Careers in Science
Environmental Scientist and Hydrogeologist
How did you choose your present profession? What were your biggest motivators? Who have been your greatest mentors or heroes?
I can't remember having specific heroes or mentors when I was growing up although I loved reading science magazines like Discover and National Geographic, which was partly because my family lived, somewhat, isolated in northern Ontario, and there were also social issues since my family was pretty well the only mixed English-French family in a French community. After pushing my way through high school, I moved to central Mexico for a year, becoming fluent in Spanish and also falling in love with the country. I then came back to Canada for a general science program since I knew I liked science. Environmental science suited me because of my love of water, rocks and mud, and so I pursued that not really knowing where I would end up. I was good at it though, and after some half-hazard full-time work stints, I then really pushed to join up my love of science and caves (which I only really discovered late in university), with my love of Mexico in doing a graduate research degree on caves in Mexico.
Was there a pivotal event in your life that helped you decide on your career path?
Becoming a scientist was a slow progression over many years. In high school, I really liked science even though I was so bored with how slow the classes were. After completing some of those aptitude tests they give you in high school, the guidance counselors suggested I consider being a veterinarian assistant, a nurse or a lab technician. Great professions, but probably just titles picked off of a list by the counselors, and frankly, on reflection, a bit disappointingly they are all consistent with female-dominated positions for women with science and technical aptitudes. I definitely rejected the guidance counselor’s advice as being uninspiring for me and just knew there was something else out there. A key factor in becoming a scientist was my strong need for self-direction, and being able to wander around and pursue challenges and mysteries. In university, I saw research scientists constantly deciding where they were going next, and what kind of projects and discoveries they were going to pursue, and that was immensely attractive to me.
What has been the biggest surprise in your life as a scientist?
One day when doing an underwater experiment in a cave in Mexico, I realized that some things I thought I knew, that I had accepted from convincing and logical presentations in textbooks, were simply wrong. I realized that I was perhaps the first person in the world to see and experience what was actually happening by being able to get into such hard to reach places and do the science, whereas before the text books were presenting ideas based on argument and assumptions but without any direct observation. It was not just that I was seeing massive amounts of water flowing in the supposedly "wrong" direction, it was also that I realized how sewage pumped underground in this area would then be heading straight for the water supplies, threatening not only beautiful coral reef, but also the health of all of the people and animals living above. My mind was racing with ideas while still underwater. In classes I had been told about how much difficulty some scientists had faced when trying to present new ideas, e.g. it was more than 60 years before plate tectonics was commonly accepted. Here I was coming out of my cave dive realizing that I too would now have to try and change the way we think about some aspects of the world, although admittedly nowhere near on the same scale as plate tectonics. This was not going to be an easy task since many millions of dollars had been committed to development plans in this particular study area, which would now be shown to be hazardous. Overall, I find it very personally challenging to think that there remains great potential for discovery in our natural world on this planet, as well as on the other planets we are now reaching towards, and that these discoveries are meaningful with implications for our health and survival.
What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
First of all, there is no schedule to life, and it is always possible to change direction. The career you might have may not even exist yet. You should therefore focus on what you are good at and makes you happy. If you do not yet have a sense of where you are going, or if you think you need some adventure in your life now, then find a project you can dedicate yourself to perhaps for a year. You should however make a deal with yourself that at a set point you will evaluate if you know better where you are headed and what your long-term plans might be. You will benefit immensely from taking the time to learn more about yourself and gain confidence in what your career path might be.
Second of all, you should seriously consider how much formal education you really need. I think that the only valid reason for pursuing a Ph.D. is that you have some deep and profound need to do it, because more often than not, a Ph.D. does not make sense from a financial or personal perspective. Graduate research degrees will be a painful experience in some way at some time, and you have to be ready for those sacrifices of 14-hour days, lost holidays, often delayed start in home ownership, delayed start in family, very low income—did I mention the low income?
