the end.

With the end of my post-doctoral fellowship on August 31, I feel this is a good time to wrap up this blog. It’s been a great learning platform for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read.

My adventures during my upcoming sabbatical take a sharp turn from science, teaching, and society, so I’ve decided to start a new blog dedicated to adventures and travel. If you’d like to follow along, check me out at: https://thesabbatiblog.wordpress.com/

Thanks for reading, keep in touch, looking forward to the future. Onward.

Ben

The end of science? Sabbatical 2015.

Dear 2015, you’ve been a rough one. New instrument challenges seemed to be never-ending, but have been overcome with tenacity, and things are finally running smoothly. Intellectually, we’ve turned the existing body of knowledge for oxygen-17 in the sulfur cycle on its head, revealing how little we knew when this project began. However, proposal after proposal for continued funding has been declined despite interesting results generated by department seed money. And, with no interviews in a tight academic job market, I’m being deported from the US because there is no more money to pay my meager salary.

August 31 marks the end of my post-doc, and likely the end of my academic career. It’s been fun at times, challenging at times, and there have been stretches of time where I’ve worked harder than I thought was possible. I’ve accomplished a lot (built an instrument in my first year, and will have five papers worth of data out of less than a year of data collection since my instrument was completed), and most importantly I’ve met so many incredible people here. The J-lab team, and the broader geobiology postdoc crew are more than a great network, they’ve become good friends. My advisor, Dave, deserves an extra shout out for putting together bits and pieces of funding for me, being a great collaborator, and building a fantastic group of people to work with. Thanks, Dave.

However, after all of this, I’ve realized academia isn’t for me. And that’s a good thing. There are things I love about doing isotope geochemistry every day: testing new ideas, thinking about big picture “how the Earth system works” kind of problems, the job flexibility, and freedom-ish to work on things that are really cool and might change our way of thinking about the world. In general, I just think using isotopes to solve geological problems is really fun and interesting. However, the downsides of academia have become too apparent at this stage, and I’m in need of a career change. There are many scientific jobs in the United States for which I am qualified, and that I would find interesting (USGS, EPA, various companies), however these positions nearly unanimously require US citizenship. Similar scientific positions in my country of citizenship, Canada, are virtually non-existent, unless one is “researching” the soon-to-be-stranded oil sands resources. Notwithstanding the current recession, science in Canada is a dead end right now, so it’s time to consider something different.

For me, that something different is a sabbatical. I’m taking six to eight months off to reflect on my experiences as a researcher, and to plan for my next career. This process may launch me into a place and industry very different from where my path has taken me so far, and I’m keeping the door open to almost anything. I’ve got a long list of personal reading to catch up on, lots of mountains to climb (and ski down), friends to see, places to visit, and my Blue Jays should be fun to watch this fall, too. While this is all happening, I’m going to be thinking, writing, and planning my next steps, evaluating strengths, and envisioning my future. I’ll be driving across the US during September, ultimately to be located in western Canada, somewhere between Calgary and Vancouver for the next several months. If you live along that path, or are visiting the mountains, send me a note, I’d love to meet up to share a beverage and some ideas. I’m excited about the future, whatever it may bring. There is only one direction: onward.

~B

Ramping up the academic rat race: Moore’s law of scientific publishing?

To conclude this series of posts, I’ll start with a quote that my good friend Chris is fond of.

C: “Ben, do you know who wins the rat race?”

B: “I don’t know, who wins the rat race, Chris?”

C: “A rat.”

Of course, Chris has long realized that to even play in the rat race that is our modern society, one must become a rat in order to succeed. Joining the rat race is certainly essential to a career in academia in its current state.

