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From Environmental Science to Earth Observation

November 11, 2015

The last year since I moved back to Plymouth(yes it’s already been a year!) has been very nostalgic on the whole. I’m now living in Peverell where I spent most of my undergraduate years, and my walk to work and town takes me right through Plymouth University campus, and past all the buildings I used to have lectures in.

The nostalgia continued last week when I was invited to attend a careers event for the same BSc (hons) Environmental Science course that I attended at Plymouth uni between 2005 and 2008. I was very excited to do this, I found the small bit of student mentoring I did in South Africa to be incredibly rewarding and here was the opportunity to talk to people who were literally where I was 10 years ago. Back when I started university I don’t think I had much of an idea about where my career would take me. I certainly didn’t consider myself capable of being one of the people giving my lectures, or one of the people whose papers I read for my assignments. I ended up in research thanks to people who told me it was an option for me. It seemed time to pass on that favour.

Taking a bunch of PML promotional material, I set up a little stand amongst other environmental science related businesses. The diversity of the work conducted by the organisations present is credit to the many different career paths that a degree in environmental science offers. It was also a great chance to catch up with some of my old lecturers, who made me feel very welcome.

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The day involved a series of short talks amongst networking sessions. I had many students come and chat to me about the work PML does and about my personal work and career path. They were well prepared with questions thanks to an earlier session where they had discussed how to make the most of these sort of networking opportunities.

It was a thoroughly weird experience standing up and presenting in a lecture theatre where I had previously been part of the audience for so many lectures – from economics to ecology, and even including one given by the incredible James Lovelock. I felt the talk went well and I really enjoyed reflecting on my experiences to identify advice I could offer to the students.

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Several people who were unable to attend the talk asked to see my powerpoint. As with most of my work, it’s mostly pictures, so I thought I’d summarise the main points I made here:

What do I do?

My current job title is “Marine Earth Observation Scientist”. I showed the students some of the incredible images that I spend most of my days staring at. Beyond being beautiful, these images represent vast amounts of information about the marine environment, which we can use to address the various challenges we face in both using and preserving this diverse environment. Marine science is a microcosm of environmental science itself. Whilst we largely focus on just one sphere of the Earth system, we use the same interdisciplinary approach incorporating physics, chemistry, biology and social sciences. We also use many techniques to study the marine environment, from field work for sample collection, surveys and measurements, to laboratory experiments, remote sensing using satellite data and autonomous vehicles, and modelling. I personally use satellite ocean colour data (for an explanation of that, see here) on a variety of projects covering coastal water quality, ocean heat content, ocean carbon content, model validation and integration with socioeconomics. This involves attending international meetings and conferences, giving presentations, writing reports and scientific papers, and writing funding applications. The work done by my colleagues at PML is similarly diverse – you can find out about recent work here.

How did I get here?

As is obvious from this post, I started my career journey with a BSc (hons) in Environmental Science at Plymouth University. I selected modules covering current and past climate change, and the marine environment. Crucially I selected a research project within these topics, looking at extremes of temperature and precipitation in relation to the North Atlantic Oscillation and future climate scenarios. This choice proved to be vital as it was my supervisor for this dissertation (Dr Maeve Lohan) who encouraged me to apply for an MSc in Oceanography and begin my path towards a research career. At Southampton, for my MSc, I again opted to pursue climate related modules, in addition to some on remote sensing and physical oceanography. My research project using ocean colour data was my first experience in the field that would ultimately become the topic of my Phd in South Africa. Between MSc and PhD were some tough times. I travelled a bit. And then I applied to some jobs, which in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 00’s were pretty rare. I had decided to put off a PhD for a while, but then decided that if I chose the right one, it would be a great way to get some much needed work experience and a variety of skills. Going to South Africa, rather than accepting a PhD I was offered in the UK, was overwhelmingly the right decision. The skills I acquired, the opportunities I had, the connections I made, and the confidence all this gave me, has been invaluable. After handing in my PhD, I ended up getting an interview at PML and started my new job whilst finishing off my corrections – more on that part of the story here.

