Published: Jan 21, 2016
Bruce Schaefer is a lecturer within the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
I don’t remember ever really wanting or expecting to be a scientist. Scientists were incredibly clever people who I greatly admired and respected, but as a young child I never thought that I could be one, as the opportunities for education were limited in the rural area I grew up in and the (largely self-imposed) expectation was that I would be a farmer, just like my father. It wasn’t until I went away to boarding school for my secondary education that I realistically could pursue my interests in the natural sciences, and I was absolutely amazed to learn at university that people actually got paid to go out to remote areas and look at rocks, both things I loved greatly! Geosciences, specifically, were something I only took up as a fill-in subject in first-year university, but I loved it so much my whole second-year curriculum was Earth-science-related subjects.
How did growing up in the Australian Outback affect your interest in the geosciences?
I did a lot of reading as a child, particularly on very hot days when it was too hot play outdoors, and was especially interested in astronomy and dinosaurs. Most of the books about dinosaurs and geology were sourced from the UK, which really unhelpfully suggested that I go to a local quarry and hunt for fossils in order to build a collection, and then I could swap samples with friends. Our property was located on Archaean granulite facies basement rocks and covered by calcrete, and my nearest neighbours were kilometres away! However, we were well located for family camping trips to spectacular geology—the Flinders Ranges with Ediacaran Fauna, tillites, and archaeocyatha, and the Gawler Ranges with massive felsic volcanics and the Lake Acraman meteorite impact crater, all of which were inspirational to a young mind, and my father and I would also go hunting Australites along the Birdsville Track a bit further afield. All in all, the outback gave a good dose of reality regarding the enormity of the geosciences and the pragmatism involved in finding something special.
When you were a child, what did you think you’d be doing as an adult?
I always expected to be a farmer. I went to university more out of a sense of obligation to my parents who had invested in my education by sending me to boarding school, and it was there that I was able to truly explore the sciences.
What’s the most exciting part of your research?
I am a kid in a candy shop. I use isotopes as a tool to explore whichever problem interests me at the time. Therefore, I have at various times been very excited about groundwater, ore deposits, LIPs, Snowball Earth, mantle plumes, and currently meteorites and early solar system evolution—particularly the role of water and hydrophile elements. The excitement comes from interacting with like-minded colleagues and brainstorming a problem to come up with a new approach or technique to tackle a specific problem. Doing or trying something no one else has done before and gaining an insight into a process or problem that we didn’t previously know is amazing.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
The knowledge that there is a way through or around, and that this too will pass. I am quite stubborn, and often scientific problems just require a rethink and/or an approach from a different angle. Often this comes from talking to someone else, and serendipity has a role here. In the course of my career my greatest frustrations have arisen from non-scientific problems, the greatest being the battle to secure funding for research and keeping good, innovative, and enthusiastic researchers in the research group.
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?
This is hard to say, as there are many! Possibly either travelling all day on the Andean Altiplano and arriving at a reasonable sized town in Argentina to find that the accommodation would accept neither American dollars or credit cards, and trying to negotiate to stay a night in broken Spanish on the proviso that the next morning we would drive three hours to the nearest town with a bank to pay in pesos. As a naive Australian I figured that you could pretty much always get by with greenbacks in an emergency, but apparently not! Alternatively, it may be the sheer embarrassment of being rescued by some aboriginal elders whilst mapping in Pitjantjatjara Lands in Central Australia after bogging my 4wd almost down to the axles in mud. Having grown up in the bush and been driving 4wd vehicles since I was 12 or so, the broad smiles and hilarity that my distress provoked was pretty chastening and made for good fireside conversation for the remainder of the mapping campaign!!! But for sheer hard work, the toughest campaign I ever did was sampling river waters in Iceland during the summer solstice—exceptionally long days and the trip was led by an extremely motivated young French lady who was literally indefatigable—I would curl up asleep exhausted after 18–19 hour days, but Natalie would continue to filter samples for several hours more before catching a few hours of sleep and doing it all again! The scenery was spectacular, though.
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
The grant writing and funding mill; unfortunately, economics has intruded into science everywhere, it seems, and pure research in particular has become a political game.
Where do you see your research taking you?
I seem to be moving increasingly extraterrestrial at present! The Australian Planetary Sciences community is modestly sized but quite dynamic and collaborative. There are a huge number of initiatives under way, but personally I am interested in expanding our research meteorite collection and investigating the processes that were taking place on planetesimals from isotope perspectives—i.e., adding to the debate regarding rates of core formation, planet formation, and destruction and indeed even how things such as solar fluence has varied over time. My interest in this was largely serendipitous—a colleague found our first meteorite (4 kg!) while we were supervising a group of third-year students on a field mapping trip in western New South Wales. This subsequently set us going to build a collection that has included trips to the Nullarbor Plain and a scheduled trip to the Strzlecki Desert as well. Along the way we have also found a lot of aboriginal hearths, fulgurites, tektites, and even diprotodon bones!
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
Most are fascinated and want to know more about geology—particularly friends with young children who seem to bring home piles of rocks from school! I also seem to be a bit of a “go-to” person in the non-scientist circle of friends on everything from global warming, tsunamis, volcanoes, nuclear waste, through to a commentator on the latest NASA mission, such as the Pluto flyby or what Opportunity is up to now! The sense I get is that most people are interested but they simply do not have time to fully understand many of the physical sciences and so appreciate a balanced, “trusted” appraisal of a situation.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
Do what you love! Earth and Space sciences have immense opportunities and the need for good scientists is greater than ever. You can make a difference, so if you are passionate, follow your heart and you will be constantly amazed. Don’t get disheartened by the odd setback along the way, but stick to it as it is well worth it… and the career is not the end, it is the journey that is so much fun!