Marine craft finds bilge pump useful

September 7, 2001

My goals on embarking on the life of an academic were simplistic and somewhat naive: to conduct exciting, novel, relevant research in oceanography and to communicate my findings to a wider community - not just a small group of like-minded specialists but also the taxpayers who fund my endeavours. I also want to present my work, within the much wider context of the marine sciences, to a group of young people who have chosen to spend three or four years at university. Not so that they can pass exams, but in the hope that something I convey may stimulate their interest, curiosity and imagination in the same way that a merry band of lecturers succeeded in doing for me 20 years ago.

Like many others I am prepared to work hard to meet these aims. I am not ashamed to say that it is not "just a job". I am fascinated by what I study, and I reckon that others are interested enough to make it worth my taking the time to tell them about it. What I begrudge is that the only way I could fulfil these aims in the past nine months was by working an extra 729 hours (taking the norm to be a 40-hour week) and not having a complete week off from work. "Stop whingeing, you self-pitying sod, and get a life," you might well be thinking. A fair enough retort, except that if my colleagues and I did that, the higher education system would collapse into the chaos lurking menacingly close by. Research would simply not get done and lectures would not be given, although no doubt we would still be assessed.

It is of course the sheer excitement of the research that in the end outweighs these frustrations. Life as a biological oceanographer has compensations that are immensely fulfilling and help satiate any sense of wanderlust. I have had the privilege of working in the Antarctic, Israel, Finland, Vietnam, the Philippines and Germany, as well as spending a year and a half on ships in the Atlantic, Arctic Ocean, Southern Ocean, Red Sea and North Sea.

At times my work has involved large multinational consortia, bringing with it the enriching stimulation of learning about, and from, colleagues with a very different outlook on life from mine. A pertinent example of this is that I am just starting to prepare for European Union-funded fieldwork in the White Sea off Russia next January. We will be studying the impact of sea ice on the coastal ecosystem in a pristine part of the world where scientists have rarely been. It is a wonderful opportunity, but a nightmare when I consider the preparations we have to make.

We will be working at a remote station that will take five days of driving through Finland and Russia to get to. That sounds easy enough, but the temperatures will be dipping well below -35C, and the roads even in summer are nothing to rave about. Once at the final destination, we will be trying to conduct sophisticated chemical analyses at a station with sporadic heating and an even less reliable electricity supply.

This is in stark contrast to fieldwork I conducted in mangroves in Vietnam and the Philippines, where sweltering temperatures vied with mosquitoes and oozing mud to hamper our progress. Again hotel bedrooms and balconies were turned into makeshift laboratories and minibars emptied in lightning speed to make way for precious samples. Bartering for fish and crabs with local fishermen was a novel way to collect samples that we had no time to collect ourselves.

But it is the opportunities I have had to study the Antarctic pack ice that have been the highlight of my academic career. The organisms that live within the ice are receiving increasing attention from researchers interested in their ability to withstand low temperatures, which make them useful in novel biotechnology applications or even as proxies for life on the moons of Jupiter. Over the past ten years I have had the privilege to make four three-month trips to these frozen wastelands. For me there can be no more stunning place to conduct fieldwork.

Imagine being deployed with a colleague by helicopter onto a 1m-thick ice floe, 20m in diameter in the middle of an ocean 2km deep. It is just the two of you. All around you there are similar ice floes rocking gently with the swell. When you finish coring the samples and have switched off the motors, the silence is simply breathtaking and is only disrupted by the squawk of a curious Adelie penguin as it jumps onto the floe, apparently from nowhere. The sense of being in another world is astonishing.

My times away always enthuse me to cry "just let me get on with my research and teaching, and stop filling up my time with more regulation, inspection, quality enhancement measures and yet more staff development". I am just back from a period of research and writing in Germany and already the futility of the sentiment is frustrating, being met by the prospect of form filling, meaningless meetings and the management of crises.

There is virtually no money out there to support basic research, or what little there is takes an exhausting effort to secure. There are simply not enough of us to teach the swelling body of students that have to be accommodated within the universities to make ends meet. The "system" presumes our continued goodwill and I, like most of my colleagues, will stay: those naive ideals that drew me into the university way of life are still my motivation. Sadly, those who fund the higher education sector seem to realise this as well.

David Thomas is a senior lecturer in biological oceanography at the University of Wales Bangor.

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