Exploring the Deep Sea – and the discovery of a new methane sink

I grew up in Ohio, far from the Ocean; and growing up on a dairy farm left no opportunity for vacations to visit it either. We had the muddy freshness and summer warmth of lakes and reservoirs, ponds and rivers, but no salty air, no sense of unfathomable expanse and depth. But one of the joys of geology is that your lab is global, and my work has taken me across the Ocean and into its depths and deep into its history. It  has taken me to the ancient shallow carbonate platform seas of the Ordovician teeming with crinoids, brachipods and exotic microbial mats, the continent-bisecting Western Interior Seaway of the Cretaceous, and sediment-choked marginal seas of Cenozoic Tanazania. And to understand these ancient seas, my work has taken me across those of the world today.

My first research expedition was in 1999, during my postdoctoral fellowship at the Netherlands Institute of Sea Research. One day, my supervisor Jaap came into the office and asked me if I’d be interested in participating in a research expedition in the Mediterranean Sea, accompanied by submersible dives to the seafloor. I nearly knocked over my chair jumping up to say yes, before recovering my ‘cool’ an hour later to find him and soberly and professionally ask what important scientific questions we were going to address.

The Medinaut expedition was a joint Dutch-French expedition on the L’Atalante to explore mud volcanoes, methane cycling, microbial cold seeps and their associated ecoystems in the Mediterranean Sea.

Target areas for the MediNaut expedition: mud volcano regions in the Mediterranean Sea, formed in part by the tectonic stress of Africa and Europe colliding.

Led by great colleagues, including John Woodside, Catherine Pierre and Gert de Lange and including lifelong friends such as Vanni Aloisi, we explored stress and fracture zones that allow ancient, fluid-drenched sediments to burst onto the seafloor as 1 to 2 km wide cones of ancient mud.  These are beautiful places, especially where the fluids are saturated with Messinian-infused salt brines, resulting in ultra-saline rivers, ponds and lakes sitting serene and toxic on the Mediterranean seafloor.

What was of greatest interest to myself and a few colleagues was the biogeochemistry fuelled by these escaping fluids.  In particular, methane bubbled or seeped from the seafloor, and methane is as magnificent a fuel for microorganisms life as it is for heating your home – the reaction of oxygen with methane produces a great amount of energy (what we chemically refer to as redox energy).  However, in the preceding years, evidence had hinted that methane in the seafloor was oxidised to carbon dioxide long before it reached the oxygen near the seafloor and instead was oxidised at greater depths by sulfate.  Sulfate is very abundant in seawater, one of six major ions alongside sodium and chlorine, contributing to its saltiness; but compared to oxygen it is a poor oxidant of methane and yields far less energy. In fact, despite hints to the otherwise, it was debated whether the reaction – termed anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) due to the lack of oxygen – could even support life.

(A compilation of images from the MediNaut expedition, best viewed in Internet Explorer)

Our mission was to explore which reactions were dominant and which microorganisms mediated them and exploited them for energy.

The rubbery black mats formed by these organisms are spread across the seafloor of the Napoli mud volcano; you can see them in the video above and the image below, where they sit at the top of seeps, at the sources of the thin brine streams running down the flanks of Napoli.  It was exhilarating when we first recovered one of these mats, a challenge due to the soft, fluid-soaked sediment that resisted core recovery, and I remember working tirelessly at the lab bench to carefully partition our first small, thin piece of mat and the underlying sediment.  It reeked of hydrogen sulfide, the product of sulfate reduction and the putative AOM reaction: hydrogen sulfide is normally the disgusting smell of rotting eggs but in this case it was the exciting smell of discovery, evidence that we had uncovered a mat of these mysterious organisms.

Black microbial mats on the surface of the Napoli Mud Volcano. The white halos are salt precipitates, leftovers from the saline brine that flowed from the seeps.

