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The importance of a research community and tales of two giants of oceanography.

October 24, 2012

My recent trip to Europe, to attend the Ocean Optics XXI conference and European Space Agency workshop preparing for the launch of their new satellite, was a great opportunity for me to meet a huge number of people from the research community I am now part of.

I’d been a little nervous about these events, with a few stumbling blocks in my work in recent months and the potential for major embarrassment and criticism from respected experts in the field. However, these worries appeared totally unfounded as I’ve never before experienced the support and sense of community that I did during the last two weeks.

At the ESA workshop in Frascati, Italy I joined a mixed group of scientists from Universities and governmental institutions, to lament the loss of ENVISAT this year and discuss what this means for our community going forward in preparation for the launch of ENVISATs replacement – the Sentinels. Though it was apparent from personal and group discussions, that the funding situation for science is making things strenuous for nearly everyone at the moment, I think this has only forced the community at large to come together more and plan ever more integrated work to make the most of limited resources. The Earth is a big place and our newest satellites will be collecting data that will cover the entire surface of the Earth every one to two days. You can imagine how difficult it would be thoroughly “validate” (check the accuracy) of this data over the entire Earth with unlimited funds. And we only have very limited funds, so a massive community effort will be needed to make sure our new satellite is giving us accurate data across the variety of land and water types we have on Earth. My task for the meeting was to show why the old and new satellite sensors have been and will be vital for South African research and resource management. South Africa is a microcosm of the rest of the world in terms of its water types with open ocean, sediment influenced coastal waters and extremely productive coastal and inland waters all found in close proximity to this vast and socio-economically challenging country. We often have to exploit many different techniques to address the challenges faced for understand and managing these water from a climate, health and economical perspective. I received a lot of encouraging comments after my whistle-stop tour through mine and my colleagues work and we will certainly be submitting a proposal towards the validation efforts for Sentinel 3 later this year.

I’d heard that discussions at the ocean optics conferences could get a little heated as the latest in optics research is presented, so I was understandably terrified at the prospect of standing up in front of +/- 300 people and putting my hard earned research results in the firing line. Happily, my doomsday scenario never manifested. I was placed in the middle of a session in which all results and comments supported my work, a great confidence booster. Following my talk I received some really interesting questions and ideas for further work and my poster attracted lots of discussion from people interested in a range of topics – from particle modelling, to Harmful Algal Bloom monitoring and the use of different satellite sensors.

The conference was held with a tinge of sadness for many, as the ocean optics community lost two of its founding fathers this year – André Morel and Charlie Yentsch. Although I never got to meet either of these men, their work underpins the foundations of my research. The ocean optics community was full of people who had worked with and had their careers shaped by André and Charlie and there were two special tribute sessions dedicated to them. There were not many dry eyes left in the room as several academics took the stage to share, not just the scientific achievements of André and Charlie, but examples of how they had helped encourage many young students to build the community that exists today. Stories of Charlie helping a keen but young student to start his own company so he could be paid for helping out in the lab, and his ability to make even those much less experienced than him feel engaged in science, were particularly touching. Arguably satellite ocean color would not exist (at least not in its present form) without the work of Charlie and André, however I think their greatest legacy is the one that become apparent to me during the course of the conference. As I saw their ex-students talk about how these great teachers and researchers had supported and influenced their careers I began to wonder if they realised that they themselves were now continuing this, through the encouragement given to me and other terrified PhD students attending the conference?

I am pleased to be part of this community and hope that, even if only in small ways right now, I can offer friends and colleagues the encouragement that has been given to me these last few weeks.

More to come soon about guest speakers and other thoughts about the future of ocean colour/ocean optics from my trip!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mthetho Vuyo Sovara permalink
    October 25, 2012 11:00 am

    Great blog post once again Hayley:)

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