Life as a climate scientist....

tom pugh embrace picDr Tom Pugh is a postdoctoral researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Garmisch, Germany and is one of the many climate scientists working within the EMBRACE project. Here he tells us about his work and how he ended up working in climate science.

Why did you choose a career in climate science?

I admit I didn’t set out to do climate science in the first place; I just ended up here by following my interests. When I started out at university (BSc Environmental Science, Lancaster University, UK) I was interested in the processes driving the weather, which eventually led to a PhD (Atmospheric Chemistry, Lancaster University, UK) studying how tropical rainforests affect atmospheric chemistry (they actually emit hydrocarbons which are strikingly similar to those from vehicles). This was followed by work on how plants impact upon urban air pollution, which made me decide that I wanted to look deeper into the vegetation processes which affect interactions between plants and the atmosphere. As some of these interactions can have a major effect on climate, that decision ended up leading me to my current job.

What are the advantages?

Number one is probably that I’m genuinely interested in what I do for a job. I think it’s quite a privileged group of people that can honestly say that. The variety of tasks means that you rarely get bored (of course that’s not to say it’s always fun!). I’ve also found there to be an increased feeling of satisfaction when you can see how your research helps address real world problems. There are many other enjoyable aspects, travel being one of them. Climate science in particular represents a massive international effort, and there’s a limit to what you can do at your desk. My research has taken me all over Europe, to the jungles of Borneo, and to the jazz capital of America. There are not many jobs where you can see orang-utans as a side effect! Science can also literally be your passport, with openings for climate scientist positions all over the world and a single common language for that science (English – luckily for me); your employment possibilities are not limited by borders in the same way that other professions can be.

Describe a typical day

I’m not sure there is such a thing, apart from that in my case it is normally spent mostly in front of a computer. I usually start work between 8 and 9am with a session of email spam-sifting. Because climate science is international and people often work unsociable hours, there’s usually something important mixed in with all the dross. Perhaps there’ll be something from our collaborators in the US or Sweden asking what on earth our new results mean, or maybe a letter from the publishers telling us our new research paper has been accepted (a really good day!).

Then it’s down to the real business. My primary tools for research are computer models of ecosystems. So maybe I’ll be delving into the computer code to adapt the model to perform some new experiment. This process is usually about 30% writing new code, and 70% searching for the errors you’ve just introduced! The model then takes between a few hours and several days to run, depending on what I’ve asked it to do, which leaves time to work on other things.

At 11am I often have a German lesson – in my case 90 minutes of forgetting words and stumbling through grammar. One of the exciting things about moving to Germany was the chance to learn a new language – the reality is challenging! This brings us firmly to lunchtime. Garmisch is fairly decisive when it comes to climate. The summers are hot (at least for a Brit) and the winters can drop to -20°C. But if it’s not freezing or raining, we’ll normally sit outside for lunch. The Alps start just behind the institute, so there’s a great view of gnarly rocks and people parachuting off them.

In the afternoon I might analyse data from a previous model simulation, and try and understand what the model is telling us. The models are designed to help us understand reality, but they are so complex that understanding them isn’t always straightforward. Perhaps if things go really well, there’ll be time at the end of the day to think about new research ideas or do some administration (our institute loves forms), before heading home at about 6pm.

Are there any negative aspects?

Job security – at least in the early years. Postdoctoral positions are usually only for 2-4 years at a time, and there is huge competition for permanent posts.

Would you recommend it as a career choice?

Yes, if you have a genuine interest in the subject and aren’t too strongly motivated by money!

Examples of research areas targeted by EMBRACE


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