This idea crystallized for me this morning when I found a new paper by Brischoux and Angelier. This paper has suggested something crazy, that I suspect might be broadly true. During the time period that I have been a graduate student and a postdoc (2005-2015), the number of scientific papers required to obtain a permanent academic job in evolutionary biology in France has doubled. Doubled. What’s more depressing is that the number of years spent in temporary employment has also doubled during this time. If their findings are more broadly applicable across the sciences, this represents a fundamental shift in academia that I’m fairly certain nobody would have predicted a decade ago. From the time that I decided academics might be an appropriate career choice for me, until now, the rat race has changed entirely. The cause of the increase in publication stats and temporary work is complex, but I suspect it doesn’t have to do with increased absolute productivity. People applying for faculty positions today aren’t twice as smart, or twice as productive as people ten years ago.

One of the obvious reasons for the increase in number of papers is the relentless drive toward quantitative metrics for scientific output. Indeed there has been a great deal of discussion about scientific metrics (references within the linked manuscript), and essentially the problem boils down to one idea: it’s really hard to measure the impact of scientific output. However, hiring committees, promotion and tenure committees, and awards committees must all conduct their business, and being quantitative scientists, they are looking for ways to score, or rank scientists’ output, and justify their decisions to administration. There are flaws in every scoring system, whether one ranks candidates by number of papers, patents and reports produced, the number of times these works are cited (h-index), or some other arbitrary assessment of quality. However, despite the flaws of this approach, metrics provide something that’s easy to understand for university administration—the numerical rank of Candidate A is higher than Candidate B.

Consider Job Candidate A who has written an impressive 16 papers that have been cited by 135 other papers. On the surface, Candidate A appears to have greater scientific impact than Candidate B who has only written 8 papers with 92 citations. Candidate A has an h-index of 10, whereas Candidate B has an h-index of 8. Using quantitative metrics alone, one is unable to determine that most of the citations of Candidate A’s work were from other scientists refuting the findings of a single controversial manuscript in a more popular sub-discipline, and the remainder of his/her papers were only cited a handful of times. However, Candidate B had made a series of important discoveries in a smaller sub-discipline which redefined the field, and are indicative of a truly rising star. This is an extreme example, of course, but highlights some of the problems with quantitative metrics of scientific output.

Second, an evaluation system based on number of papers and citations inevitably splits science into thinner “salami” slice manuscripts and “least publishable units.” Additionally, some papers may be important but not widely cited in the academic literature. An important discovery in applied science may have broad reaching implications for an industry, but little “importance” in terms of scientific literature citations.

Third, and interestingly, the most cited papers in science consist almost entirely of methods papers. While these papers are most certainly important, they didn’t directly change our understanding of the world we live in.  Hence number of citation isn’t always a measure of creativity or thought provoking work. So the quantitative system may not be measuring what a hiring committee might want, which is groundbreaking scientific work that makes an impact on society in the near or distant future. My favorite fortune cookie this year read “The purpose of education is not knowledge, it is action.” Impact on broader society (on an admittedly nebulous time scale) is essential for good scientific work.

Finally, there is a demographic component to this problem that I think boils down to an availability of cheap labor. The number of postdocs and grad students has increased substantially relative to the number of faculty over the past couple decades, and it appears that we’re near the breaking point of the academic ponzi scheme that has developed. It  means that early career scientists are spending many more years in postdoctoral purgatory than in the past. Living contract to contract, moving from city to city. Perhaps this is broadly reflective of larger society where full time permanent employment seems like a relic of the 20th century. Quote from a senior faculty member, “As I got older and developed more outside responsibilities . . . it became easier to have more postdocs than graduate students because they didn’t need as much supervision. You could have a bigger lab that way without occupying more of your time.” And maybe more importantly, “In 1970, scientists typically received their first major federal funding when they were 34. In 2011, those lucky enough to get a coveted tenure-track faculty position and run their own labs, at an average age of 37, don’t get the equivalent grant until nearly a decade later, at age 42.” This is unsustainable, and the end result will be a lost generation of scientists who mistakenly thought there was a career path laid out for them because the positions to train them existed. Picture a medical school that asked students to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, only to have jobs for about 15% of its graduates. There certainly wouldn’t be students lining up to pay tuition after a few years. So why do people continue to start PhD and postdoctoral programs? I suspect it’s because lost opportunity cost is generally invisible to a green 22 year old potential graduate student. It’s hard to think that far into the future and see what might lie ahead, especially when you have a professor that you like and respect telling you how good you can be at science if you only went to grad school. What else could you have done with those 20 years (between grad school and first grant) that would have contributed more to society? There is an enormous lost opportunity cost to the individuals and to society that they might have served. In retrospect, there are no easy solutions for the current supply glut, given the time and resources that have been invested into training these talented people. However, maybe we should stop training so many people in the first place?

