Early in his career, Paul Olsen sat in front of a television, expecting to see his own image. He had hosted a television crew on a research expedition to Manicouagan Crater in Canada, where he and his team were investigating the Triassic–Jurassic boundary in the geological record. Olsen, a palaeontologist at Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, New York, had spent hours explaining and re-explaining for the camera how scientists used the site to reconstruct ancient ecologies. As the opening credits rolled, Olsen wondered how he would come across on the small screen.
In the scientists’ lounge aboard the BIO Hespérides one evening last March, Jordi Dachs points at the schedule for the next day’s oceanographic observations. The Spanish research vessel is chugging across the Indian Ocean at a speed of about ten knots. “The storm has put us seven hours behind,” warns Dachs, an environmental chemist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research in Barcelona, Spain, whose responsibilities as chief scientist on the ship include planning researchers’ time and instrument use. About two dozen scientists brace themselves against the rhythmic pitching of the vessel. “We might not lower the sampling rosette all the way on some days,” says Dachs, “to save time.”
His suggestion fills the room with tension. Lowering and retrieving the rosette can take many hours, but the water samples it retrieves from the ocean’s depths — as much as 4 kilometres down — hold the biggest potential for new discoveries. Sampling excursions in the Indian Ocean’s deep waters are relatively rare, making the samples particularly valuable.
Climbing one of the world’s biggest granite walls is different from climbing trees, as National Park Service botanist Martin Hutten discovered while dangling from a cliff in the spray of Vernal Falls high above the Yosemite Valley. Hutten apprenticed in the logging industry before he started graduate school, so he new how to climb trees. “I could trust myself to a rope,” he recalls, “but I’d definitely never hung off a cliff or collected [samples] from a cliff.”
Shelley Bolderson was scraping mud from a trowel one day in an Anglo-Saxon midden in St. Neots, United Kingdom, when she realized she didn’t want to be an archaeologist any longer. “It was winter, and I’d spent ages on that particular site,” she recalls. “It was really kind of soul-destroying work.”
Until that point, Bolderson had worked as a freelance archaeologist around England, mostly in urban environments, where she assessed building sites before development. She had a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from the University of Southampton in the U.K. and wasn’t interested in doing a master’s or Ph.D. She sought temporary work while deciding what to do next.
One of her temporary jobs was at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. in the office that coordinates the Cambridge Science Festival, an annual, weeklong event that shares Cambridge-area science research with the public. “I saw a new career I had no idea existed beforehand and thought it looked really exciting,” she says. When a position coordinating the science festival opened up in the office, Bolderson applied for it.