Allow me to digress.  Research expeditions are fraught with tales of adventure and misadventure; the sequel to Medinaut – MediNeth on the R/V Logachev – certainly was, with Libyan helicopters, broken winches, a twice-becalmed ship, and a bit of boredom, vodka and poor nutrition-fueled madness.  There are fewer tales from Medinaut.  However, L’Atalante had its own perils.  The canteen, unfortunately, was at the prow of the ship which of course experiences the greatest pitch on stormy seas. After sampling those first mats – bent over, with no horizon in site, the fumes of hydrogen sulfide in my nostrils – we were called to dinner.  After five minutes it hit me.  It gave me 30 seconds.  I stood up; stepped onto the table as I had been pressed along the bench against the ship wall; walked across the table, across my colleagues’ meals, not saying a word; strode into the nearest WC, purposely, without undue haste; and proceeded to ‘decorate’ every cm of that WC.  I was sea sick for the rest of the trip, my only reprieve coming on my own submersible dive as the yellow submarine Nautile, slipped into the twilight zone, below the swish and turn of the waves. I could not eat strong French cheese for at least five years after.

And aside from an amusing anecdote, that is a story of chemistry.  Because that foul stench of hydrogen sulfide is also the food and fuel of vast seafloor ecosystems.  You can see the scattered black mats of the AOM microorganisms in the video but equally widespread are fluffy white filamentous strands of sulfide-oxidising bacteria. They also thrive on chemical energy, the energy from chemical systems out of balance and striving to reach a new equilibrium in an oxygen-rich ocean.  And that chemical energy, alongside that of AOM and converted into organic compounds, is the basis for entire deep seafloor ecosystems.  The otherwise barren Mediterranean seafloor thrives with life – tubeworms sprout and grow, mollusks sprinkle the seafloor, and fish and crabs swim and skittle amongst them.  Here, however, the episodic nature of this chemical fuel means that we find not only isolated colonies of organisms but also their graveyards, from feast to famine as dictated by these ephemeral streams.

Sights and smells, while visceral and providing pointed clues, are insufficient to resolve the questions with which we embarked. Those were resolved in the lab, by genetic profiling of the mats and mapping of methane isotope signatures into diagnostic lipid biomarkers.  We found in these sediments surprisingly high concentrations of archaeal lipids – surprising because 20 years ago Archaea were predominantly known for their role in methanogenesis, producing rather than consuming methane.  However, methane has a unique isotopic composition having relatively more of the dominant 12C (carbon with 6 neutrons and 6 protons and comprising about 99% of all carbon on Earth) than 13C.  And we were able to trace that specific isotope signature into these archaeal lipids, confirming their ecology as methane-utilising organisms.

But also into bacterial lipids.  And so our work revealed that it was not a single microorganism mediating this reaction but rather syntrophic organisms acting in tandem. This explained why it had been so difficult to culture them, but it also created a new enigma because this syntrophy required that the sparse energy yield of the AOM reaction be divided even further.

Of course, we were not the only ones investigating this – in fact, we were pipped to the first publication –  and certainly not the last. Kai-Uwe Hinrichs first discovered these novel Archaea and Marcus Elvert, Volker Thiel and others were simultaneously discovering other lipid signatures.  Many many others, including Antje Boetius and Vicky Orphan, drove the work forward, using increasingly innovative methods and always at the cutting edge of the environmental genomic revolution that continues to this day.

But perhaps one of my favorite follow on findings was that of my colleague Vanni, who was on the expedition as a PhD student, studying the massive calcium carbonate crusts that had also formed on the Mediterranean seafloor.  Their presence at methane seeps had been an enigma.  The oxidation of methane forms carbon dioxide, which is an acid in seawater and dissolves calcium carbonate – analogous to the ocean acidification problem caused by fossil fuel burning.  However, Vanni, colleagues and I showed that the carbonate crusts of the Mediterranean mud volcanoes were packed with biomarkers for methane-oxidising organisms.  But not the old oxygen-utilising organisms; the new anaerobic ones.  And these organisms do not form carbon dioxide but bicarbonate, not the acid but the base, not something that dissolves calcium carbonate but precipitates it.