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about careers in science, so I’d like to ask you one question if you’ve made it this far without closing your browser: if you were advising an undergraduate student about careers after graduation, could you honestly recommend a PhD and academia as a viable option, given the current state of science? Could you recommend a prolonged underpaid adolescence (grad school, postdoc), while working toward a rare, and even more intensely competitive (but equally underpaid) junior faculty position that may or may not exist when you’re done? I’m certain I could not recommend this path to a student starting today. If I were a tenured faculty member right now, I could not justify taking on a graduate student. I’m not sure it would be ethical. Ten years ago, when I started on this path, things were a little different. I saw postdocs in my lab, and in my large interdisciplinary project getting good jobs, and saw scientists doing interesting work (one out of three attained a TT position). I saw a reasonable career pathway that would be challenging but rewarding. Today’s students should (hopefully) see the numbers from studies like the one I’ve highlighted today, and run away screaming from an academic path that offers little in the way of job prospects, salary, or future job security. The current labor supply glut is far greater than the system can absorb into permanent positions in the near future, and a silent majority of trained scientists have dropped off the academic track along the way. The tenure track has become a war of attrition, rather than a fair competition among young scientists with the best new ideas, and that is a big problem.

So given my current position as a postdoc, I suppose the question is: what now? Before I started my job, I laid out a set of concrete rules that I’ve followed perfectly so far. These rules help me manage and accept the major structural problems in academic science that I see around me. I took my current position with three ideas in mind: 1) this is an exciting project, in a field I always wanted to explore (I changed disciplines entirely following my PhD), 2) this position would be the only postdoc I’d ever have, and 3) if I didn’t have an academic TT job by the time this postdoc was over, I’d find a different career. So far #1 has been great success. I’ve learned a ton, contributed a solid paper that helps understand “Snowball Earth” (an undergraduate fascination of mine), and will continue to work hard to understand triple oxygen isotopes in the geologic record, at least until funding runs out. I’m still awaiting results of #2, as I’ve applied for a number of jobs recently and interviews are still being conducted at a number of schools. As for #3, I’m funded until the end of July, and we’ll see where things go after that. As much as I’d love an academic career, there are a lot of other paths in life, and I’m not so one-track focused that I’d do “whatever it takes.” At the end of the day, it’s just a job like any other, and there are things that are important in life outside of science.

Perhaps most of all, when I’m old and grey and look back on my career, I hope I can confidently say that I didn’t win the rat race. I think Chris would be proud of me for saying so.

~B

Science and nationalism – how does Canada fund early career scientists?

I’ve been debating whether or not to write a post about my recent NSERC experience, mostly because in doing so I may sound like I’m whining. I promise I’m not. I’m just trying to help others understand how science is funded in Canada, and help other young Canadian scientists navigate the complexities and difficulties of building a scientific career. Maybe a sharp politician or bureaucrat will read this and something might change? Nah I’m dreaming about that… but I do promise I’m not whining, just want to put this story out there because I know there are at least two more people in my position, and maybe we can form a support group or something. I’m fortunate to have continuing funding from my current lab, and we have a super strong NSF proposal in review right now to continue the awesome work we’ve been doing. Science will go on without support from my home country. Here’s the story:

