ECR INTERVIEW SERIES

This summer we will be initiating a brand new series of interviews with early-career researchers to highlight the dynamism of the SASQUA research community! From pollen to isotopes to digital landscapes, we’ve got it covered!

Dr Vincent Hare: mad about models (and data)

This week we’re talking to Dr Vincent Hare of the University of Cape Town Department of Archaeology about his passion for climate science, and the challenges facing ECRs in the academic job market today.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about your discipline?

Sampling a core

It is hard for people to see how palaeoclimatology and chronology are relevant to their daily lives. For some, knowing that the climate has changed in the deeper past is seen as comfort and justification, rather than cause for serious alarm. I think it’s fair to say that the changes we will see in our lifetimes were unprecedented in the entire Quaternary. And with climate change at our doorstep, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations rapidly returning the Earth to a climatological state last seen in the Pliocene or earlier, it can get depressing to have advanced notice about a tragedy before it plays out in real time. And as a scientist it can be frustrating that public perception and political policy is so slow-moving.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? How did you come to focus on climate modelling, given your background in stable isotopes and chronology?

Inspecting the mass spec

I don’t know how to categorise myself. I have an undergraduate background in Physics, Environmental Science, and Archaeology, so I am interested in the intersections of all three of these fields (not always easy!). Some of my research is focussed on developing dating methods – and a lot of these come from applied physics and nuclear chemistry – but I also have interests in stable isotopes, and climatology. I think my numerical background has opened up many interesting avenues, and has facilitated my more recent interest in modelling. Climate models are important for two reasons; first, they bridge the gap between past climates and future predictions (since the models which predict future climate in the IPCC reports – CMIP – are often also used for palaeoclimatology at the LGM an so forth). So testing models in the past is actually really important for our present situation. Second, the more accurate modelling becomes, the more it enriches our knowledge of the fossil record – allowing us to say all kinds of things about past sea levels, terrestrial temperatures, and so forth.

Research wise, inconsistencies fascinate me – they often suggest a deeper unresolved question which, if solved, can lead to new science. Ideally, I like to think I’m driven by these inconsistencies and not by the thought of immediate “impact”: citations, h-factor, etc. In my view, these metrics are more or less arbitrary (particularly at ECR level) and ultimately affect the way in which we do science by incentivising short-term, low-hanging research. We sometimes need to think bigger! I consider myself lucky in my research career to have been given the freedom to pursue bold ideas without fear of dead-ends, and part of what I want to do is to protect that ability for future scientists, and allow them similar opportunities.

What was your path to your current position in Cape Town?

Carbonates!

In fact, I started at UCT, so I suppose I’ve come full circle. I did a degree in Physics, picking up majors in Environmental science and Archaeology along the way. I didn’t want to go into finance or “hard” physics, so I found the Stable Light Isotope Lab at UCT – it was a good match because I was interested in technical things – measurement – but I was also interested in past environments and climates. I published my honours research, and I was awarded a scholarship to Oxford for MSc and PhD. During my graduate studies my interests mushroomed – it seemed there was plenty of use for physics in archaeology and environmental science. And so I simply followed what interested me –  from archaeomagnetism, to the effects of CO2 concentrations on plant carbon isotopes, to novel dating techniques. After PhD things got much harder, because I no longer had that freedom to pursue my own research. I did a postdoc in the USA, in a palaeomagnetism laboratory. I learnt that postdoctoral research under the instruction of my PI did not suit me – it did not feel collaborative – and so I returned to the Stable Light Isotope Laboratory, first for a postdoc, then for my current position. In the process of these two postdoctoral positions, I made over 17 other postdoctoral fellowship applications -which I thought were excellent – and got no interviews. Later, I learnt that my experience was not unique; in today’s University environment roughly 1 in 20 postdocs eventually end up in faculty positions. It’s been quite a journey, and it has made me aware of the structural problems in academia – something I would like to help to fix.

Having experienced first-hand the academic systems of three countries (USA, UK and South Africa) do you have any thoughts on the advantages of remaining in SA to do research or looking for opportunities abroad?

Vince in the wild

Although there are huge opportunities and resources in the USA, and the country is an immensely productive engine of science, my sense is that the work culture there can be particularly brutal, particularly for ECRs. This is ultimately a self-defeating strategy because it causes many superb researchers to leave the field, disgruntled and disillusioned with the US Academic system.  

I’m cautiously optimistic about South Africa. In the palaeosciences, funding is somewhat easier to obtain, although the amounts are much smaller than overseas, so you have to be really creative here and use the money wisely (which is a good thing, on balance). There are many challenges, but considering the best young minds in Africa choose us as a destination for study, we should have the advantage.

Sadly, all science is dependent on political stability, and South Africa is haemorrhaging money to corruption, and skilled people are leaving for greener pastures. The two trends then reinforce each other – more skilled people leave, and more corruption sets in. My hope is that the changes we can affect as scientists and educators can multiply faster than the trend towards economic and ecological collapse. It probably won’t, but we have to try!

I’ll also add that the voices of African scientists are so important; they enrich the field enormously. It’s important that we nurture – and keep – home grown talent. And with European, American, and Chinese academics so focussed on their own hyper-competitive environments, and becoming ever more cut-throat, my feeling is that they have less and less time for African scientists. Something will have to change.  

What do you do in your spare time?

In the orchard

Ah, the elusive work-life balance! The problem here is that when I have spare time, and relax, that’s when ideas for projects tend to come, so it’s counterproductive! But I’m working at achieving more of a balance. It’s surprisingly hard. I read as much as I can. I play music. I am lucky enough to be responsible for a small grove of olive and lime trees in the Karoo, which need to be fed, watered, and kept disease-free. Farming is often frustrating work, with factors outside of the farmer’s control, but it is eventually satisfying to see the finished product once or twice a year. So perhaps, in that respect, it is similar to academic research!

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