What is A Marine Climate Scientist?

This month I had the pleasure to speak to Dakota Holmes a Marine Climate Scientist who is currently based in NUIG.  Climate Change is the phrase of the year in 2019 and he and his friends are the people to tell us what we are doing to our Blue Dot.  Doing this “What is A…” series has been an eye opening experience so far.

How long have you been a Marine Climate Scientist? Please tell us about the field of study you specialise in?

I have been broadly under the umbrella of ‘climate science’ since my undergraduate degree at Mercyhurst University where I studied biology. While at Mercyhurst, I was able to spend some time studying and researching in South Caicos (Turks & Caicos Islands, British West Indies) where I truly fell in love with the marine environment. It felt only natural when I returned to combine my love of the marine with something I am truly passionate about, climate change. After returning from South Caicos, I continued my adventure into marine climate science and never looked back. I came to NUI Galway in 2017 to undertake a M.Sc. in Coastal and Marine Environments with the Discipline of Geography, and it was here that I began working with Dr Audrey Morley, who is now my Ph.D. advisor. Her research group, the MorPalaeo Lab, specialises in paleoceanography.

Paleoceanography (or palaeoceanography depending which side of the pond you live on) broken down simply means I investigate ancient oceans, more specifically I research ocean-atmosphere interactions during past abrupt climate events using deep-sea climate archives to better constrain future climate predictions in our warming world.

By this point you’re probably asking yourself why this research is important and I don’t necessarily blame you, but part of our limited understanding of how the climate system will respond to future climate change is linked to the difficulties in constraining the response of ocean circulation during abrupt climate events. Studying past events allows us to determine the structure and mechanisms of abrupt climate events. Our work provides crucial data that informs major policy documents and reports used by policy makers to address risks associated with global climate change.

Why did you pick this particular field of study?

I‘ve known I wanted to be a scientist from the age of 12. It originally stemmed out of the need to prove myself to those around me. While growing up I was always just ‘the gay kid’ and never anything more. It didn’t seem to matter what else I brought to the table; that one label always seemed to be my identifying factor. So initially science was an opportunity for me to prove my intelligence and abilities to those around me. Thankfully over time, my ability to do scientific research, and the friends I met along the way, have ‘built me up’, and with it my confidence. My developing confidence allowed me to ‘find my own voice’ on issues that were personally important to me, and provided me a conduit to make meaningful contributions.

Dakota Holmes Marine Climate

My research and interests align strongly with the developing climate emergency. It is my opinion that those with knowledge, and those with the skills and abilities to lead, must stand up and take the initiative to combat the current climate crisis. One avenue I use to contribute is through my research. Through my research I am able to contribute to something bigger that I feel strongly passionate about. I am also in a position to break down barriers and increase the visibility of minority groups in STEM careers while finding ways to increase global-citizen-accessibility to research. Most importantly, I am able to engage with students and citizens through scientific outreach with an aim to inspire tomorrow’s leaders today. These reasons may not have been initially the reason I chose to study climate change, but they continue to provide the inspiration driving me forward.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

When I was younger I wanted to be a marine biologist – like most children I had a fascination (see ‘obsession’ in dictionary) with dolphins and the movie ‘Free Willy’. I eventually grew out of this phase, but it was this initial dream that caused me to go to South Caicos! I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do with my life and truthfully had varied interests, so like most Type-A people, I comprised a list of potential ideas and went about checking them off one-by-one. While I may not have ended up a marine biologist, my fascination with the marine environment ultimately became the deciding factor in my career, all thanks to a strong love of dolphins.

Why would you suggest this as a job for me?

I would suggest science, more specifically climate science to anyone – especially young women or people from diverse communities who don’t see themselves traditionally represented in science. Climate science is a diverse field, within my own research of paleoceanography, I cover biology, chemistry and geology (just to name a few). One would be hard-pressed to not find a job or research specialty of that does not align with your talents or interests. I would also like to say that while not always easy, academia and the pursuit of knowledge has given me the confidence I lacked for so long in my life. To top it all off, you will learn skills that are applicable to all jobs; if by chance one would ultimately decide to change careers. My final comments would be to say that some of the closest friends and mentors I have met in life were through the experiences and opportunities that the pursuit of climate science has afforded me.

Dakota Holmes Research trip Climate

What qualifications did you need?  Where did you study?

To be able to participate in scientific research a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree is generally required, but the ‘field or major’ you ultimately decide to specialise in can be varied. Remember, education is mostly ‘what you make of it.’ It isn’t the field that defines you – if you’re able to apply your specialty or trained viewpoint to look at climate (or anything) in a new way then you can pursue scientific research. Depending on the level of research you want to pursue and the location, a postgraduate (Master’s or Ph.D.) degree may be required.