Thick carbonate crusts formed by AOM. Between them are mounds of dead tube worms, animals that host chemical energy harvesting chemosymbionts. Also note the piece of plastic – evidence even twenty years that the plastic detritus of our civilisation is ubiquitous.

And that is a marvelous example of a negative feedback in the Earth system.  As our oceans warm and methane hydrates dissolve and methane begins to seep from the seafloor in other parts of the world, there are organisms that can adapt, colonise, thrive and consume that methane.  Not only with oxygen but with sulfate.  And not only converting methane to carbon dioxide, but locking that carbon back up as thick carbonate crusts. These organisms grow slowly, and there is no guarantee that they prevent the release of methane due to global warming. But it is a useful reminder that the Earth system contains not just positive feedbacks of thawing permafrost and melting ice but also negative feedbacks that on long enough timescales help keep our planet’s climate in balance.

And that is probably the main lesson of marine-based research.  The sense of balance, of slowness and adaptation.  That life thrives on a balanced Earth.  And it helps preserve that balance, such that when the balance is disrupted, some organisms can thrive – like the ecosystems that thrive in the chemical imbalance of reduced chemical species injected into an oxidising ocean. And yet that balance is fragile; just as entire ecosystems thrive on that chemical energy, they perish when the source of energy is removed; just as microorganisms can act as sinks to methane emissions caused by global warming, they could grow too slowly for that sink to be effective.

Humanity, in contrast, is fast and urgent, and within a geological blink we have transformed our planet. Perhaps we need to rediscover the pace and balance of the ocean.  Its slowness and persistence.  Its peace and equilibrium. Perhaps we need to slow down to once again experience the feelings the ocean inspires in us as we watch waves crash on the beach, or float upon its surface or dive into its depths.

For the chemists! A gas chromatogram showing the major lipids present in cold seep sediment. The compounds are biomarkers for Bacteria and Archaea, as well as phytoplankton detritus. And the numbers are the carbon isotopic compositions of those compounds, with the lowest, most negative values indicating consumption of methane.

The Machine’s Scar on Humanity and the History of Life

We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.

It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change.  But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.

A scar in the history of life

Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment?  The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky.  Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.

But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.

Related image
The End Cretaceous Boundary, from New Zealand (GNS)

It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse.  The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts.  We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.

Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal.  We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives.  And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.

We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm.  The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.

I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope.  Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.

We have failed to prevent extinction and loss.  But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.

But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves

The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.

The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change.  But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency.  It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.

Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  Far more.

This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice.  Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality.  It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest.  And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity.  My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide.  And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.

So we will struggle.  With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.

But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future.  They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it.  But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts.  They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.

I have hope that they will not choose the latter path.  The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms.  And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege.  A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.

And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices.  The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature.  We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.

Bristol Youth Councillors March for Climate Justice in advance of the Paris COP21 negotiations

A response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

The decision by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change puts the United States at odds with both science and global geopolitical norms.  The fundamentals of climate change remain unambiguous: greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, they are increasing because of human action, the increase will cause warming, and that warming creates risks of extreme weather, food crises and sea level rise. That does not mean that scientists can predict all of the consequences of global warming, much work needs to be done, but the risks are both profound and clear. Nor do we know what the best solutions will be – there is need for a robust debate about the nature, fairness and efficacy of different decarbonisation policies and technologies as well as the balance of responsibility; the Paris Agreement, despite its faults with respect to obligation and enforcement, allowed great flexibility in that regard, which is why nearly every nation on Earth is a signatory.

Moreover, although climate change affects us all, it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most. They, despite being least responsible, bear the greatest risks and the greatest burdens. For the President of the world’s second largest carbon polluter to blatantly disregard such evidence and injustice, to refuse to even acknowledge the consequences of its actions and to disengage with this relatively modest and non-binding agreement puts it odds with the norms of global partnership and human rights. This abrogation of responsibility is particularly profound because President Trump has also withdrawn the United States from the Green Climate Fund, which helps the poorest of the world adapt to the climate change that his actions make more likely.

