Awards and Medals

GeoTalk: A new view on how ocean currents move

GeoTalk: A new view on how ocean currents move

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Jan Zika, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. This year he was recognized for his contributions to ocean dynamics research as the winner of the 2018 Ocean Sciences Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

My pleasure. I was actually pretty set on the geosciences as a kid. I think all my projects in my last year of primary school were about natural disasters of some form or another – volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. My teachers must have thought I was going to grow up to be a villain in a James Bond film.

I grew up in Tasmania, where there aren’t exactly natural disasters, but nature was very present in my everyday life and that sustained my interest into adulthood. When I was ready for university, meteorologists, geologists, and other researchers advised me to do the hard stuff first. So in my undergraduate degree I focused on mathematics and physics. I was good at it, but I kind of forgot why I was there at some point.

Things changed for me when I interned at a marine science laboratory in Hobart operated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). I’d walked past the building so many times growing up but never thought I’d get to work inside. Bizarrely, I worked on a project related to the Mediterranean Sea. It was just so uplifting being able to put all these skills I had learnt in class, like vector calculus and thermodynamics, into practice.

From then on I was properly hooked on oceanography and the geosciences. I got into a PhD program through the CSIRO, which felt like being drafted to the Premier League. After completing the doctorate, I took a job as a research fellow in Grenoble, France. Not an obvious place to study the ocean I know, but there was a great little team there. After a couple of years, I moved to the UK, first to the University of Southampton then Imperial College London.

After seven years as a research fellow in Europe I returned home to Australia to become, of all things, a mathematics lecturer at the University of New South Wales. My research is still related to oceans and climate, but day-to-day I am teaching maths. At least now when I teach vector calculus I can pepper the lectures with the sorts of applications to the natural world that have inspired me throughout my whole career.

This year you were awarded an Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award in the Ocean Sciences Division at the 2018 General Assembly for you work on understanding the ocean’s thermohaline circulation and its role in Earth’s climate. Could you tell us more about your research in this field and its importance?

I’d love to. In many fields of science just changing the way you look at a problem can have a big effect. Usually this involves drawing different kind of diagrams. These diagrams may seem abstract at first, but eventually they make things easier to understand. Some diagrams we are all familiar with in one way or another, such as the periodic table, Bohr’s model of the atom, and the economists’ cost-benefit curve. These were all, at some stage, new and innovative ways of presenting something fundamentally complex. I am not saying I did anything like make a model for the atom, but I was inspired by the work of 19th century physicists who made simple diagrams to describe thermodynamic systems (like engines and refrigerators, for example). I wanted to apply these types of ideas to the ocean.

Working closely with colleagues in Australia and Sweden, I came up with a way to make a new diagram for the ocean’s thermohaline circulation. This is the circulation that, in part, makes Europe relatively warm, and plays a big role in regulating Earth’s climate. The new diagram we developed helped us to understand the physical processes controlling the thermohaline circulation and opened the door to all sorts of new methods for understanding the ocean’s role in climate.

Jan’s diagram of ocean circulation in temperature-salinity coordinates from a global climate model (Community Earth System Model Version 1). Contours represent volumetric streamfunction in units of Sverdrups (1Sv = 10^6 m^3 s^-1). Credit: Jan Zika

I started to realize I had stumbled onto something really big when I ran the idea by a Canadian colleague Fred Laliberte, who was a researcher at the University of Toronto at the time. He had been working on a very similar problem in the atmosphere, and my diagram was just the thing he needed to work things out. We ended up getting that work published in the journal Science and we were able to say a thing or two about how windy the world might get as the climate changes. To know my ideas were having an impact well beyond my immediate research area really was special.

And what did you find out? How will climate change affect the world’s wind?  

What we found was that overall the earth’s atmosphere won’t get much more energetic (or may even get less energetic) as the climate warms. This means that although extreme storm events may become more frequent in the future, weak storms may become much less frequent (more calm weather). One can draw an analogy with a spluttering engine: it produces bursts of energy when it splutters but is slower and less effective the rest of the time.

Your research pursuits have taken you to some pretty incredible places. What have been some highlights from your time out in the field?

It has been great to balance the mathematics and theory I do with research in the field. As an oceanographer I have been ‘to sea’ a few times. The most memorable was when I was part of a research project to measure in the Southern Ocean. Our research area was between South America and the Antarctic continent. We set off from the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and made our way around the Scotia Sea dropping by South Georgia on our way back. Those Antarctic islands had the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. The highlight though was when a gigantic humpback whale spent a few hours playing with us and the ship – spinning under water, breaching and popping up to say hello.

