Inia Soto Ramos Combines Satellite Imagery and Models to Better Understand Gulf

Dr. Inia Soto Ramos grew up in mountainous central Puerto Rico looking forward to the summer holidays to go to the beach.

“I really liked science since I was a kid,” she recalled. “I would look around my house in the mountains for anything to investigate, and I would wait an entire year to get to go to the beach. I was fascinated by the ocean since I was very young.”

Soto Ramos’ interest led her to seek a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Puerto Rico. There she began learning about remote sensing using satellite imagery and geographic information systems (GIS). A six-month internship at Western Washington University through the Multicultural Initiative in the Marine Science Undergraduate Program (MIMSUP) in 2003 firmly set her on her path. There she credits Dr. Brian Bingham with not only introducing her to marine science, but also giving her confidence in her research and presentation skills.

“I was hooked after that,” she laughed. “No going back.”

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CONCORDE Postdoctoral researcher, Inia Soto Ramos, works with satellite imagery, geographical models, and in situ data to understand the physical and biological changes freshwater undergoes as it enters the Gulf from area rivers. Photo credit: Inia Soto Ramos
After her great experience in Washington, she began applying for other opportunities to study marine science through NOAA and other programs, performing internships in Oregon and Virginia before she finished her degree in 2005. From a family of educators, Soto Ramos also made sure to complete her teaching certification as part of her studies.

From there she moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida, where she obtained a master’s and PhD in biologic oceanography at the University of South Florida. Her PhD director Dr. Frank Muller-Karger served as a personal and academic advisor, inspiring her to work with multi-disciplinary teams and always give back either helping with general scientific outreach or by bringing her knowledge to parts of the world where it might be useful.

“He encouraged me to never limit myself to one little thing, but to have an open mind and to collaborate with people from everywhere,” Soto Ramos said. Muller-Karger frequently traveled to Venezuela for public health outreach. Following his lead, she decided to do her PhD dissertation work in Florida and Mexico, and participated actively in the Mexico-USA binational collaboration to study HABs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fluent in English and Spanish and proficient in Portuguese, Soto Ramos’ first post-doctoral position involved teaching satellite oceanography and researching the south Atlantic at the Federal University of Rio Grande (FURG) in Brazil. But she found she missed working on the Gulf of Mexico, which had become a beloved study site during her years in Tampa. She began looking for other opportunities on the Gulf Coast. Already familiar with GoMRI’s mission through the C-IMAGE consortium at USF, she applied for the opening at CONCORDE and began working in Dr. Bob Arnone’s Ocean Weather Laboratory in July of 2015.

Soto Ramos’ work today involves using a combination of satellite imagery, geographical models, and in situ data to understand the physical and biological changes freshwater undergoes as it enters the Gulf from local rivers. In the event of a future catastrophe like 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, would the presence of a river plume pull oil closer to the coast or push it away from land? Soto Ramos explained that these kinds of questions guide her research.

The first thing she does every day is look at the weather report, but in a much more involved way than most people.

“I look at satellite imagery, couple it with circulation models, and try to combine that together with any unusual oceanographic features to create a day-to-day forecast,” she said. “If there’s something specific happening, I try to understand it and alert anyone who would need to know.”

Her skills were in high demand during the recent Fall Campaign, when she and fellow post-doc Dr. Kemal Cambazoglu worked around the clock crunching data to inform the adaptive sampling efforts of the scientists in the field.The two worked as a team to make sure both research vessels had accurate daily updates on conditions in the area.

While the surface of the river plumes appears very clearly in her satellite images, details are more elusive. Coupling physical and biological oceanography in her research, she tries to discover the depth of the river plumes she identifies through satellite imaging, how they mix with the saltwater as they travel into the Gulf, and what the biological response to their presence is. . Her goal is nothing short of finding out how freshwater input into the Gulf is changing the entire water column, top to bottom.

Soto Ramos looks forward to presenting her early findings at both the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference and Ocean Sciences conference in 2016, but she feels that she will not have truly done her job if she only communicates with other researchers. She stresses how important it is that CONCORDE’s findings reach the public at large, that everyday citizens understand her work.

“The papers will stay in the box—only scientists will read them,” she said. “We need to always be sure to transfer our knowledge to the community.”

Because of her feeling that service is important and her expertise in satellite tracking and harmful algal blooms, Soto Ramos was more than happy to assist government scientists track a massive Karenia brevis outbreak in the northern Gulf. She used her satellite and modelling programs to identify new filaments of the bloom as it moved west and predict its short-term path so that Mississippi Department of Marine Resources officials could test water quality in the right areas and make informed decisions about fisheries closures, She also gave interviews to local media to answer questions about both the path of the bloom and public health issues associated with its continued presence.