And to what end?  Other nations will now assume global leadership, politically, morally and technologically.  It will likely cost American businesses money, hinder innovation in one of the world’s most dynamic sectors, and ultimately cost jobs. It will likely undermine the United States’ global stature and diplomatic reach. It is hard to imagine a decision so blatantly motivated by self-interest while being so profoundly self-harming.

The crucial question now is how we respond.  China and the EU have stepped forward, increasing their voluntary commitments, repudiating President Trump’s decision and assuming the mantle of leadership.  Nations around the world are following suit, as are cities and states across the United States.  Businesses have re-stated their commitment to decarbonisation – ironically, the day before Trump’s decision, shareholders voted that Exxon develop plans compliant with the Paris Agreement’s targets.  In the UK, in the midst of a general election, parties from across the political spectrum have responded to Trump’s decision with reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage. The UK has always provided leadership in this arena, recognising that climate change is a non-partisan issue, and it is one of the few nations with a cross party Climate Change Act.  It is vital for both the planet and the UK that these initial comments are followed by bolder actions and stronger leadership.


We will not be stopped.

Across the world and in the University of Bristol, we are frustrated with the symbolism of Trump’s actions, his speech’s misrepresentation of facts, and his decision’s potential to slow climate action.  But we also recognise that these actions will not stop climate action. The responses of local, national and international leaders, in politics, community groups and businesses, across sectors and across society show that no person, regardless of his position or his nation, can stop the energy revolution. It is too deeply embedded in our politics, economy and ambitions, borne of out of multiple necessities.

Here, in the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, we remain committed to this challenge.  Our University is committed to carbon neutrality, ethical and low-carbon procurement and divestment from fossil fuel-intensive businesses. We have foregrounded Sustainable Futures in our undergraduate teaching.  And in our research, we are investigating improved energy efficiency in everything from computer software, to our homes and our cities.  We are exploring how smart technology enables new forms of transport, community energy and individual action. We are converting nuclear waste into diamond batteries with 5000-year lifetimes, we are leading one of the projects under the Natural Environment Research Council’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction programme and we have just launched new initiatives in wind, tidal, solar and nuclear energy.

Our ambitions are at all scales, from the local to the global.  We continue to work with our Green Capital partners, with a focus on building an informed, diverse, inclusive and powerful movement to become a more sustainable city and region, exemplified by the Green and Black Ambassadors Initiative.  Globally, our projects have been exploring the impact of conflict, climate change and geological hazards on development and the environment; the potential for micro-grids to deliver electricity to isolated communities; new forms of parasite resistance for subsistence farmers; and how geothermal energy can be harnessed in Ethiopia.

This commitment to sustainability builds on five decades of research on our environmental challenges and how to manage them.  The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group makes among the world’s most accurate measurements of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and they have shown how rapidly these compounds are accumulating. They are committed to refining those measurements and the modelling methods that allow us to understand why global emissions change. The Bristol Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment reconstructs past climates and uses those insights to better understand our future; recent projects are building global collaborations to explore the controls on Earth’s temperature and monsoons.  Our glaciologists study sea level rise; our hydrologists study floods and drought; our social scientists study the injustice of climate change and its impact on migration and conflict; and our vets and life scientists are exploring how to improve animal welfare and crop yields on a climate disrupted planet.

Our commitment includes appointing the best and the brightest at understanding these challenges, including Dr Dann Mitchell who joined the University in November.  As co-ordinator of the largest dedicated project in the world on the climate impacts of the Paris Agreement (www.happimip.org), he sums up the Cabot Institute’s collective commitment: “The news of Trump wanting to pull out is incredibly frustrating. Our results are already suggesting more extreme events, such as droughts and heat waves, and serious impacts on society, such as increased human and animal health issues, failures in global crop distributions and bleaching of our coral reefs. I am frustrated that Trump continues to ignore the scientific evidence that has been recognised by his global peers, but that will not dissuade us from doing all we can to understand climate risks… and prevent them.’