I recently received results from the Banting Fellowship competition, a postdoctoral award that pays a young scientist’s salary for two years to conduct advanced research after completion of a PhD. The competition is unusual because unlike regular NSERC awards, this one is not separated by discipline – biochemists, geneticists, engineers of all kinds, mathematicians, physicists and geologists compete for the same 24 awards each year. Interestingly, in the ~5 year history of the program, a geologist had never won the award (there have been two or three awardees studying modern climate, surface water, and groundwater that broadly might be grouped into Earth sciences, but nobody who regularly looks at rocks, or thinks about Earth’s history before the Holocene has won this award, which seems odd in such a natural-resource-rich country). That is, until this year, when I placed in the top 24. I opened the “Competition Results” PDF, saw the high scores, and was ecstatic. I’d worked hard on this proposal “The Geological History of Oxygen* ” (can you believe the amount of oxygen in the air we breathe has changed through Earth history and we know practically nothing about it? Sort of important to understand how oxygen might be affected by climate change…), and given my recent work in the oilsands that has recently been published and getting reasonable amounts of attention from industry and the press, believed that I had a great chance of winning this fellowship. To score so high was a great feeling, and it was nice to have some success in a business that successes are few and far between. What this meant for me was two more years of funding at Harvard to actually carry out this research (the first year of my postdoc I spent building and testing a new laser instrument to measure oxygen isotope ratios). Then I read the second PDF, “notification of decision”…

Please note that the proportion of Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships that may be awarded annually to individuals who apply in collaboration with a foreign institution is capped at 25% overall. While your high ranking would normally achieve funding, due to this 25% cap we are unable to offer you an award at this time.

Crushed doesn’t begin to describe how I felt that day. I’m someone who’s been rejected for about 100 proposals along the way, and usually handle rejection letters pretty well, this one was different. Now fair is fair, the rules about foreign held awards are set beforehand, and I’m under no delusion that the 23rd (or 4th, or 15th) ranked scientist is substantially superior to the 25th or 26th ranked people in this competition. Comparing interdisciplinary scientists must be a challenge of epic proportions, it would be a very difficult committee to chair. There are so many great young scientists in Canada, it’s an honour to be mentioned in this group, and this was a sort of silver lining to an otherwise depressing Friday. However, I do question why the restriction exists in the first place, and after doing a little digging, I think that the distribution of these awards is misaligned with the purpose of the award:

The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program provides funding to the very best postdoctoral applicants, both nationally and internationally, who will positively contribute to the country’s economic, social and research‑based growth.

In a nutshell, the Banting Fellowship exists to train the next generation of people who will become the next leaders in scientific fields in Canada. Nobody should undertake a postdoctoral fellowship unless they want advanced training in research – unlike the PhD which can have a broader outlook for jobs outside of research, postdoc work is purely research focused. Canada wants to fund good people to develop their skills and hopefully contribute to the country’s scientific expertise over the next couple decades. However, awarding only 25% of these to Canadians who pursue postdoctoral work in a foreign country is directly counter to the reality of who is hired in Canadian institutions for faculty positions, and this is where I have my beef, and where it may sound like I’m whining. I’m not.

A very wise friend advised me a few years ago it would be academic suicide for me to stay in Canada for a postdoc. As I demonstrated in my last blog post, she was right; exactly one Assistant Professor of geology in Canada did a PhD and Postdoc in Canada (and she’s a very special case, with a very special resource—Alberta’s dinosaur fossils—that are essential to her work). The pathway to an academic career in geology in Canada is either a) do your PhD in the US or Europe, OR, b) do your postdoc in the US or Europe, OR c) a & b. In Geology, 66% of new hires for tenure track positions did a PhD outside of Canada, and 73% did a postdoc outside of Canada. There’s a lot of merit to this – Canada is small, and we can’t possibly be on the cutting edge of every field in every sub-discipline. Hiring people who have been trained at top global institutions is great for students, cities, and yes, Canada as a whole. The breadth of thought these people bring to their institutions is incredibly valuable, and should be encouraged. It’s probably worth mentioning that Canada doesn’t have many top-ranked institutions, despite lots of chest thumping from smaller schools, who certainly have pockets of outstanding people, we have four “world class” institutions: U of T, McGill, U of A, and UBC. Counter this with the US that generally holds 18 out of the top 20 in most international rankings (with only Cambridge and Oxford in the UK holding top 5 positions). It’s entirely understandable that Canadian universities want to hire the best people, period. Andrew Leach made a very good point this morning that universities shouldn’t be exempt from Canadian hiring laws, but they do have more selective criteria for hiring than most regular jobs. This can be paraphrased as, “do you want universities to hire the best available person, the top 1% of the field, or do you want the best person above a minimum standard.” This has a certain Office Space “pieces of flair” ring to it that made me chuckle.