Jan (right) with Brian King (left) from the UK National Oceanography Centre. Pictured here on the James Clarke Ross in the South Atlantic deploying an Argo Float. The instrument measures ocean temperature, salinity and pressure. Credit: Jan Zika

As part of the research, we released a small amount of inert substance (a type of chemical that wouldn’t affect marine life) about a kilometre below the surface of the ocean. This is called a ‘tracer.’ The idea was we would let the ocean currents move and stir the substance like milk poured into coffee. It is really important for us to understand how much things mix in the deep ocean as this affects the thermohaline circulation and how heat and carbon are absorbed into the ocean with global warming.

Once we had released the substance it wasn’t that easy to find where it had gone. What we had to do was float around, drop over an instrument that could trap water at different depths, then bring the water samples to the surface and analyse them in a small lab we had on board. The difficult part was the tracer would become really dilute once it had been mixed by ocean currents, and it was both a really time consuming and costly process to collect and analyse the substance. So we had to exploit sophisticated computer models and pool all our knowledge and best guesses on where the tracer might have gone. We did such a good job tracking it that we were able to continue gathering oodles of valuable data for almost twice as long as had originally been planned. This was testament to the excellent teamwork and ingenuity of our collaborators at sea, in the lab and in front of computers.

Outside of research, you have also been involved with a number of science communication initiatives and outreach activities with young students. What advice would you impart to scientists who would like to engage with public audiences?

That is right, I really enjoy inspiring the next generation and getting non-science folk engaged in what we do. I would say that you want to simplify things but don’t dumb them down. I’ve learnt the hard way that even when speaking to other ‘experts’ it is best to use plain language instead of jargon and go slowly through concepts even if you feel they should be basic. I think working with people from around the world (e.g. in France) who don’t have English as a first language, really helped me with this.

Jan teaching a Geophysical Fluid Dynamics class at the University of New South Wales with the aid of a rotating tank experiment. Credit: Susannah Waters

At the same time I am always surprised at how quickly young students can absorb ideas and throw up questions that even an expert wouldn’t have come up with. The great thing is that your students aren’t wedded to dogma like experienced researchers are, and so are capable of much more creative ideas.

The other day I was helping with a special event to encourage females to enter mathematics. I was inspired by a talk given by the Australian Girl’s Maths Olympiad Team who had just competed in Venice. They said solving Maths Olympiad problems was all about breaking down a big problem into smaller problems they already know how to solve. I ended up changing my own talk as I was inspired by this theme.

I guess what I am suggesting is, if you are organising outreach activities, instead of thinking about how to ‘tell them’ how things work, think about ways to get ideas from them. Include them in the process. Ask them the hard questions. That way everyone will be much more involved. And who knows, it might spark a great idea.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Treat that brilliant early career scientist to an EGU award nomination

Treat that brilliant early career scientist to an EGU award nomination

As a colleague or proud supervisor of postgraduate students and post-docs, there is a simple thing you can do to congratulate them on their excellence and research: nominate them for the one of the European Geosciences Union’s awards for outstanding early career scientists. The deadline is 15 June 2018, so now is the time to act.

Putting early career researchers in the spotlight

To credit researchers and to highlight their work, the European Geosciences Union has established a prestigious collection of medals and awards, which are awarded to exceptional scientists for their outstanding research contribution in the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

There are two types of awards which are dedicated to early career scientists: the Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award and the Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists. All divisions have a nomination procedure in place for the Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists award. Furthermore, from the nominees who have been put forward for the division awards, four are selected for the Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists which is a Union level award.

This year’s nominations must be submitted online before 15 June 2018, and are subsequently evaluated by the medal and award committees. It’s highly desirable that the EGU awardees and medallists reflect the broad diversity of the geosciences community. To accomplish this, EGU encourages considering gender, geographical and cultural balance when putting forward nominees.

Liran Goren receiving the 2018 Geomorphology Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award. (Credit: EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

How do I nominate this excellent ECS?

The online nomination procedure is straightforward and should take relatively little time. There are a few things that should be kept in mind in order to ensure your candidate is considered.

  1. Write a nomination letter (half page)
  2. Get a hold on an up-to-date and brief CV (one page)
  3. Add a (half page) list of the candidate’s most relevant publications (with some statistics on the total amount of scientific output)


Less is more

It’s important to note that the total nomination package should not exceed two pages, otherwise the nomination is not considered. Writing such nominations should therefore be guided by a quality over quantity approach, and nominations should be clear and concise, focusing on the research highlights of the candidate. 

Feeling proud

All in all, the EGU’s outstanding early career scientists awards are a great way to accolade researchers and to give them credit for their hard work. Nominating your postgraduate students and post-docs also highlights science in your field, increases the reputation of the research group, but above all, makes you feel proud.

