Dr Tom Brown is a lecturer at the Scottish Association for marine Science (SAMS). His research investigates how species respond to decreasing sea ice cover. Especially that of Sea-Ice Algae. Like many scientists, Tom loves to push the boundaries of his knowledge. His route into marine research is interesting; I’ll let him tell you about it in the interview…
How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?
Grass grows all over the world, converting sunlight into food. Animals like cows and sheep get energy from eating grass. In the Arctic and Antarctic, grass doesn’t grow. Instead, a different type of plant, called algae, grows in the ocean, even when the ocean surface freezes into ice! Like grass, algae living in sea ice also convert sunlight into food for other animals, including small shrimp-like creatures called copepods and amphipods. These can then be eaten by fish, which might be eaten by seals and seals might be eaten by polar bears. So, sea ice algae must be really important! The problem is, once we started measuring how much sea ice there is, almost 40 years ago, we noticed that each year there seems to be less and less of it. This also means less sea ice algae and therefore, less food. My work is to find out if this is a problem for animals in the Arctic and Antarctic by answering questions like “just how much sea ice algae do animals eat?” and “if there is less food available, what will the animals eat?”.
Why did you choose this as a profession?
I didn’t. Despite a fascinating talk from Dr Hooker, my science teacher at school, on his previous work in Antarctica, I decided to take A-levels in Art and design and Design technology, with no sciences at all. After an additional foundation Art and Design course at university and a years’ work as a photographic printer, I changed my mind. Rather than choosing what I felt I was good at, I decided to choose what I was interested in. Of course this meant some serious catch-up! I completed a foundation science course at the University of Plymouth, followed by a BSc in Environmental Science with Marine Conservation which led to a PhD and a series of Post-Docs before becoming a lecturer at the Scottish Association for Marine Science.
Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?
Where does one begin! It can be tough; it can also be a bit of a rollercoaster. I think one of the biggest challenges to overcome early on is gaining a sense of self-confidence in the face of seemingly constant rejection and corrections! The learning curve is steep, especially, as I found, when you come to things through non-traditional educational routes. At first, your lecturers mark your work and, in hind-sight, they were pretty generous. Then your PhD supervisor puts you through your paces to prepare you for proper research; apparently we are not all born with these skills! Then comes your first rejection from peer review of publications, this can then be followed by rejection of competitive grant funding applications and, of course, job interviews. Science is extremely competitive. Rejection and correction…. accept them, use them. Don’t waste the experience. It took me a while to accept these as part of science, rather than taking them to mean I was no good at science. Once I accepted this, I found that these were the drivers of my determination, the more rejection and correction I got, the harder I pushed myself.
How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?
This is entirely dependent on career stage. I remember feeling like I had ‘made it’ when I was awarded my PhD, only to find myself at the bottom of the next cliff that needed climbing. Looking back from where I stand now though, I would say a stand out ‘made it’ moment was being invited into my first international research consortium. This signified being recognised, internationally. It demonstrated that other researchers were not only following my research, but that they valued my research and that it was useful to the community.
What excites you about your current projects?
During my PhD I spent 3 months on board the CCGS Amundsen ice breaker to collect and later analyse sea ice for a newly discovered chemical produced by ice algae. Compiling the results at my desk back in Plymouth I realised something that continues to excite me; in the 4.5-billion-year history of this planet, nobody had ever seen what I was seeing and, until I told somebody, I was the only living person to ever hold that knowledge. Working in the Arctic in the face of climate change, I am fortunate enough to have this experience nearly every day. Of course this is not unique to me as science, by its very nature, pushes the boundaries and is constantly making new discoveries. But it’s exciting to be part of that!
What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?
You’ve got to want to do it! Of course I don’t feel like this every day, but I cannot imagine how difficult I’d find science if I were not fully engaged in a desire to do it. For me, I achieve this by focusing my research efforts on my interests.
If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
We live in a modern world; e-mail is usually the most convenient (Thomas.Brown@sams.ac.uk).
Many thanks to Tom for taking the time to respond to the interview questions. Pushing the boundaries of our knowledge certainly is exciting! Especially when we know we’re the first person to hold that knowledge.
I love the reminder that rejection is part of the process. Followed by the incitation to not waste this experience. Learn from your mistakes. Fail forward.
You can find out more about Tom at his websites:
http://www.sams.ac.uk/tom-brown (SAMS profile page)
http://ip25.co.uk/ (Site dedicated to the Sea Ice Algae Biomarker known as the “Ice Proxy”, or “IP25”, contains useful literature and other links)