Anyway, back to the point of my post – if nearly everyone who ends up contributing long-term to Canadian research as faculty members of a university spends some time outside of the country, why not reallocate funding at more junior stages to reflect this? Perhaps more appropriately, 50% of the Banting awards could be allocated to Canadians with Canadian PhD’s to pursue scholarship abroad, and 50% of the awards to expat Canadians and foreigners with foreign PhD’s to “come home” and bring their expertise back to Canada. This would better reflect the reality of who is hired at our universities, and support those who will ultimately contribute to building a stronger Canadian scientific enterprise. An alternative might be to allocate the awards to the best candidates, period, regardless of location. Food for thought.

Ultimately, I’m insanely disappointed by the results of the competition, but science is all about striking out and getting back up to bat the next time and trying to get on base. I’ve had a couple weeks to digest this one, and I’m feeling better about it. After giving a talk at Princeton last week that received very positive feedback, I’m excited to get back in the lab and work on Earth history questions that will help answer where our planet is heading into a century of rapid climate change. Telling Earth’s history has never been as sexy to fund as “cure for cancer” research. However, if the geological past is our best predictor of our planet’s future course, studying Earth’s history has never been more relevant as it is today.

To be continued…

~B

ps – If you happen to be one of the two other people who received the same letter from the Banting committee that I did, I’d love to hear from you, and get some sort of dialogue going on. Might be a shot in the dark, but the internet makes the world a little smaller these days…

pps – If anyone has better stats on Assistant professors in other disciplines, or better stats on those in Geology than I dug up, I’d love to see them. Having a reasonable idea of career path is important for new PhDs, who should be aware of the long uphill slog ahead of them if they want to continue on this career path.

*while I indeed was the primary author of the proposal, my adviser Dave Johnston provided outstanding comments and feedback, in addition to the rest of the J-lab who supported the development of these ideas. I can’t say enough how fortunate I feel to be a part of this research team. Thanks everyone for your support (and beer).

On the origin of Assistant Professors

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After spending the last fifteen months as a postdoc (and to be honest, mostly enjoying it, it’s been fun despite the brutal frustration of building a new homebrew instrument and getting it running), I’ve come to appreciate first hand how difficult getting a faculty job offer is—not that I previously held delusions that it was easy. I’ve recently gone through my first round of job applications, and I’ve had a few bites, but no offers so far. It’s still early in the game, and interviews are still being conducted, but I’m not holding my breath. To evaluate where I stand compared to other possible candidates, I went on a small quest last night to figure out what the career paths look like for recently hired Assistant Professors of Geology (Earth Science, Geoscience, whatever you want to call it) in Canada. I chose Canada because I’m Canadian, but also because it’s a smaller more manageable data collection effort. Admittedly, this was partly self-serving because this year there were no hires in Canada for which I would be a suitable candidate, and I wanted to scope out where might be hiring in the near future. The findings were intriguing, and while the sample size is small, it may be helpful for students who are trying to plan their careers. The key piece of information that is lacking in this study is nationality—there are restrictions on hiring at all universities in Canada that rank equivalently qualified Canadians and permanent residents higher than foreign nationals in almost every job competition including those of faculty. Therefore, the results should be skewed toward Canadian citizens, regardless of PhD or Postdoc location, but I was unable to test this idea.