Bristol Clear – My Life in Science

Bristol Clear is a University of Bristol initiative to build support, create voice and connect Early Career Researchers.  One of its activities is sharing the stories of more senior researchers, stories that are honest about the challenges many of us have faced, the hurdles we have overcome, the love for research or teaching that keeps us going, and the sacrifices we have made. Academia is a wonderful career; but we lie to ourselves and the next generation if we are not open about its challenges and demands.  Here is my (abbreviated) story.

What I do:

I study how the Earth works as a system, how all of the biological, climatic, geological and chemical components interact today and how they interacted in the past.  I was also Director of the Cabot Institute, which was a chance to not only work across disciplines and research environmental problems but to support a wide range of academics and partners studying solutions to those problems.  Currently, as Head of School, I have all sorts of new obligations but am particularly enjoying connecting to a new group of amazing students.

Why Academia?:

How I ended up in academia and even higher education is a complicated question.  Part of it was because I was good at it: I was smart, good at exams and course work and got good grades.  Part of it was because I loved it; I followed every Shuttle launch and was glued to the television as Voyager 1 and 2 whipped past Jupiter and Saturn. And part of it was because it could get me out of poverty.  I try not to overly mythologise growing up on a small dairy farm in Ohio, but I did love it.  I loved working outside and working with my family.  But I also hated the machinery, the brutality of it; the ceaselessness of farm life, no matter if you are sick or if there is a heat wave or a blizzard; the uncertainty, the worry, the continuous worry about the weather and the bills. It seemed like we were always talking about bills – for the farm equipment, the mortgage, the water and electricity, the dentist and the doctor….

So university always seemed inevitable.  I could go. I wanted to go.  I needed to go.

Our dairy farm in Ohio – photo taken just before we sold the farm (which is why there are no cows or horses)


College was fantastic.  I loved the intellectual freedom and the variety.  My god, especially the variety.  Then and now, that has to be one of the most amazing things about academia.  Every day is different.  Every hour is different.  I had come to college to study astrophysics.  Or political science. Or literature.  In the end, I studied geology. I loved it all.  [During the summer after my Freshman Year, with discussions of environmental crises beginning to trouble the news, with my family’s farm seen in a new light after being away for a year, and with my interest in both science and politics growing, I decided I would merge my interests.  I would study geology and then go on to Law School and become an environmental lawyer.]

However, it also took a long and awkward time for me to fit in, this farm boy at a big university, first generation, working class, a bit of a country hick. I was anxious about belonging in this different world. I was anxious about my grades – I’d lose my scholarships if my GPA dropped below 3.0.  I was anxious about my family, who had to give up farming when my brother and I went to college because they just did not have the labour to keep it going.  I was anxious about money – money to join activities and money to even pay tuition (I could not work during the summer after my 3rd year because I was at Geology field camp; thankfully I got a last minute alumni scholarship).  But I did not know I was anxious.  There was no time to contemplate that.  And in any case, where I come from, you don’t get anxious; you fight.

I had support, but I wish that support had been more aware.  I wish that they could have seen past my good grades and enthusiasm for scholarship and seen the kid who was suffering from anger and anxiety. I wish they could have seen that my bravado was a lie and that my cuts and bruises were a sign of someone using sports and contests to inflict self-harm. I wish that I had been more self-aware.  I wish that I had realised that some of my actions were signs of self-doubt, fear of appearing foolish or uncool, and anger at being mocked and poor and unable to afford what others could.