At the Assembly 2018: Friday highlights

At the Assembly 2018: Friday highlights

The conference is coming to a close and there’s still an abundance of great sessions to attend! Here’s our guide to getting the most out of the conference on its final day. Boost this information with features from EGU Today, the daily newsletter of the General Assembly – pick up a paper copy at the ACV entrance or download it here.

Union Sessions

The final day of the conference kicks off with the last Union session, Scientific research in a changing European Union (EU): where we stand and what we aim for (US5). Panelists will explore some of the challenges and potential threats to academics in the EU and how these issues can be addressed and overcome. The session will also outline some of the advantages of the EU, funding programmes that are currently provided and how the European Union can continue to develop and nurture its researchers.

Medal Lectures

Be sure to also attend the last two medal lectures of the assembly:

Short Courses

The last leg of short courses offers insight into new technologies, tips for publishing your work, and advice on how to develop your career. Here are a few of the short courses you can check out today:

Scientific Sessions

The three final interdisciplinary events also take place today. Early in the morning a series of talks will discuss biogeomorphology: conceptualising and quantifying processes, rates and feedbacks. Another session will explore medical geology, an emerging field of science that is dealing with the impact of natural geological factors, process and material on humans and animals health. Our final interdisciplinary event will explore sea-level changes from minutes to millennia, highlighting proxy records for constraining our understanding of present and future sea-level change

It’s your last chance to make the most of the networking opportunities at the General Assembly, so get on down to the poster halls and strike up a conversation. If you’re in the queue for coffee, find out what the person ahead is investigating – you never know when you might start building the next exciting collaboration! Here are some of today’s scientific highlights:

Today we also announce the results of the EGU Photo Contest! Head over to the EGU Booth at 12:15 to find out who the winners are.

What have you thought of the Assembly this week? Let us know at and help make EGU 2019 even better.

We hope you’ve had a wonderful week and look forward to seeing you in 2019! Join us on this adventure in Vienna next year, 7–12 April 2019.

At the Assembly 2018: Wednesday Highlights

At the Assembly 2018: Wednesday Highlights

We’re halfway through the General Assembly already! Once again there is lots on offer at EGU 2018 and this is just a taster – be sure to complement this information with EGU Today, the daily newsletter of the General Assembly, available both in paper and for download here.

Union-wide Sessions

Today’s Union-wide session reflects on fifty years of international ocean drilling (US4: 08:30–12:00 in room E1). At the session you can listen to invited speakers provide an overview on exciting research made possible with past ocean drilling projects as well as the recent international marine research collaboration, the International Ocean Discovery Program. You can also follow the session on Twitter (#EGU18US) and catch up with the EGU 2018 webstream.

Medal Lectures and Awards

Grace E. Shephard, winner of a 2016 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Young Scientists, at the 2016 EGU Award Ceremony (Credit: EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

Another promising event set for today is the EGU Award Ceremony (PCN3), where the achievements of many outstanding scientists will be recognised in an excellent evening event from 17:30–19:00 in Room E1. Here are some of the lectures being given by these award-winning scientists:

Scientific Sessions

There are a host of interdisciplinary events taking place today. If you are interested in learning more about the climatic impacts of major volcanic eruptions head to room N2 at 10:30 for orals, or poster hall X5 at 17:30 for further discussion later in day. There’s also a PICO session on Citizen Science for Earth Systems in the Era of Big Data (13:30–15:00 in PICO spot 4), that will explore questions over citizen science data, challenges in handling Big Data, and ensuring transparency in projects. Check the conference programme or EGU Today for details on the rest of Wednesday’s interdisciplinary sessions.

And be sure check out some of today’s stimulating scientific sessions:

Short Courses

Now on to short courses! One session today offers the opportunity to learn some tips and recommendations for how to apply for Marie Skłodowska-Curie grants.

Ever go back to your desk after a conference and wonder ‘where did I leave the last working version of…’? The workshop Git for science is one way to help organise your life. It will show some methods for using git, a revision control tool developed for programming, as a tool for science. If interested, don’t forget to bring your laptop with git installed!

Interested in learning how to peer-review? Many scientists never receive formal training, yet peer-reviews are the cornerstone of scientific legitimacy. In this short course, we will hear from peer-review experts about how they go about the process.

Perhaps you are looking for something fun and informal? Geoscience Game Night is a bring, show and share session to play some games that have a geoscience theme. Feel free to bring a game or just come along to have some fun. This short course follows the Games for Geoscience oral and poster sessions happening earlier today.

Finally, remember to take the opportunity to meet the people behind EGU in the day’s Meet EGU sessions.

Have an excellent day!

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria from 8 to 13 April. Check out the full session programme on the General Assembly website and follow the Assembly’s online conversation on Twitter at #EGU18.