Thursday, 19 June 2008

Career bunk

I was contacted today by our PR person about a potential interview with some new magazine, The Sea. Although, this is unlikely to come off, I duly responded. I might as well record my science-lite responses to the interview questions here ...

Why did you decide to become an oceanographer?

I actually came into oceanography by accident. Although my main interest has always been with biology, I've also always enjoyed mathematics. So I when I heard of theoretical ecology at high school, I thought "that's where I want to be" and aimed myself that way. After completing my first degree in conventional biology, I selected a doctorate in ecosystem modelling that would let me continue with biology, but would allow me to explore mathematics more. As it happened, the ecosystems I wound up modelling were those of the open ocean, so I came to learn about (and love!) plankton. Although I'd not considered oceanography until my doctorate, I've not looked back since. My parents find this "return to the sea" funny, since my dad was a marine engineer and spent much of his working life on the ocean.

How did you prepare or train for it?

I grew up in Scotland, so at high school, alongside maths and english, I was able to take all of the sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) when I did my Highers (similar to A-Levels). I did have a favourite science subject, biology, and this is what guided my choice when I went to do my honours degree at university. While there, I did a fairly conventional mixture of botany and zoology, but as I'd always liked maths at school, I also took a few maths courses and applied these to my biology studies. As it happens, this came in handy afterwards when I decided to continue my studies with a doctoral degree in ecological modelling. This brought together both my biology training and my interest in mathematics. It also introduced me to oceanography, a subject I've stayed with ever since. After completing my doctorate, I've been involved in a number of projects covering a diverse range of interesting topics, from the ecology of important plankton groups, to the intricacies of the ocean's carbon cycle, and to the wider earth system, past, present and future. These latter experiences have been both rewarding, and have underscored that science really is a career of life-long learning.

What does you current job involve?

At the moment I'm involved in a project to work out how much anthropogenic carbon dioxide – that’s carbon dioxide created by human activity – is being absorbed by the ocean. Every year the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere rises but by less than it should do, and one of the reasons is that some of it is being dissolved and going into the ocean. We want to know how much because that will help us to predict what will happen in the future.

You can’t tell the difference chemically between anthropogenic and other CO2, you can just tell that there is CO2 there, but some people have worked out little tricks to tell where it is. For example they use information from CFCs, which also go into the ocean and also have a recent history but don’t occur naturally. They see where in the ocean they are distributed and use that to guess where we might also have anthropogenic CO2.

What I am doing is testing their theories using my model. I’ve simulated the last 200 years, which is about how long we’ve been using fossil fuel, and anthropogenic CO2 has gone into my model ocean. I know where it is, because I can separate it out using an accounting trick, but I pretend that I don’t know. Then I use the methods that they use in the real world to see if they can find the CO2 in my model. This tests whether the assumptions they are making in the real world are accurate.

How much do you earn?

Approximately £30,000, although there's a graded pay scale, so I've earned less in the past and will (hopefully!) earn more in the future.

What's the best part of your job?

The best part is the variety in the work. While I've stayed an ecosystem modeller since my doctorate days, each project has brought new challenges both in terms of learning about new things, and in gaining experience of new ways to tackle and solve problems. Furthermore, although I'm mostly focussed on one or two projects at a time, there's a lot of scope and freedom for developing my own work or for collaborating with other scientists.

And the worst?

While I work in a building full of other oceanographers, oceanography is a big field, and we're often working on quite individual and isolated projects. So while it may appear like we're always working closely together, occasionally you're the closest to an expert in the building on a particular topic, and so have to dig yourself out of holes when they come up. But even then, it's often very satisfying to rely on yourself this way.

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