But friends – even those who inadvertently made me feel that way – supported me. Lecturers championed me.  And helped me financially.  They paid me on internships and work study and once, when money was really tight, even to paint their house. And they taught me with passion and love for the subject. They gave me good grades; and when I was complacent, they gave me my first bad grades.  They were patient and then impatient and patient again.  And finally, they gave me advice, support and wisdom.  I graduated top in my class and won a PhD Fellowship to the Department of Geosciences at Penn State.

There are two stories that explain why I went to graduate school rather than becoming an environmental lawyer, and they are both true in their own way.  In the first, Geology stole me from that path by showing me a stunning and beautiful world: I found my first fossil in the Cleveland Shale in Rocky River Park; I felt my first sense of wonder at geological time in an outcrop teeming with Ordovician brachiopods and trilobites in the Cincinnati Arch; I marvelled at the forces that had shaped the Appalachian Mountains. And then, in the summer of 1991, my field project in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, one of the most beautiful parts of the world, revealed to me 500 million years of Earth history over the course of an exhausting, exhilarating, sweaty, blistering, eye-opening summer.

And the second story? I would have had to go further into debt to attend Law School, whereas graduate school would pay me a stipend. That’s all. Your choices are never entirely your own.

My career path / the big decisions:

 I loved graduate school, but the first two years were a battle.  A battle to flip from being a straight-A student who had excelled at learning and tests, who could solve problems and equations to a scientist who could conceive new ideas, new questions and design the experiments to test them.  I had a brilliant supervisor – Kate Freeman – but also a network of mentors and advisers across the department who tolerated my fumbling journey, pushed me at times, and let me make a few astonishingly poor decisions – but not too poor. I was allowed to learn and to fail and learn again.  And it was frustrating and it was amazing and always always always interesting.

And thrilling.  Nothing is as thrilling as discovering something, whether it be something fundamentally new, like a new biogeochemical pathway or a new compound, or even just being the first person in the world to analyse a particular rock.  And related to that is the thrill of having an idea, nursing it, testing it, patiently, rigorously and then proving it right – bringing a new sense of understanding into the world.

 So clearly I was hooked.  I would finish my PhD.  Get a post-doc. And then get an academic job. And I am still hooked, almost like a drug, addicted to those thrills, those moments of discovery, those moments when you know something – even if it is just a small something – about the universe that no one else does. And then sharing that with the world.

But addictions require sacrifice.  The post-doc opportunity was in the Netherlands.  I’d only been out of the country once before and no one else in my family even owned passports. You don’t travel when you have no money.  You don’t travel when you own a dairy farm. My parents always wanted the best for me, they wanted me to go to college, they wanted me to excel and to be successful; but at heart, we were still a farm family from Ohio and they never thought I would move that far away.

But I did.  And then I made that permanent when I moved to Bristol.  I have no regrets about those moves; I love this University, my School, my discipline, this city and my academic career.  But it would be a lie to say that this career does not demand sacrifices from us.  It would be a lie to say that this move was not hard and painful, that it has not had consequences, that family connections are more fragile and that some have been lost.  My parents cannot fly, they still do not have passports; they have never seen my house or my home or my city.

My advice to my younger self:

 I’d tell him that he could ask for help. I’d tell this kid, who was proud of his working class background but who had also buried some anxiety and fear and anger,  that he could ask for help.  That it is not a sign of weakness.

I’d tell him to stay true to who he is; it will have consequences but you cannot betray who you are.  Academia is less prone to class prejudices than other disciplines, but they do persist.  I always felt out of place at the wine tastings and expected cultural literacy.  I still have some dodgy teeth because we could not get dental care when I was a teenager. And even now, despite a great deal of success, I can still be told that I ‘lack gravitas’…

And I’d tell him that we always have choices. They can come with financial or emotional risk, but we do have them.  You can embrace the addiction of academic life or you can kick the habit if the thrill is not worth the sacrifice. I think he would have made all of the same decisions, but I wish he had known that the world is vast and full of options.  I would tell him that he will have an amazing life no matter what choices he makes as long as he remains true to himself and his values.

This was originally posted on Bristol Clear Blogs.