My best advice for my sector – marine science research

  • Learn to programme (open source) and handle large data sets. Lots of growth and opportunity in “big data” and can add value to many types of work. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are available for this.
  • Taught masters can be very useful for transitioning to a slightly different/more specific field.
  • Be willing to travel. There is a global marketplace for environmental science skills. Overcoming my fear of flying was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced.
  • PhDs aren’t just for academics. Independent research can provide lots of skills. Look at it as 3-4 years job experience. Pick a subject that supports growth of skills you want. And treat a PhD as a job. It’s not “being a student again”, whatever anyone tells you. You are generating new research, albeit with supervision – you should be paid and should treat your role as such.

My best advice in general

  • Environmental Science is a great course for many things. To this day the things I learnt support my technical work in so many ways. In particular when it comes to communicating between the data driven, and social science driven aspects of my work.
  • Failure happens – I nearly failed A Level maths, ended up going to university through clearing and now have a PhD. Failure is also an integral part of the scientific process – I went down many dead ends during my PhD research.
  • Learn to communicate confidently in many media e.g. technical/non technical writing, presenting, social media/blogs.
  • Networking is very important. Be visible. Attend events, choose advisors and mentors. Most people in science are very keen to speak to you!

I finished off my short talk with some details of MSc and PhD events coming up soon at PML.

I’m barely starting my career in marine science but I’ve learnt a lot already. I’m also putting much of this advice in to practice for myself continually – gaining better programming skills, finding mentors and networks, and learning to be a better communicator. I hope I’ve maybe made a few students aware of the options available to them and am always available to try and provide any help/advice – just contact me through the blog or on Twitter. Huge thanks to everyone at Plymouth University for making me feel so welcome.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Martyn permalink
    November 12, 2015 2:20 am

    Thank you Hayley, I think this will be a good example to people who ask what they can do with a life in science and perhaps have not seen it as a real world.
    In Healthcare we have translational research, it would be good to link what your community does to what it translates to in other jobs (if you haven’t already done that)
    M

    • November 12, 2015 11:36 am

      Hi Martyn,

      Interesting that you mention that. I would never want to dismiss “blue sky” research, which has great value in and of itself (see NASA spinoffs as an example https://spinoff.nasa.gov/), and this is where many innovations come from. There is however a substantial push (largely through changes in funding structure) for science to quantify it’s impacts in more direct ways. After spending a lot of time in SA, and being somewhat obsessed with making the world a better place, not just from an environmental but also a socio-economic perspective, this is something I’m very keen on. It’s something that drives my motivation to be in research as well, I’m not just in this to learn, I want to see my research be useful. It’s also something PML is very much involved in, as you can possibly see from the variety of topics covered by my colleagues.

      From my research perspective, there is a huge push for greater uptake of satellite data for the aid of society – hence the EU investing in the Copernicus/Sentinels programme which will see long term data continuity over at least the next 20 years. My work in areas relating to water quality/aquaculture is probably where the most obvious direct impacts are. This is definitely a very new, and rapidly advancing field though, and we’re still at the stage of scoping out how we bring this new data (we are just now really getting regular, free, high resolution data for the coasts/inland) to stakeholders in useful ways. I’m investing quite a lot of time in trying to understand how this is done as an iterative process, with involvement from people who understand socio-economics at all levels. For me this is some of the most exciting work I’m involved in.

      Some nice examples for how satellite based research translates in to societally relevant impact also came from a recent report from the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) – PML were featured and you can read a little more about that, and access the full report here: http://www.pml.ac.uk/News/Global_recognition_for_PML%E2%80%99s_Earth_Observation_sci.

      The translational aspect is probably not as formalised/advanced as it seems to be in medical research though. I’ve had a brief look around ‘translational research’ this morning, and it seems like there’s definitely things I could learn from – thanks 🙂

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