James Allen, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Marine Science (IGPMS), is conducting research that has the potential to transform how ocean ecosystems are studied. James is using satellites rather than boats to collect data about phytoplankton in the ocean. He hopes to use his research to examine how the ocean is changing as a result of climate change.
James' passion for sharing his research with a wider audience is inspiring. Not only did he win the Grand Prize after competing in three grueling rounds of the 2014 Grad Slam, he also hopes to be the next Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson.
James has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geoscience - Meteorology from the University of Tennessee at Martin. Read on to learn more about his research and grad school experiences.
Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.
My research involves using satellites to measure the optical properties of the ocean. By looking at how light scatters and gets absorbed in the surface of the ocean, I hope to be able to more accurately measure the relative abundance of differing sizes of phytoplankton. With this information, we can more effectively measure how entire marine ecosystems are changing over time, how the ocean’s ability to export carbon from the atmosphere to depth is changing, and, ultimately, the ocean’s role in climate change for the future.
I’ve always been interested in weather and climate, and becoming a meteorology major as an undergrad really sparked my interest in climate change science. The idea of using satellites and remote sensing to do science and measure global changes blew my mind! I knew that would be how I wanted to contribute to our understanding of Earth’s changing climate. An internship doing research at NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program convinced me that I wanted to be a part of the amazing science that was happening in oceanography. Now, instead of looking up at the sky to forecast the weather, I’m looking down at the water to measure the changing ocean, and I couldn’t be happier.
What was it like to participate in the Grad Slam?
The Grad Slam was an amazing experience! One of my goals in life is to be able to educate the public about climate change while showing them just how awesome science can be, and the Grad Slam was the perfect opportunity to learn many outreach skills. Every step of the way, from the public speaking workshops beforehand, to each progressive round, many experienced people were there to guide me and help me become a better presenter.
Talking to the public is completely different from talking to a lab group, especially with a three-minute time limit. It involves a fine balance of getting your ideas out there, keeping them relevant and interesting, and all the while making sure everything is clear and concise. You learn a lot about yourself, too; we all have our strengths when it comes to presenting, and there are many paths we can take to play to these strengths to make an effective presentation. There were many amazing talks all throughout Grad Slam, and each person had their own style that showed that they had an idea, and they wanted to communicate it to as many people as possible.
What has graduate student life been like for you?
I feel like I’m really in my element here. There’s so much great work being done by people that are really passionate about what they do. It’s fun to be able to talk to other grad students across a wide variety of fields that are exploring and searching for answers to problems that you’ve never even thought about before.
I’m also surrounded by great mentors and friends! I’m lucky to have such a great advisor, Dr. David Siegel, who really pushes me to be the best scientist I can be. I’m very grateful for the fact that I’m housed in both Marine Science and Geography, so I’ve made a lot of friends in both areas that have made adjusting to grad life very easy.
What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?
I’m hugely interested in doing outreach and getting the public more interested in science. I always say that I want to be the next James Hansen, Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, but maybe I can be cheesy and say that I want to be so good at what I do that someone in the future can say, “I want to be the next James Allen."
I have an insatiable curiosity to learn more about the world around me, and if I can spark that interest in more people, I feel like I can say I’ve done my job. There is so much out there that we haven’t even begun to think about, and everyone has the potential to become an explorer in their own right and bring new perspectives to the table. We just need more people to spark that curiosity and help people realize that science is a way to open doors to the world around them.
Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and describe why.
It might not seem very big here, but it would probably be the fact that I was able to TA for the first time. I’ve never been able to formally run my own sections before, and it was really exciting to be able to get up in front of a classroom and help teach really interesting topics in my field to students. I was so nervous at first, but by the end of the quarter, I was pretty comfortable with it. I spent a lot of time working getting my lectures set up, and it may have cut into my research time a bit (sorry, Dave!), but it was totally worth it, and I’m really happy that I was able to do it. I’m excited to be able to TA again soon!
What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? Along these same lines, what makes you happy?
I love to explore new areas! I grew up in West Tennessee, so having mountains and ocean around me all the time is an entirely new experience. I really like hiking and backpacking, and there are a lot of great trails in this area that I look forward to exploring. I’m warming up to biking (here’s a secret: I just learned how to bike when I arrived here last summer!), and I can’t wait till I get good enough to try mountain biking, or at least try biking longer stretches on bike trails by the ocean. I also really love predicting the weather and forecasting for severe storms, but it’s pretty hard to do that for sunny Santa Barbara. Maybe the El Nino regime shift will change that later this year, and I can finally play around and dance in the rain again.
What do you hope to be doing five or 10 years out of graduate school?
I hope to still be doing some great research with some added public outreach. Will I be teaching at a big university? Presenting at national lectures or in Congress? Talking on TV or the radio about the next big topics in science? Who knows. But I’m excited for whatever the future will bring!
Do you have any advice for current grad students?
There’s so much great advice in previous Spotlights that it’s difficult to come up with something new! I would definitely say that interdisciplinary work really has the potential for amazing research. Different fields have their own ways of looking at problems, and while you might not necessarily use their methods, sometimes a new perspective is all you need to get through a difficult block that’s holding you back! Also, it’s a really good excuse to meet some amazing people outside of your field and make some new friends!