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Case Study: Thomas

Personal details
Degree:Geoscience Profile picture
School(s): School of Geography and Geosciences
Year of Graduation:Jun-1998
National of: United Kingdom
Employment details
Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Job title: Facility Manager & Pilot, Airborne GeoSciences NERC Recognised Facility
Occupational Sector: Environmental Work
What has been your route to getting your current position?

After Leaving St Andrews I went straight to work in the aviation industry working for a company that provided navigation systems to airlines such as British Airways. In this role I gained a fair bit of experience in project management, software development, training provision and quality systems management. I was also able to take an18 month career break to complete my professional flying licenses. In 2005 I moved back to Scotland – always an ambition since leaving University here – to work as a flying instructor. From this role I was recruited by the University of Edinburgh in 2006 to help set up a new research facility which aimed to operate a modified light aircraft for atmospheric research and remote sensing (i.e. sophisticated imaging) of the natural environment.

What does your job involve ?

My job is quite broad in scope and includes the following:

  • development and modification of scientific instruments for airborne environmental research for use on aircraft
  • integration and certification of these instruments on the University of Edinburgh platform
  • management of the facility, including financial planning, scheduling and liaison with users and researchers to develop grant applications and detailed experimental plans
  • planning and execution of airborne surveys and field campaigns, sometimes in very remote areas(e.g. arctic Lapland)
  • all flying duties for the facility and training of other crew members
  • post-flight analysis of airborne data
In my spare time I’m also taking a PhD studying land-atmosphere exchange processes across regional scales using data from the UoE aircraft
What are the best bits of your job ?

There’s huge satisfaction in doing something you love (in my case flying) with an underlying purpose (advancing our understanding of natural processes in a changing environment, for example).

Why were you successful?

To be honest I was fortunate to meet the right people at the right time, but I had deliberately positioned myself with the right qualifications to follow a career in research aviation - my intention had been to gain experience in Scotland to allow me, in the longer term, to work for the British Antarctic Survey aircraft fleet. My geoscience degree, professional flying qualifications and project management experience within a flight safety critical environment were all important factors in securing and developing my role at the University of Edinburgh.

What skills/ knowledge from your degree have you found particularly helpful in this role?
A solid foundation in the geosciences has been invaluable. Although my field of study has changed somewhat, from a primarily geology-based degree to atmospheric science and remote sensing (primarily of vegetation), the analytical skills and critical thought process developed at undergraduate level are essential for any career in science, and in fact were also hugely important in my earlier work in the aviation industry, enabling me to progress quickly through the company and enjoy a rewarding and varied career path.
What advice would you give to students wishing to follow the same path?

I think the most important thing is to find a career, if at all possible, doing something that you really enjoy and are passionate about. Even if it requires long hours and hard work, if you’re doing something that you love it never becomes a chore. It’s a great feeling to go to bed at night looking forward to getting back to work in the morning!

With respect to careers in environmental research aviation, there are probably more direct routes than my own; a PhD or Masters course in related science would be a good place to start. It would be worth exploring the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) website to see the kind of research supported by airborne facilities, which includes atmospheric science, ecology, glaciology and geophysical exploration. The NERC website also has information on their own aircraft facilities and the kinds of roles and jobs that they support directly. Of course, if you want to be involved in the piloting of any of these aircraft, you’ll need to find a way to get your professional flying licenses (a private pilots license won’t do I’m afraid), and probably some extra experience as well. This can be rather expensive so start thinking ahead! I can tell you, knowing the crews of the other airborne facilities as well, that we’re all enthusiasts and I’m sure any of us would be very happy to discuss possible career paths with interested students.