Here’s what I found (please note that the data are incomplete,. but I can only spend so much time hacking around trying to dig up details that should be easily displayed on a university website). At the 12 universities I examined, there are 36 Assistant Professors of Geology. Fourteen (39%) were female, and twenty two (61%) were male. An obvious gender imbalance, but small sample size. The median year of attaining a PhD was 2007, and the median number of years spent as a postdoc was three. There was a wide range of postdoctoral experience, ranging from none to ten years. Most Assistant Professors (67%) did their PhD outside of Canada. Most also did their postdoc outside of Canada (73%). There was only one case that did both PhD and postdoc in Canada and currently holds a junior tenure-track position.

Qualitatively, all of the people holding Assistant Professorships had exceptional qualifications and publication records, and I don’t see universities being short on outstanding people anytime soon. However, this led me to another (yet unanswered) question: where do all the students and postdocs go? In any university department there are far more PhD students than faculty. Doing the math, there were 12 people hired in the last ~8 years, and probably 400 (this is a back of the envelope calculation) graduating with a PhD during the same time frame from Canadian schools, the rate of 1 faculty job for ~30 PhD’s seems similar to that of the American system. In grad school, nobody is under the delusion that they are all going to become professors, but that we don’t know the ultimate destinations of these highly qualified people speaks to our general ignorance of science in our society. The data to conduct this study certainly exist—NSERC collects information about trainees from all its supported researchers, and it would be interesting to follow up on this in a more detailed and data rich study.

What I took away from this is probably more of the same things I knew already. Things are hard if you choose science as a career path. Generally low pay, poor job prospects, etc. etc. that we should all be aware of before embarking on that journey. However, I also see opportunity. The 29 out of 30 people (the 97%?) who didn’t get a faculty job (or maybe didn’t want one in the first place) are still very qualified scientists with good ideas and clever ways to solve problems. Perhaps by reversing the trend of training so many students, better science could be done with a more permanent staff. If I were a PI, I’d expect better science to be done by a competent research associate who’s spent ten years thinking about isotope geochemistry than a newly minted undergrad who doesn’t know the difference between alpha, delta, and epsilon. Perhaps by taking advantage of the current glut of qualified researchers Canada can change the way science is done, and get back to leading, instead of lagging behind, the rest of the scientific world.

~B

ps – I’d hoped to get this published on Darwin Day (hence the title), but I’m a day late.
pps- The raw data can be found here, and admittedly it’s a bit rough. Please feel free to use it however you’d like to share, download, make it better, etc.

Location_PhD Years as Postdoc Male_Female Location_Postdoc

Unraveling The Big Melt in the Neoproterozoic

With my defense behind me, and my Ph.D. thesis submitted to graduate studies, I can start thinking about what lies ahead. I have finally had a normal weekend around home for the first time in months. I slept late, spent some time in the kitchen cooking good food, and spent most of the day packing what’s left of my belongings into boxes. It also means I have a bit of time to write a blog entry to share a preview of my next adventures.

My next stop in my scientific journey will be Boston. In less than a month’s time, I will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University in the Johnston group (Earth History and Isotope Geobiology). This is a major departure from my Ph.D. research direction in the fossil fuel and energy world, but the common thread is the isotope systems used to investigate these problems. The main focus of my postdoc project will be to investigate the major changes in Earth`s atmosphere during deglaciation of the Neoproterozoic “Snowball Earth” events. Various hypotheses and models have been proposed to explain the greenhouse climate required to melt a Snowball Earth, but until recently there has not been a direct proxy to measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and thus constrain the modeling with empirical evidence. Dr. Huming Bao recently developed a laser fluorination system that can measure 17O values directly from sulfates in the rock record. A large negative 17O anomaly in atmospheric oxygen is associated with deglaciation of Snowball Earth, owing to the high concentration of CO2 (up to 35X present day), and low concentration of O2 (1/20th of present day) in the atmosphere during this time. This signal is recorded in the rock record via sulfates derived from oxidative weathering that are deposited either as anhydrite or barite. We will build one of these instruments this fall at Harvard and begin to measure the extensive rock samples that are in collection at Harvard that were collected by researchers there over the past twenty years (always properly archive your samples!). By measuring oxygen isotopes of sulfates in Neoproterozoic cap carbonates from around the world, we will start to determine the global extent and magnitude of the observed oxygen isotope anomaly, and thus the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere during deglaciation. This will ultimately provide constraints on the global climate system during one of the biggest climate shifts in Earth history. I’m also exceptionally excited about starting to work with Dave Johnston, who I met at the Goldschmidt conference in Montreal last year. We have very similar research interests, and we seem to collaborate well, having written a couple grants together remotely over the past year.

