Juan Botella

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“My name is Juan Botella. I was born in Mexico City, where I studied up to high school. I have an undergraduate degree in oceanography and a master’s in physical oceanography from Ensenada, Baja California. I continued my doctorate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in physical oceanography. Nowadays I am a teacher at Monona Grove High School. I teach physics, astronomy, climatology, and meteorology”

Juan Botella won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

When did you first become interested in oceanography?

I have been interested in the study of the ocean ever since I was little kid. I was about seven years old when I decided I would study marine biology. It was not until my third year as an undergraduate that I dropped out of marine biology to pursue oceanography.

Was there something that motivated you to study oceanography?

Yes, my family used to go on vacation to an underdeveloped beach three times a year. I would spend hours on the beach, asking myself why things around me were the way they were. I decided to study science to understand the ocean better. Later on, I started enjoying mathematics a lot. I realized how important math is to solving problems, so I decided to devote more of my time to it.

Can you tell us more about your job?

My job consists of motivating students so they can develop skills that will help them fulfill their dreams. I create educational lessons in which students can learn to decipher the mysteries around them. Having students learn the scientific concepts is not enough. It’s important that they know how to use them to solve new problems.  

Can you tell us more about PolarTREC and your experience in the program?

PolarTREC is a program that brings together teams of scientists that develop investigations in polar zones with teachers of all levels. The idea is for teachers to learn about the researcher’s work methods so they can help spread the importance of the research and to motivate students to study science.

I participated in PolarTREC in 2011, in the expedition Seawater Property Changes in the Southern Ocean. You can look at this link for more information: https://www.polartrec.com/expeditions/seawater-property-changes-in-the-southern-ocean.

Besides a week at McMurdo Station in the Antarctic, I spent 68 days on a research icebreaker. During that time, I learned about the oceanography research that they were doing. My job consisted of developing materials about the project we were working on, like videos, interviews, articles, and photographs, as well as helping in the day-to-day activities of the investigation.

What advice would you give young Latinos that want to study science?

I would advise students to knock on as many doors as they can. Look for university professors and contact them. Most professors will be happy and excited to see you interested in their work.

It’s important to keep in mind that no one is born a good scientist. It requires a lot of work and dedication to do good science. The gratifying thing is that anyone that works hard can become a great scientist. The same goes for engineering.

Do you participate in any programs that promote science in society?

Besides working in collaboration with El Universo es Tuyo, I am writing a novel for young people from 8 to 12 years old, in which the protagonists learn about the scientific process and the concepts of polar science, like particle physics, penguin biology, biochemistry of Antarctic bacteria, and much more. One of the protagonists is a Latino student that, besides participating in the scientific expedition, faces the challenge of being Latino in the United States. I hope to publish the book soon so I can motivate young Latinos to study science.

What has been one of the major challenges during your career? What helped you get over it?

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge was deciding not to finish my graduate program when I studied at MIT/WHOI. After several years of studying and after approving the candidacy exams, I developed a chronic headache that made it difficult to continue studying. Deciding to change my goals was not easy at all, but now I see it as the best decision for my career. Those years of graduate school helped me become the teacher that I am; that’s why I don’t think of that time as lost time.

What helped me make that decision was the support from my family, friends, and teachers, besides being positive that I would contribute to the development and diffusion of science. Now, I am very happy that my work can have a great impact on young people, even on those who are not very interested in science.