What is your current position, and what do you do?
Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology
Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
I lead a research team that studies the history of life on the Earth, starting with the earliest geological and geochemical records of life on this planet. We use molecular and isotopic techniques to study ancient microbial ecosystems, the formation of petroleum, the emergence of complex animals and plants, mass extinctions and environmental factors that influence the exceptional preservation of fossils. We look for chemical and genomic clues about these issues in modern environments including hydrothermal ecosystems as well as marine and lacustrine environments. I also teach classes in these subject areas.
Describe your study/employment pathway
The basis for any career in research is a sound grounding in one of the basic sciences, engineering or math. For me this was in chemistry for which I earned BSc and PhD degrees from the UNSW, while attending the Wollongong University College, the fledgling campus that is now the University of Wollongong. Towards the end of my time at Wollongong, I became interested in mass spectrometry as an analytical tool, and went on to learn more about how to use mass spectrometers, and carry out simple chemical synthesis procedures during a postdoctoral fellowship in the Genetics Department at Stanford University. It was here that I also gained a grounding in biochemistry and, most importantly, how to interact constructively with scientists from other disciplines.
After Stanford, I was fortunate to spend 9 productive years at the Australian National University – learning more about mass spectrometry, and using it to address questions in microbiology and plant physiology, and deepening my research skills, knowledge and experience in ways that set me up for a rewarding career in the biogeosciences.
In 1983, I secured a position as senior research scientist at the Baas Becking Geobiology Laboratory in Canberra, where my role was to research how microbial physiologies and biogeochemical processes underpin the formation of petroleum and certain kinds of mineral deposits. Sadly, this organization no longer exists. I was then subsumed into the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics, which was transformed into The Australian Geological Survey Organisation, and then Geoscience Australia. During these 18 years, I was most fortunate to be able to conduct fundamental research on the role that microbes play in shaping the planet that Earth is today.
What has been your biggest challenge, career-wise?
In 2001 I was offered the professorship that I now hold at MIT. The challenges were to leave Canberra, and the relative security of working for the Australian Government at GA, to start a new research group from scratch, to learn to write the kinds of research proposals that would attract funding in the competitive US academic system, and to learn to teach undergraduates and graduate students that are invariably smarter than I am. Facing these challenges was, in large part, made possible with help from like-minded collaborators, some of whom I continue to work and interact with after more than 30 years.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Functioning effectively for 17 years, and still counting, in academia in the USA. During this time I have been fortunate to voyage to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin, to be Principal Investigator for two large teams of scientists with funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute (http://www.complex-life.org/) and to have been a Participating Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission which operates the Curiosity rover on Mars.
What do you believe are the greatest attributes of a successful scientist?
Curiosity and passion are, without doubt, the drivers. In this day and age, the other essential attributes are the will and wish to work with, and learn from, others through collaboration.
How have you used the skills/knowledge that you acquired, from studying chemistry, in your current role?
Chemistry underpins everything. Daily, at MIT, we use the principles, logic and systematics of organic and analytical chemistry to address questions and solve problems in environmental science and geoscience.
What are your interests outside of work?
The science of rocks knows no borders so the travel for field work and scientific meetings has taken me to all continents except Antarctica. That is still on my wish list. Gardening, music and fishing are pursuits where I hope to spend more time, one of these days.
What helps you achieve a work-life balance?
I am fortunate that my family has kept me grounded (as best they can). My spouse, Elizabeth, has supported me unfailingly. She often comes with me to meetings and travel, including road trips in the USA and Canada, and this has become a primary pastime together. We are also fortunate to be able to spend a couple of months of each year in Australia, given today’s communication tools and ability to work remotely.
What advice would you give to students starting their science careers?
Stay grounded in a basic STEM topic. However, interdisciplinary approaches are needed to understand and solve the most complex problems we face today. So, follow your intellectual interests but be prepared to learn from others.