Feature Stories 2023: Iury Simoes-Sousa '23: International collaboration

PhD student Iury Simoes Sousa at SMAST lobby
Feature Stories 2023: Iury Simoes-Sousa '23: International collaboration
Iury Simoes-Sousa '23: International collaboration

Computational oceanographer Iury Simoes-Sousa helps relocate Tico the manatee

Iury Simoes-Sousa came to UMassD from Brazil to study computational science and oceanography in the Engineering and Applied Science PhD program. 

He enjoys collaboration and believes scientists should help each other. Recently, Iury got the chance to do just that when he was called upon by a group of researchers and conservationists in Brazil to help return a manatee named Tico that got lost at sea and ended up more than 2,000 miles from its home. 

What brought you from Brazil to UMass Dartmouth? 

"I grew up in Fortaleza, a city on the northeastern coast of Brazil. I completed a bachelor's degree in oceanography at Universidade Federal do Ceará and a master's in physical oceanography at the University of São Paulo. After finishing my master's degree, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry performing software development and data analysis with machine learning, but I wanted to do something more oceanographic and academic. My master's advisor, Professor Ilson Silveira, happened to be one of the leaders of the dual PhD program between the University of São Paulo and SMAST, so he helped connect me to UMass Dartmouth.  

"My wife, Agata Piffer Braga, is also an oceanographer here at UMassD. We applied for our PhD programs together and moved to the U.S. in 2019." 

What is the focus of your research?  Why is this topic important? 

"My work involves answering scientific questions and developing data sets and software that future scientists can use. I'm mainly interested in computational oceanography and my dissertation focuses on ocean vortices. An ocean vortex is like a storm in the ocean. Oceanographers study how vortices interact with each other, move, merge and split apart so we can better understand how they affect the biology of the environment. For example, phytoplankton are tiny plant-like organisms that drift with ocean currents and are responsible for producing roughly half of the oxygen on the planet. They also absorb carbon dioxide, which is very important for climate stability. We look at how changes in ocean vortices affect the lifecycles of these organisms by performing finely-detailed computer simulations." 

"Vortices can also be large (dozens to hundreds of miles) and sometimes we use satellites to observe them.  Scientists can also use ocean profilers to gather data about the ocean by dropping instruments into the water at different locations. I am also building a global dataset by combining satellite image measurements with on-site measurements to build a more complete picture of how ocean vortices behave. This dataset merges 4.2 million profiles with 32 million vortices from 1993 to the present. This computationally challenging project can help improve our understanding of ocean physics and biology and can be useful for those who want to know how vortices are changing with time, as the climate changes over decades."

The funding for all of Iury's graduate work was made possible by grants to Dr. Amit Tandon from the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.

What has been your experience working with faculty at UMassD?  

"I am fortunate to have Professor Amit Tandon as my advisor. We work very well together; he gives me freedom to pursue different projects and collaborate with other institutions, but also gives lots of support. 

"It is very hard to live in another country and study in a foreign language. It helps to have an advisor who is not only a great scientist, but who also understands our struggles and cares for his students."  

Does culture play a part in your experience as an international scientist? 

"UMass Dartmouth is a very international university. There are many cultures represented here, and each culture and language brings a different perspective. For example, as I learned English I started to think in both English and Portuguese; language can add layers of meaning to different concepts.  

"As scientists, we often try to separate ourselves from what we observe, but as human beings we are part of these systems we're studying. The work is not completely objective; we all bring our own point of view based on personal experience, culture, memory, and where we come from."  

Do you have a favorite memory of your UMassD experience? 

"I love the community here and how students interact with each other. The Intercampus Marine Science (IMS) Symposium is one of my favorite events at SMAST, it gives us all a chance to see what others are working on."  

What are you most proud of? 

"I have always loved collaborating and doing science together with other researchers. Science should be open and collaborative, not competitive. I'm proud of the collaborations I've been a part of, and the times when my work has been helpful to other scientists." 

Manatee underwater
Photo credit: Unsplash

Tell us about Tico the manatee 

"One example of this type of collaboration happened recently when I was asked to help relocate a manatee to Brazil.  Manatees are considered vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In northeast Brazil, manatees normally give birth in estuaries, but they're losing habitat, causing them to give birth in the ocean which is more dangerous. 

"AQUASIS is a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Brazil that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases manatees that get injured or stranded. They tracked a manatee called Tico that ended up in Venezuela, more than 2,000 miles away from its community. The manatee was found safe, but the repatriation of the animal is a long and cumbersome process that needs to involve both governments."  

"Using computer simulations and analysis of ocean dynamics combined with their tracking data, we were able to show that the manatee got caught in the currents and its movements were not part of a natural migration.  Now, the rescue team is working with the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments to bring Tico back, using my analysis to prove their argument.  It may only be one manatee, but it's exciting to see how my research can be applied to make a difference like this."  

What comes next for you? 

"I received a post-doctoral fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where I will have the freedom to choose my own project. I'd like to continue my current collaborations in some way.  

"The most challenging part of becoming a marine scientist is that I have to decide how to define myself; I define myself as a computational oceanographer because I am deeply fascinated by the power of data-driven approaches to unravel the complexities of the ocean.  One captivating aspect lies in the intricate relationship between ocean dynamics, weather patterns, and climate change. We've only recently discovered different ways the ocean dynamics can affect the atmosphere and the weather (not just the other way around). This air-sea coupling is something I'd like to understand more.

"Most of all, I am passionate about interdisciplinary projects and want to explore the ways that science can impact society. While we have a good sense of how the global climate is changing on average, we still struggle to understand how these changes are going to impact different regions of the planet. This is a critical aspect that shapes climate mitigations and solutions, and it depends on extensive computer simulations and combination of various global datasets.”

"Long term, I'd like to teach someday. I think it's important that we as scientists can share information with others and communicate about our work in plain language. We need to improve the relationship between the scientific community and the rest of society. If we don't build trust with our audience, how can we expect them to listen when it really matters?  This is so important for preventing misinformation and helping people understand the science that can have a direct impact on their lives.  

"Also, I've always liked keeping in touch with the places I pass through. For example, I still advise and mentor students from my undergraduate university. I hope to maintain a connection to UMassD and SMAST even after I've left."  

What advice would you give to future students? 

"My main advice is to find a purposeful career that aligns with your curiosity, passions and values, but collaboration is also key.  Offer support to others when you can and ask for help when you need it. This kind of give and take will help you achieve progress both in science and in your career.  Remember to maintain connections, mentor others, and give back to your community."