MSc Geomorphology & Quaternary Science, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands,
PhD Marine Sciences, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA
Personal blog: www.earthsciencesociety.com
Why did you choose a career in earth science?
I don't think I choose earth science – it choose me. I was a tomboy, I was raised in a family of highly educated outdoor lovers and readers (although not scientists). My parents had friends who were field biologists, so when they joined us for hikes, the hikes became ever more interesting and I realized that actually learning to understand nature (not just enjoy it) was appealing. I could have become a biologist just as well, it happened to become geology (as it was called then). If a degree in "natural sciences" had existed, I might have done that.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you gotten started?
I wish I had known more about how broad earth science is. But that was 40 years ago, the world is so different now, every student has the opportunity now to find that out easily, it's at their fingertips!
How is some of the work you've done relevant to Canadians?
I taught young Canadians in the few years that I worked here. I think that's relevant. Also, as CFES executive director I worked hard to contribute to defragmenting Canadian earth science. It's unbelievably fragmented with a dozen-plus technical societies representing maybe 15,000 professionals, hosting about eight annual conferences. You couldn't dream it up if you had to. This situation doesn't help in advocating and championing the field at a political level, which is why CFES exists, of course.
What do you wish the public knew about earth science?
Ca. 8 years ago, the American Geosciences Institute came up with the "Nine Big Ideas" that define our field. They also did an excellent series of accompanying YouTube videos about each Big Idea (no. 1 is here: https://youtu.be/pEtg209pvdU). It's very basic stuff and should be part of every secondary school science curriculum. If it was, the public would have the right basic knowledge about the planet we call home.
What is your favourite place that your work has taken you?
For me as a sedimentologist, working in the modern Mississippi Delta was a dream. It's definitely not my favourite place on earth, because it's incredibly hot and humid, the mosquitoes are the size of dragonflies and it's riddled with poisonous snakes and alligators, but professionally it was amazing. There was this vast delta, my field area was thousands of square kilometers, nobody did what I did, I had my own research vessel, it was an unbelievable opportunity. I learned a lot, our team produced a lot of results, so it was a successful period. I also loved working in the Dutch tidal sea (the "Waddensea") and of course in my own back yard, in Minas Basin, a side arm of the Bay of Fundy, with the highest tides in the world. As I wrote above, I am a backyard geologist, I am most happy when I can work in the area that I call home.
How did you get into the job that you're in now?
I'm not in a job now, because I'm retired, but I'll tell you briefly what I did during my career.
I grew up in the Netherlands, a flat delta plain with exactly two rock outcrops. Families didn't travel far in those days. I didn't see a real mountain until I was 16. So I had no intuitive love of or interest in rocks. While I was intrigued by geology, I struggled through the first few years of my undergraduate education because I didn't feel connected got it. I only stayed with it because I didn't know what else to do. When I discovered that you could study recent sediments, I felt like coming home. I am also am "backyard geologist", I have a strong need to understand my own surroundings, so I have no great desire to work in remote locations, although I do love to travel.
After I completed my BSc and MSc in the Netherlands, I moved to the US where I worked for the Louisiana Geological Survey in the Mississippi Delta Plain for 6 years – lots of unconsolidated sediment! I also completed my PhD there (on parameters of peat formation in the Mississippi Delta). After that I worked for the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology on strategic gas reserves (I did a little bit of that in Louisiana as well) and then I moved back to the Netherlands to teach sedimentology and marine geology at Utrecht University.
Shortly after getting tenured, I took a sidestep when I joined a government think tank on higher education reform, from where I was hired away as Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at an International Graduate School for Geoinformatics and Earth Observation (www.itc.nl). In 2002, when I turned 50, my husband and I moved (back, for him) to Wolfville. I worked as an independent from that time onwards. I was an adjunct prof (sedimentology) at Acadia and Dalhousie University, I was executive director of CFES (the dubious honour being that I am to date CFES's only paid executive director) and I ran field schools for the petroleum industry in Nova Scotia and PEI. I retired almost 3 years ago.
What is your advice for anyone considering an education or career in earth science?
Oddly enough, it took me quite a few years to find my niche (sedimentology). Earth Science is incredibly broad, it encompasses everything from planetary science and geophysics to paleontology / evolutionary biology.
I would advise anyone considering earth science to find their love, their motivation, their passion. Is it hard rock? Soft rock? Water? Climate? Other planets? Soils? Geochemistry? Geophysics? Museums? Do you love the field, or rather the lab or the IT-side of things? Job opportunities in every sector (Mining, O&G, Environmental, government, academia) are cyclic, so you can't count on anything. Focus on what you love more than anything else. Look for varying summer job opportunities, so you can explore the width of the field. Moreover, don't be afraid to jump off a cliff and make some mistakes.
The world-renowned soprano Barbara Hannigan, originally from Waverly, Nova Scotia, recently received an honorary doctorate from Mt Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Her acceptance speech is worth saving: "I wish you all many unexpected mistakes, that you always have a million questions, that you find and feed your passion with the discipline to support it. And that every once in a while, when you least expect it, you might just fly".
What is something early-career geoscientists can do to make themselves more likely to get a job?
I hear a lot about the importance of learning to code. I don't doubt it, but I have no experience with it myself. I still think professionals of any level (starters or otherwise) must be able to write and speak well. Going to conferences is a great tool for developing those skills. The Atlantic Geoscience Society, of which I have been a member since moving here and of which I also served as president, is an excellent example of how societies really should work with (undergrad) students (AGS's superb practices predate my presidency by decades so I claim no credit). Students should go to conferences to learn, to listen, to talk to professionals and other students, build their network (! building network means personal contact, cyber-based networks are only part of the story!) and present their thesis research. In Canada students can do their degree in a coop program. I recommend it. It's a great way to find what you love in your field and to build your network.
In addition, here is some excellent advice from someone who I respect highly, who is only in his mid-40s, who has moved to Canada from abroad and made a career change while here. He started out as a (PhD level) sedimentary geologist in the petroleum industry and now works as an independent consultant, doing a lot of high-level IT work, including machine learning for this industry and its neighbouring fields. Read the entire post here https://agilescientific.com/blog/. Most important advice: be darn good with data and don't be afraid to look for neighbouring fields, such as archaeology, engineering, geomatics, geospatial analysis, education or government.
I recommend women students especially to join and be active in networks or associations for women in geoscience specifically and in STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) in general. Examples are the Association of Women Geoscientists (AWG) and the Earth Science Women's Network (ESWN). ESWN especially focuses on mentoring, an incredibly important and often underestimated factor of a young woman's professional life.
Views expressed in blog posts reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the CFES.