In terms of my academic career, I pursued my Bachelor of Science in Biology at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA. Mercyhurst is a relatively small, Catholic-liberal arts institution which I love dearly and continue to have a strong working relationship with. While the school lacked broad class offerings normally found at larger universities, I found the intimate relationships I built with my teachers and the available opportunities made possible due to the small class sizes have been extremely beneficial to my career. During my time at Mercyhurst, I also had the opportunity to complete research and study at the Center for Marine Resource Studies, South Caicos (mentioned above, learning marine research techniques and investigating sustainable development); and MDI Biological Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA (looking at seagrass’ ability to mitigate ocean acidification due to global warming) through a NSF-REU. After leaving Mercyhurst in 2017, I completed a Master of Science in Coastal and Marine Environments (Physical Processes, Policy & Management) at NUI Galway, Galway Ireland. I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. under the same advisor of my Master’s at NUI Galway in Physical Geography.

Who would be your hero?  Who would you be excited to meet in your field?

This honestly is the hardest question to answer. After thinking about it again… and again… I realised I do not have any ‘heroes’ (it is possible I just haven’t applied that label to them yet). That being said, I do have people in positions of power that I look up to or am inspired by in regards to their principles, actions or ideals. Those who I look up to often have an aspect to them or careers that I would like to re-create for myself. A few of the people on this list include: Barack Obama (44th president of the United States), Naomi Klein (distinguished author and climate activist), Greta Thunberg  (outspoken young-climate activist who was a driving force in initiating the ‘School strike for climate movement’), and finally Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known by her initials ‘AOC’, a recently elected U.S. representative from New York, and activist who ran a grass-roots campaign and aims to be a voice for the people within government).

I have been lucky enough through academic conferences to meet many of the ‘giants’ in my field – each time I ‘geek out’ and have to calm myself down before actually conversing with them. If I were to name someone I currently would like to meet in my field, I would name Dr. Jerry McManus. Jerry’s pioneering research in the 90’s and early 2000’s investigating abrupt climate events was the initial foundation for my own climate research. To be able to talk with him and share ideas would be an extremely exciting opportunity.

What has been the “best day” at your job?

In August of 2018 I was able to go to a workshop in Bergen, Norway with my advisor to work on a manuscript with other collaborators. While it was just a few days of four scientists hidden away in a fjord, I was finally experiencing what I had worked so hard to achieve. Being able to sit there and watch top minds discuss processes and ideas back and forth across the table – and I was a part of it. This only fuelled my ‘motivational fire’. I realised that it is moments like these that I work so hard for. It is also super-exciting to see fruits of your labour come together!

How did you end up working at NUI Galway?

My first day that I arrived in South Caicos (June-ish 2015) I met a young faculty member who had recently received their Ph.D., Dr. Liam Carr. Initially, my time with Liam was very short, he was at the end of his contract and was only in South Caicos for around 4-weeks after I arrived in June. Luckily though Liam and I struck a strong bond and he became not only an advisor and lecturer to me, but a mentor and friend as well. After leaving, Liam ended up in Ireland at NUI Galway under the Fulbright Program. He ended up becoming a faculty member in Geography the same year I was graduating with my bachelor degree! So I took a leap of faith and with very little prior knowledge, I moved to Ireland to work under him in the Discipline of Geography’s’ M.Sc. in Coastal and Marine Environments (it took a little convincing on my part in regards to my parents). Ironically, the first week of classes I decided to not work under Liam and instead a paleoceanographer, Dr. Audrey Morley. Thankfully Liam was very understanding and currently continues to be a strong and close mentor and friend. He even holds a position on the graduate research committee for my Ph.D. project! I guess you could say after that, I never looked back? To be fair, at the end of my M.Sc. I did move back home, planning to take a year off before continuing onto my Ph.D programme. This plan was happily put on permanent hold however, when three months after moving home I received funding to continue onto a Ph.D. under Audrey at NUI Galway! So I re-packed my bags and never looked back.

What is coming up next for you?

Now that it is officially summer, so for the next couple months it’s time to catch up on research and visit my family! Excitingly I have some major things coming up this next year; I am moving to Germany this August for a summer school in Potsdam focusing on science communication and then *drum roll* I will be a visiting student at the University of Bremen, Germany, in a world renowned marine research centre, MARUM. My advisor, Audrey,  will be employed there next year and I am accompanying her to train on specialised techniques and continue my paleo-climate change research. The fun continues next August 2020 as my lab and accompanied international collaborators embark on a research cruise aboard the RV Celtic Explorer into the Arctic as part of Audrey’s Project CIANN funded by the Marine Institute. I hope to soak in all these new upcoming opportunities and continue ways to improve my science communication and engagement. Make sure keep an eye out for exciting scicomm and outreach concerning CIANN on my twitter, @DakotaEHolmes – my mind is already full of great ideas!

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