Interviews: Chief Scientist Jess Adkins

jess adkinsJess Adkins, a geochemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology, is chief scientist on Expedition 7. A chemical oceanographer who minored in political philosophy in college, a smart and serious man with a great sense of humor and fun, young (35) but with a lot of responsibility, Jess is many things. We sat down recently to talk about some of them.


QUESTION: So, your first time being Chief Scientist. How’s it been?

ANSWER: It’s been really good. It’s a lot of work! It’s definitely not going the way I thought it would. I was hoping I’d be basically the chief cheerleader. You know, we’d built up this whole structure for the cruise — with jobs assigned, dives scheduled, other work as set up as it could be — so I could just be the guy saying, “You’re doing a great job,” and making sure people were tuned into what they needed to do.

But I haven’t had a chance to do much of that, because on this trip it’s just been contingency after contingency, so much re-planning. So many things have come up that we hadn’t anticipated: weather problems, etc. I knew in the abstract it would be my role to handle those things, but the reality has been a challenge.

QUESTION: Has it all been harder than you thought?

ANSWER: It hasn’t been that hard. I’ve worried more about other people than myself: Are spirits up? Are people psyched about their work? Are people sick or well? Other people with more experience say, “Man, this has been the trip of having to make new plans.” But for me, this is just how it is, it’s all I know.

Also, it’s easy here on the cruise because everyone’s focused on the same goal. You hear about cruises where there are a lot of competing interests. We’ve had none of that, and we’ve still been able to achieve secondary goals like collecting a lot of living samples and mapping the bottom. I have to admit though, I’m very tired. I look forward to getting home and catching up on some sleep.

QUESTION: You’ve had a pretty varied academic background. Can you talk about that?

ANSWER: Well, I went to college because it was the thing to do. I wanted to take a year off after high school, but my parents discouraged it. I’d always liked math and science, and I thought I could be a mathematician because I was so inspired by a math teacher in high school.

But I was interested in a lot of things, so a liberal arts experience was perfect for me. I got to try out a lot of stuff – especially history and political philosophy. But I did love the chemistry lab. It was fun mixing and measuring, playing with big machines. And Haverford’s chemistry teaching was great.

Getting out of college, I knew I wanted to combine my interest in chemistry with my love of the outdoors, which I’d formed mostly through summers in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. And in my senior year, I got a letter from a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who was looking for lab assistants. He wrote, “If you love mountains and the ocean, this is the place to be.” And UCSB had a national championship Ultimate Frisbee team; that was very attractive too.

So, there was no plan. That was just a break, and you go with what presents itself. I worked hard, and got some other good breaks, and things went on from there. In graduate school, I got really interested in research, and in deep-sea corals in particular. That was when I fell in love with this work.

QUESTION: What in particular do you love about oceanography?

ANSWER: The cool thing about oceanography is you have to know it all: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and how they all fit together. You have to look at the big picture, and I like that. In many ways, I feel like I know less every day, because you keep seeing how much more there is to understand. Some things do gel, of course. But for anyone who’s interested, don’t limit yourself too soon.

QUESTION: You’re about to complete this exciting cruise. What’s next?

ANSWER: Well, I’m getting married in a month; that’s next! But in terms of science, the big thing is to move all of what we’ve learned out here to the lab phase, especially dating these corals. A bit further down the road, I need to learn more about biology. I’m interested in how the corals make their skeletons.

Finding time is the hardest part. I know what I need to figure out, unlike back in college where you’re just assimilating a lot of different things. I even know the book I need to read for the biology. But it’s finding the time that’s hard.

So I have a book to read, but then there are other big plans. This fall I’ll be going to Borneo, to look at stalagmites in caves. We’re installing a fancy new machine in my lab to do uranium-series dating. And there will be other cruises!

QUESTION: Do the time challenges extend to your non-science life?

ANSWER: Definitely! One thing that makes you question this work is how it reduces the number of other things you can do. I still love soccer, Ultimate, climbing and hiking, photography. The things that have stuck are hiking, and some recreational team sports, and time with Tami (my fiancée). It’s a struggle to balance, just like everyone says. But I’m very lucky to have all those things to balance.

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