Ocean colour with Oliver Clements: Analysing our oceans with satellites
After combining his love of surfing and science to study marine biology, Oliver Clements trained in computer programming, and now works as a GIS expert on remotely sensed Earth observation data.
He looks at the planet’s oceans from satellite data to detect patterns in everything from plankton volumes to sea surface temperature.
The main barrier to entering this career is knowing it exists, so our conversation was the perfect opportunity to shine a spotlight on a little-known area of science that continues to grow as technology improves.
Read on to discover more about a job that involves travelling all over the world with a tight-knit community.
What made you choose to work in this sector?
I was good at biology and I loved surfing, so I combined those to do a marine biology degree. I loved the wet work, the field work and the lab work. When I reached the end of my degree, at the time, unless you stayed in academia, there weren’t many marine biology jobs. That’s a lot better now.
I spoke to a professor and his advice was to find a professor to work for for free. I did two or three months’ worth of work for a professor over the summer, and he then got me onto a master’s programme in Biosystems and Informatics all about cell biology.
That included a twelve-week programming course, where I learnt some java, which is a type of programming language. I’d done a tiny bit of programming as a hobby, and I realised I could do it as a job. I do miss lab work and wet work, but I was better at computer programming. That led me down a path of looking for jobs that satisfied both of those things.
There’s an organisation in Liverpool, where I went to university, called the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC). They manage all of the UK-granted oceanographic research data. They had a few programmer roles, which still involved working in marine science. I thought it was brilliant! I got to do what I was good at, and still work in marine science. I worked there for a few years.
We worked on a project with some colleagues from another organisation, and they had a subgroup that focused on remote satellite data, called the Remote Sensing Group. There’s a lot of programming involved with satellite data and remote sensing, so I applied for a job there, and got it.
There are about thirty of us, and it’s a mix of pure computer science, pure marine science and then half of us sit in the middle. I feel like I’m doing good things for the planet while using the skills I’m good at.
It is a niche area to work in?
It definitely used to be a lot more niche than it is now. Ten years ago, very few marine scientists were also programming, but that has changed significantly since then. It doesn’t matter which area of science you’re in, you will now learn some programming. Even if you work with little critters on the beach, there’s a chance you will do some programming, perhaps to do your statistics.
I started teaching over the last few years, to improve access and understanding of how to work with these cool data sets. It’s through that that I realised that from PhD level and below, all scientists are learning how to do computer programming.
It feels like it is becoming more important. Even if you aren’t using the programming for hardcore processing, you can make really good plots and charts with it, which is useful for explaining your science.
How would you describe a typical day in your job?
At the moment, due to Covid, I sit here in front of my computer! Prior to Covid, one of the largest aspects of my job was travel. There was a lot of travel and a lot of meetings, whereas since the pandemic, I log onto a computer, I write some code and I spend half of the day managing people too.
Has that changed over the course of your career?
It has. The technologies and the data size have both changed. A global satellite data set used to be a few gigabytes, now it can be up to a few terabytes. The techniques and skills you need to get information from that data are slightly different than they were before, because it’s so huge.
Also, if you want to look at a 25-year time series of global ocean data, it now exists. You can freely access it and work with it. But its 27 terabytes, so you have to think about how you’re going to work with it.
What does the data show and what conclusions are drawn from it?
The biggest area I work in is ‘ocean colour’, which involves fancy cameras that look at the colour of the sea. You look at the different reflectance spectra, which shows the amount of light being reflected for each colour/wavelength. From that, you can work out things like chlorophyll concentration, plankton volumes and sediment. We also look at sea surface temperature from satellites.
I focus on ocean colour because plankton is one of the biggest things we deal with. They make up the majority of our ocean biomass, and the majority of our oxygen-producing plants, so they’re important. We can understand a lot about them from space. We can now accurately determine the dominant species of plankton in an area from a satellite image. And the resolution of satellites is getting better, so we can now work much closer in-shore, looking at lakes and rivers.
The main things that we work with are water quality and plankton biology. Other groups look at things like sea ice cover and plastic detection. We’re continually advancing the technology. The idea is that most things look different if you have enough light frequencies to look at them with, so we’ve improved the satellites to have a better range of light frequencies for us to look at.
We can now do things with that data that we didn’t know we would be able to when we put the satellites in the air. With the plastic detection work, one of my colleagues was looking for floating seaweed and kept finding something that wasn’t seaweed. She realised it was plastic.
One of the weird things about working in satellite data is that you can get excited when there’s a tragic event… if a volcano erupts, or there is a huge oil spill, you then have test data for events that you wouldn’t cause deliberately.
What happens to the data once you’ve gathered it?