Third, you need to gather a wide range of experience and input from as many people as possible. This might be by volunteering so that you can see the inside of where you think you are going, or through mentors such as through MentorNet. The life of a research scientist is very different then what many people think it is, and many of the people around you, including your parents and guidance counselors, may not actually know what is involved.
What do you like best about your profession?
I absolutely love having self-direction in my work. Every job has aspects we might not like, but I get to choose what those are, and I also get to choose where and how I get my rewards. A few years ago I was absorbed in cave diving research in flooded caves in Mexico, and now I am studying water dripping into six cave systems across Canada and the United States to better understand global warming, although I do still have projects in Mexico since the cave diving is a huge reward for me. The majority of my time is spent in my office writing about scientific ideas and the research results, while otherwise I am working in a laboratory doing analysis and experiments, in classrooms teaching, working directly with students guiding them on their research projects, and the most fun bit, which is doing field work in very interesting places about every 2 to 3 months. I also get to travel to interesting places, often in other countries for science conferences where my colleagues in earth and environmental science gather to share ideas. Every year I get to re-evaluate my commitments and choose what my next projects will be. This means that I can choose what kinds of adventures I have in different parts of the world, and ultimately make sure that I am always making new and valuable discoveries.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement?
I hope I never reach my greatest achievement.
Are you optimistic for the future of the planet and if so why?
I am optimistic for the future because we humans are so ingenious and have so many abilities and options in front of us. Do developing regions have to follow the same resource-consuming path that the first world has taken? I sincerely hope not. They can hopscotch and bypass us by embracing new technologies and trying different ways of doing things, thereby avoiding the definite negative outcomes that first world countries are struggling with. I sincerely hope to see this happen in my lifetime. For example, I avidly follow what is happening with the One Laptop Per Child program headed up by Mr. Negroponte, where they are trying to give super-rugged and cheap laptop computers to thousands of children principally in Africa but also in other developing regions. I think we can barely imagine the spontaneous eruptions of innovation that are going to come out of that project. My optimism is however tempered with patience and determination, since I know that most of the world problems today—pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, population growth, global warming, and others—have been known about for decades while the solutions have also been available for an equal length of time. What is missing is the political and economic will to do something about it.
What are your greatest fears for the future of the planet?
While I am very optimistic, I do fear that it is going to take a catastrophic event to affect real change in how we live on this world. I do not think that global warming alone is going to do it either since it is just too slow. I do not think that rising sea levels are going to be adequate since that will mostly be affecting the poor people in the Neo Tropical zones and they have limited global power at present. I think that perhaps the shutting down of the Atlantic circulation of warm water from the Caribbean to northern Europe might just be catastrophic enough, since that will be a catastrophic blow to everyone living in a large number of rich countries.
What’s the one message you would like the next generation of scientists to hear?
Become a scientist if that is what is in you. However, if you love science but don't think you are destined to being a research scientist, then consider becoming a lawyer, an economist, or completing your MBA. The scientists, we have so many answers, but affecting them into action is going to take some serious effort that has to come from within the political and economic machine. There must be more scientifically knowledgeable people in decision-making roles who are able to affect positive change from within the system, and that is something I see currently sorely lacking. How many scientific advisors are there in the federal government of your country? I bet you they are outnumbered 10 to 1 by the number of corporate lobbyist for companies and corporations who have bought into the idea that perpetual economic growth is not only possible but is the ultimate goal. If the world or the solar system is only so big, how can we have perpetual growth?
What Web sites, books, articles and other layperson references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work featured in Strange Days on Planet Earth?
I highly recommend two magazines for people of all ages. First is National Geographic for its ability to visually inspire readers with ideas from far away places and also from in our own backyards. Second, I strongly recommend the weekly New Scientist magazine, which is filled with an unbelievable range of short and long stories on all aspects of the human, natural and constructed world. If you have kids around you and you want them to be inspired to explore, adventure and understand the world around them, get them a subscription to New Scientist. Expose them to the world of ideas.
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