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From Collecting Sediment Cores in Iceland to Mentoring Students: The Busy Life of an Early Career Researcher

Have you ever wondered what life as an early career researcher entails?

From managing a lab group and mentoring PhD students, to applying for funding and leading intensive fieldwork campaigns, scientists in the early stages of their career do it all.

Here, we chat with Dr. Margit Simon from NORCE Climate and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and recent PLOS ONE author to find out more about her exciting work.

PLOS: Your recent work, published in PLOS ONE, investigated stable isotope data from a new marine core collected off of Iceland – how did using data with such a high temporal resolution (1-2 years) impact what we know about water mass changes?

MS: Marine sediment cores that have such high-resolution are still a quite rare finding globally. For that specific area, it was a new finding that the upper core section – the youngest sediment part – could resolve the historic time interval so well. Mostly, that is only possible with schlerochronological records, of which there are a few around Iceland actually. We found a good correspondence with the measured phosphate concentrations within the water column – a comparison only possible because we have such high temporal resolution. Stable carbon isotopes in planktonic foraminifera are influenced by a variety of factors and are normally not so easy to interpret. By constraining the influences on the carbon isotopes by comparing to modern measurements, we were able to detect an intermittent 30-year cycle over the entire time series length, that is likely reflecting the ocean response to atmospheric variability, presumably the East Atlantic Pattern. That was not known or found before in that area.

PLOS: Has your data highlighted changes in climate over the past 150 years? What impact have these changes had on ocean variability?

MS: What I was intrigued to see was the long-term trend in benthic δ18O, a proxy recording the water mass properties in the intermediate waters at that location. It suggests that Atlantic-derived waters are expanding their core within the water column, from the subsurface into deeper intermediate depths, towards the present day. That there is greater Atlantic-derived water mass influence in the surface waters offshore of NW Iceland over the past 150 years is well known by now. However, until now, we did not know that this process is also influencing the deeper realms in the water column contemporaneously. That was a new finding.

PLOS: What are some of the challenges of being an Early Career Researcher? Do you feel that these are mitigated by the specific opportunities for ECRs?

MS: Well, securing funding short-term and long-term for my position itself, but also for my research activities is challenging, as the field becomes more and more competitive. Basic research has to be very innovative and impactful to get funding these days. Hence, I am wondering how sustainable the system is over time. I would wish for some more basic funding security or baseline funding in the private research institute section in Norway.

Image credit: Margit Simon

PLOS: You’ve done fieldwork in a number of exciting locations – from Iceland all the way to Southern Africa. Do you have a favorite location? Were there any sampling campaigns that were particularly challenging?

MS: They were all very special and exciting. Despite the Greenland Ice sheet probably being the most ‘exotic’ one that I have been to, my favourite place remains Africa, or specifically South Africa. The most challenging sampling campaign was in Mozambique as part of a wider trip from Zambia to South Africa with the aim to collect modern day river sediments.

PLOS: Field work in many research areas has been delayed or postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Were your fieldwork plans affected? And if so, how did you regroup?

MS: I was part of a marine sediment coring campaign offshore South Africa in the beginning of 2020 and retrospectively, I am very happy that we managed to do everything as planned. How little did we know then what was coming! Parallelly on land in South Africa, my project partners did field work, field experiments and excavated archaeological sites that had to be stopped due to COVID-19. This affected me in the sense that I could not get the samples I had hoped for, and we will need to postpone that to approximately Nov/Dec. of this year (2021). It is obviously still unclear if then we can operate again with a kind of normalcy.

PLOS: Now that you have PhD students of your own, is there a particular strategy you take in mentoring them? How do you prepare them for to be Early Career Researchers themselves?

MS: Well, I don’t have a rocket science strategy in place, but I think it is important to be there for them for questions, reviewing and to bounce ideas. I think nothing is worse than when you don´t have someone that you can frequently go to and ventilate ideas and perhaps also frustration. I think when you are in your PhD yourself you might underestimate the value of someone actually taking the time to read your work and give thoughtful feedback back. I think further down the line of your career path that becomes rarer and you think back on those times where your supervisor always gave comments.

PLOS: The University of Bergen and NORCE are hubs of scientific research – how has being in such a diverse group of expertise helped your own work? Do you find yourself collaborating with people in different fields from your own?

MS: Definitely. Before moving to Norway and becoming a part of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, I worked in smaller groups that are more specialised in one field. That is, of course for your own work, very beneficial. However, I recognised that the centre here and the diverse groups and topics really offer new opportunities to merge and reach out and broaden your topic. I have very much benefited and used that platform for my science ever since.

PLOS: What new projects do you have on the horizon?

MS: As much as I am fascinated by the ocean and reconstructing its past variability on various timescales, I am excited about my new project ideas that aim to reveal past climate information from land or specifically from South Africa itself. What is new is that I target specifically archaeological cave sites where we can extract environmental information from the same layer that the material culture information comes from. Key behavioural innovations emerged among Homo sapiens in South Africa around 120 ka ago and the drivers of this development remains debated. One hypothesis is centred around climate changes.

PLOS: As you know, PLOS ONE is an open access journal, and is devoted to promoting open science. We would be curious to know your thoughts and opinions on open access and/or open data and the importance of these concepts for researchers, particularly early career scientists.

MS: I think both are extremely important especially for ECRs, for different reasons.

It might be rather difficult if you are an “unknown scientist” to get access to data if that is not stored at an open access source. That might of course also cost you more time and delay the activity you are working on, while a more known scientist might have asked the same question and might have gotten the data already the next day. Especially currently, during COVID-19 times, universities are conducting more and more data synthesis projects as e.g., master’s projects for students since laboratories are closed. Hence, it is of vital importance to have access without barriers to this. I think data storage facilities like PANGEA are crucial and I think the movement in the community in the last years to use these platforms more and more is great and should be pursued. In this respect, I also appreciate and used recently myself the opportunity to publish data sets only in peer-reviewed journals. It ensures good quality control on the data published but does not force one to interpret the data. Still, one can gain credit for the work. Importantly, data such as this is also available to the community that otherwise might have been hidden in a drawer.

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