One of my initial roles was ‘data services and web GIS’. I worked on getting people benefits from this huge amount of satellite data. The flow of satellite data to science is quite good. A lot of scientists know the data exists, and they know how good it is, so the knowledge gap is just on how to work with it.
I now spend a lot of time trying to get non-specialists to benefit from the data. That is harder, because you have to firstly educate them that it exists and it’s free, then educate them on how they can look at it, then on how to interpret it. That last step is quite a challenge.
We’ve worked specifically with shellfish aquaculture. We helped by providing the company and its boat crew simple access to data in a website that they can then explore.
What would you say is your career highlight?
The nicest moment of my career was when I went to Portugal to see a mussel farmer. He told me that the web portal I built was making their lives better. I didn’t expect that to happen. They realised they could look at a ten-year historical time series of sea surface temperature. They had yield books for their aquaculture, and they were able to go back and match up the yields to the sea surface temperatures, which explained certain yields. That then reduced their environmental impact going forward, because aquaculture is probably better than aqua-gathering (growing mussels in farms rather than gather them from the wild).
Do you get to travel a lot with your role?
This career allows you to go to amazing places. That was one of the reasons I liked science when I was younger. In the run-up to Christmas 2019, in a six-week period I spent two weeks in Tanzania, a week in Germany and then four days in China.
I have visited around 17 countries through work, mostly in Europe. UK science – until recently – did most of our work with Europe. Most projects included multiple partners, both European and British. That’s reducing at the moment, which is a shame.
But the collaboration is great. You get to meet a lot of people in science. Nothing is done singularly any more. No one person solves a problem, it’s always a team. It’s a very big, loving community and you make friends all over the world.
What are the main challenges for getting into the field?
Knowing that this career option exists is probably the biggest challenge to getting into it. We either hire scientists and train them up in the programming, or hire programmers and train them up in the science. I didn’t know it existed until I found myself in it. But had I known that I could combine science and programming, and still do something constructive in a job that pays you, I would have aimed for this.
Are there any challenges within the role itself?
Once you’re in the job, it’s not too bad. One of the harder parts is that scientists don’t always think you’re a scientist! Until 18 months ago, my job role was ‘scientist’, and I’ve published papers. But it can feel like you’re in a support role.
What kind of skills would be useful for people looking to get into this?
Programming is something you can learn easily. You don’t need to be a great programmer to know how to programme. You need analytical skills, and the ability to take a huge problem and break it down into small pieces. That’s basically what you do in science as well. You don’t ask, ‘how do I solve climate change?’ You look at small pieces along the way and work on those.
As a biologist, I was terrible at maths! If you want to go into remote sensing, maths is a good skill to have: looking at a formula and understanding it. Other than that, if you have a broad set of skills, you will find more opportunities. Don’t specialise too early.
What advice would you give to those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Look at the research going on now in the science community. Those are the things that in three years’ time are going to be really important. If you’re a science undergrad looking for project ideas, it can be useful to look at these companies and see where they’re working, then focus on that.
Try and stay in the scientific community. I got into this community from being friendly with professors, and I learned about possible opportunities at the place I work now because we’d worked with the group while I was in Liverpool. I then applied for a job with people I knew.
Be good at building a network and go to conferences. If we have a job, someone will say if they met someone at a conference who would be really good for it. It’s still an open application, but that person will also be sent an email about that job. You still have the same chance of getting a job if you don’t know the team, it’s just that if you have a particular skill, and someone knows that you have that skill, then you might be headhunted.
Would you give similar advice to career switchers?
Go to the big, general conferences. The European Geospatial Conference and American Geosciences Union Conference give you a good bang for your buck! Both of them hold around 15,000 to 20,000 people across all aspects of geoscience. The earlier you can start shaking hands and saying hello to people, the better.
Anyone can go, you just need to buy a ticket. If you’re an undergrad, they’re much cheaper. They’re phenomenal conferences to go to.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Science is a lot broader than just working in a lab, working with, for example, a microscope. You can have a very valuable career in science without necessarily feeling like you’re working in science!
Check out these resources for more information:
- The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) is the UK government department concerned with protecting our marine environment and enabling sustainable marine development.
- The British Oceanographic Data Centre manages all of the oceanographic research data in the UK and makes it available for people to use.
- Oliver’s role has included contributing to scientific research papers. This is his profile on ResearchGate.
- The European Geoscience Union is one of the largest conferences of its type in Europe.
- The American Geosciences Union Conference is another one of the main conferences in this area of science.
Author profile | Sophie Blackman
Sophie Blackman is a writer, editor and researcher who is passionate about doing something each day to help the environment. After working as a research officer at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, she now works at DK as a book editor. She has a blog of top tips for sustainable living at last-straw-blog.blogspot.com and has also contributed to other publications, including DK’s Outdoor Europe. She also volunteers for the Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Hedgerow Heritage project.