One of the best things about starting a pure research project is the removal of industry restrictions on what data can be published, versus what data are proprietary. This will also hopefully enable more frequent blog posts with new ideas about a time in Earth’s history that has fascinated me since my undergrad course in glacial sedimentology. Combining Neoproterozoic with a new and exciting isotope system is an ideal setup for me, and I look forward to sharing more discoveries in the near future.

~B

ps – submission of my Ph.D. papers has begun, now that industry restrictions have been removed. Look out for these in the next couple months as they work their way through peer-review.

Thesis in a blog post

The end is nigh. I have submitted my Ph.D. dissertation, “Stable Isotope and Geochemical Investigations into the Hydrogeology and Biogeochemistry of Oil Sands Reservoir Systems in Northeastern Alberta, Canada,” to my examination committee and will defend my thesis on September 11 at 9AM. If you happen to be in Calgary and would like to attend, everything should be open and some of my work I’m presenting publicly for the first time ever! This is unusual in the modern science-industrial complex, where Ph.D. theses are sometimes completely published in journals before ever being compiled into a thesis. Because of this, few people actually ever read your thesis, or use it as a reference: all the good stuff has been published elsewhere in a more accessible format! Part of the reason why my work is being presented for the first time at my defense is that parts of the work resulted from industry collaborations, that required certain data to remain confidential. We have finally extracted the good stuff, the research that can be presented openly, and put it together in a thesis that should be beneficial to industry, government, and water resources groups doing work in the Athabasca oil sands region. I’ve put together a short summary of my thesis work below:

      • I compiled public data and mapped the salinity of McMurray formation waters across the entire Athabasca region, and came up with a new geological explanation for why there is so much variability in the groundwater chemistry of one formation. The McMurray formation contains most of the oil sands deposits, so there are fairly widespread implications for our regional-scale observations. This work was partially presented at the CSPG/CSEG Geoconvention in May of this year, but we have refined the message and identified some key features to look for when evaluating water systems on a smaller scale, such as an oil sands lease area.
      • Evaluating the geochemical composition of water in the McMurray formation used to be difficult. The bitumen in the oil sands are very hydrophobic, so drilling groundwater wells into the bitumen-saturated reservoir to find out the chemical makeup of water isn’t easy, and most of the time it just doesn’t work at all. However, Gushor has been producing small volumes of water from drill core in addition to the oil that they extract for routine geochemical analysis of bitumen. As you might suspect, the water is wildly contaminated by drilling fluids (water-based muds are used to lubricate the drill bit), so analyzing its chemistry seemed like an expensive and somewhat absurd undertaking at first. However, using stable isotope geochemistry we were able to make a few calculations and can now determine the stable isotope composition and the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) concentration of the original formation waters, completely eliminating the contribution of drilling fluid! This is an important development because of the very substantial variability in water chemistry in the McMurray formation that can change by thousands of mg/L over short lateral distances (kms or less). We can now map these changes in water composition using drill core samples that are being routinely analyzed for petroleum geochemistry, giving hydrogeologists a brand new tool to investigate water systems in oil sands lease areas. What’s even more awesome is that we can do this water mapping in three dimensions, identifying changes in water composition both vertically within a single reservoir, and laterally when multiple wells are sampled across a lease area (Mark Rabin and Jason Wilkins cleverly dubbed this technique 3DH2O over breakfast one day, feasibly we could make this 4DH2O if we sampled the area at different times, perhaps to find out where injected steam has moved around). We did a proof of concept study using this technique to map the heterogeneity within an active SAGD lease area, and found some really interesting results, but unfortunately you’ll have to wait for the paper to see them (sorry!). I’m also doing this work as a consultant for a couple companies if you’re reading this and are interested in exploring the water systems of your own oil sands lease area.
      • While we were thinking about differences in water chemistry in the McMurray groundwater across the Athabasca region, it also occurred to me that there is a very active biological community in the oil sands reservoirs. Microbes exploit the oil-water interface to consume petroleum hydrocarbons, usually by methanogenesis. However, microbes are influenced by the aqueous geochemistry of the reservoir system, and methanogens are particularly sensitive to increases in salinity. To see how bugs can be influenced by the variations in salinity that we see in the Athabasca region, I created some oil sands microcosms with salinity values that span what we observe in the Athabasca oil sands region in cooperation with the wonderful people of the Gieg Lab in Bioscience. Special thanks is owed to Dr. Sandra Wilson, who tolerated and encouraged my sometimes clumsy transition to becoming a part-time molecular biologist. We monitored the progress of the microcosms over a year-long period, and saw some very real differences in the isotopic composition of methane, and the inferred metabolic pathways of the microbes under the different salinity conditions. Unfortunately, biology in the lab doesn’t always look like biology in environmental systems, and while the bugs behaved very differently under different salinity conditions in the lab, the methane they produced didn’t look anything like what we see in the field. More work required on this one, but I think this study identified some further questions and research directions that we could take to work on the idea of salinity controlling biodegradation in parts of the oil sands regions.
      • Finally we tried to put some timing on methanogenesis in a coalbed methane system, which is analogous to oil sands systems in many ways. While not completely similar, both CBM and oil sands are shallow organic carbon-rich reservoirs with active hydrogeological systems and rapid carbon cycling due to microbial activity. Using compound-specific natural abundance radiocarbon analysis we found no detectable radiocarbon in dissolved inorganic carbon or methane, even at the shallowest reservoir depths (<100m), suggesting that microbial carbon cycling of coal is occurring much faster than inputs of dissolved inorganic carbon from shallow groundwater. This work was conducted in Montana, collaborating with the fantastic Drs. David Vinson and Jen McIntosh without whom this project would not have been possible.

These papers represent the main bulk of my thesis work that has been conducted over the past few years, and I’m pretty happy with how it all turned out. Like all Ph.D. projects, there are serious bumps in the road that happen, and you can either let them derail you completely or let the bad things slide and find other opportunities. I tend to choose the second option, having realized from many years of playing baseball that hitters that fail 7 out of 10 times at bat are called “hall of famers.” Sometimes you strike out, and when that happens you just have to get back up to bat and take another swing. There were periods during my degree when the data we were getting was junk, when corporate confidentiality took an entire project away from me (this will never be published, sadly), when we couldn’t get funding for any of our best ideas, and that time when I spent an entire summer in Europe developing a project that never came to fruition (ok, this one wasn’t so bad…). Looking back at the entire Ph.D. process as a whole, things tended to work out pretty well. I’m very grateful for the funding that supported this work, from NSERC and our sponsors at Suncor and ConocoPhillips who all continue to support excellent university research, plus the awards to collaborators in the Gieg Lab and McIntosh group that keep their research machines humming smoothly.

If you’re interested in the work we’ve done, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, I’m happy to share more details and data as it becomes available for us to publish. As for me, my next steps in my career and life are finally being ironed out, and I’ll be sure to write about them soon.

~Ben

ps – the last few months I have spent my time writing in the amazing city of Toronto, Ontario. I decided that a change of scenery would accelerate my writing, and I think I was right about that. I highly recommend this tactic for other Ph.D.’s – sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day lab buzz, and you spend your time doing anything but writing. As for TO, Toronto is an incredible, vibrant city with so much going on at any time it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the amazing things that are happening here. The Jays have been terrible, but entertaining, the music scene has been fun, and lakeshore is beautiful as always whenever I needed a bike ride to clear my head and get some exercise. Thanks for being a great writing buddy, TO; you’ve been elevated to header-image status on this blog.