us so much more insight than we expect about the ocean and the atmosphere and interactions between them.

Header image caption: Ivona happily posing with the PACE observatory. Image Credit: Dennis Henry

By Erica McNamee, Science Writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center