A Conversation with Russ Hopcroft, Principal Investigator for the Census of Marine Life Arctic Ocean Diversity Project.
What do you do in arctic oceanography?
Pretty much the same things as oceanographers do anywhere. We go to sea (or send our students and/or technicians there) and try to discover/understand how the oceans work. It's simply colder doing it in the arctic, and the ice creates a unique situation compared to elsewhere. Depending on an oceanographer's discipline, he or she concentrates on the physical environment, the geological environment, the chemical environment, or the biological environment. Usually teams of all these disciplines work together on the same cruise. I am partly a biological oceanographer, which means I try to understand how the physical, chemical, and geological environment influence or determine the biological community. This could be either in terms of species composition, abundance, amount (as weight) or production (amount in a given time)... or all of the above. I am also partly a marine ecologist, so I try to understand the interactions and relationships between the plants, animals and single-celled organisms that form communities. I specifically do this for zooplankton, the small animals that live in the water "drifting" with ocean currents.
... and, of course, I also teach classes, supervise graduate students, serve on various committees, write papers, go to meetings, and drink lots of coffee.
How many years did you have to go to school before getting a job as an arctic oceanographer?
Far too long, according to many friends and relatives! It was 20 years from the time I started university to the time I got my Ph.D., which is much longer than for most people, but I took several breaks along the way. Actually, I never expected to be working in the Arctic after having done all my post-graduate work in the tropics. To a large degree, one ends up where a job is available for which you have the desired skills... so there is a large element of chance to this. In most disciplines, the skills are transferable from one place to another, but we all excel in a somewhat different sets of skills.
Do you work with animals?
Yes, but probably not the kind anyone normally thinks about. Almost all of the animals I work with are invertebrates, which lack a backbone. The majority must be looked at under a microscope to see much, but some - such as jellyfish - can be from 6 to 10 feet long. Some of them are incredibly beautiful, some look pretty boring, some look pretty weird, and some look like creatures in science-fiction movies.
What type of hours do you work?
It is past 2 am now as I write this, and this is a pretty typical night. I normally stop about now and I'm up between 7:30 and 9 am to spend a bit of family time, then back to the office some time between 9 and 10 am. I pick the kids up at 5:30 pm, have more family time, put them to bed at about 9 pm, then work till now, fitting in a walk with the dog about midnight (she tells time very well). I take weekends off and frequently don't work one weekday evening... so I typically put in 60-70 hrs a week. This is pretty typical of what's required by faculty at a research university to keep up and be competitive. When I'm at sea on a cruise, I may work up to 16 hours a day, and as many as 100 hours in a week (and yes, I'm very tired when the cruise is over).
Where do you work?
Everywhere - at the office, the lab, and at home in Fairbanks, Alaska. When I go to the field to do work, it's mostly in the North Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean "close" to home. Prior to Alaska, I've worked in the Caribbean, off the coast of California and Cape Cod in Massachusetts. This fall/winter I will also work with friends off the coast of Indonesia.
How much money do you make?
At present, enough to live comfortably, but not excessively. Until I got my Ph.D. it was not so comfortable. Biological oceanographer full-time junior professors make as little as perhaps $40,000/yr, while the very top "senior" people make as much as $200,000/yr but not very many of them! I'd say something like $50-100,000 is typical for most people.
Is your job something worth doing?
Most days I think so. I'm constantly challenged by what I do, and I am constantly learning and discovering. What I do contributes to an improved understanding of how the oceans and the planet, as a whole, work, and how this may be changing over time.
Do you travel a lot?
Yes, my family thinks too much so. I'm typically away at sea, at meetings or at conferences somewhere between 2 to 4 months of the year. So far, this year has been quiet. I've only been to Seattle and Monterey Bay, but this month I have a 4-day cruise, a meeting in Victoria, Canada, and a meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Next month, I have a meeting in Spain, then a month on an Arctic cruise, followed by another short cruise sometime in August. At the end of October, I have a meeting in Russia, followed by either a meeting in Germany or several weeks of field work in Indonesia. I can generally see my life about six months or more ahead in terms of travel.