Dr. Charles H. Mazel is a principal research scientist who pioneers the study of flourescence as well as the specialized equipment needed to do so. Read the full text of Charles' interview below to learn more about his job.
What is your title?
I am a Principal Research Scientist most of the time, and President for a little bit of the time.
Where do you work?
I am a Research Scientist at Physical Sciences Inc., a small, private research and development firm in Andover, Massachusetts. PSI is a collection of something over a hundred people carrying out a wide variety of research topics, generally in some branch of the Physical Sciences. Only a very few of us are at all involved in ocean-related research. In many ways it is like being at a university, as there are very skilled colleagues with wide-ranging knowledge who can provide advice when needed. I am also the President of NightSea LLC, a small spin-off of PSI that I run to develop specialized lights and filters so that sport and science divers can see and photograph fluorescence.
Do you travel often?
I travel quite a bit. Over the last few years I have been away from home a total of 2 -- 3 months each year. Some of these are 1- or 2-day trips for meetings, others might be a week or so at a scientific conference, and field research trips tend to be anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks. Since I am mostly involved in coral reef research most of my travel tends to be to nice places, which makes my co-workers jealous.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
For a long time I had interesting jobs in marine industry for which a Master's degree was more than adequate preparation, but in order to seek out research funding as a Principal Investigator it is almost essential to have a Ph. D.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
Doing research in a private industry environment, a new Ph. D. can make $60,000 or more, and that increases with experience. Someone advanced in their career, successful at bringing in research funds over the long term, can make on the order of $100,000. If you then move out of research and into management the salary can increase well beyond that.
How many hours do you work per week?
There is no such thing as a 40-hour week, since the job of research is never 'done'. I suppose I typically work 50+ hours a week when I am not on travel, and more when I am in the field for research. Field time is precious and expensive, and you need to make the most of it.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
A good portion of my research is involved with fluorescence in the sea—discovering what fluoresces, measuring the fluorescence properties, documenting the fluorescence with photography or video, and developing new equipment to improve the process of observing fluorescence. When I am in the office I work on data, make measurements in the laboratory, and develop new equipment to test the next time I am in the field. On this trip we will be diving with submersibles, but usually we use SCUBA at shallower depths. To search for fluorescence it is best to dive at night, so we swim around in the dark with my special lights, looking for things that glow. When we find something we use regular lights to find out what it is, and if it is a new observation we might collect a specimen for further documentation in the laboratory.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
That's a tough one, since I have been fortunate to have many interesting experiences—I have discovered Spanish silver coins while excavating a shipwreck from 1689 in the Caribbean, I have searched for a shipwreck off the coast of Africa, I have seen incredibly beautiful scenes of fluorescence underwater at night., and I have dived to more than 2000' in the Johnson SeaLink submersibles to explore for fluorescence in the deep sea.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
The main reward is that I am able to work on something that I am passionate about. Others have been interested in underwater fluorescence before me, but a good portion of what I am doing involves ideas that I created. When I go on a research trip and see groups of people using the special lights I have created to explore in shallow or deep water it is tremendously satisfying.
How does your work benefit the public?
A good portion of my research work is pure exploration, with little direct benefit. We are looking at a number of applications of fluorescence imaging that could be important, though, including using it to aid in automatically mapping what is on the sea floor. We hope that fluorescence can be a tool for monitoring the health of coral reefs, but it is not certain that that will be an outcome. Many scientists and sport divers are now using the equipment that we have developed to conduct new research, or just to make beautiful images of undersea life.
What else could someone with your background do?
With a mixed background in science and engineering there are many areas of research that you could pursue, but there are also opportunities in instrumentation development, or in the non-science marine industry.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I have been drawn to the water for as long as I can remember. As a kid I was always at the lake near my house, fishing or adjusting the water flow in the stream that fed the lake. I made my first SCUBA dive at 12 and took it up in earnest while I was in college. All of my jobs since college have been ocean-related, although not always in the sciences.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
My parents, though not in the sciences, provided strong role models for the value of working hard and doing what is interesting to you. I was also fortunate to meet and work with Dr. Harold Edgerton at MIT, the developer of electronic flash and a pioneer in underwater photography and sonar. There are others, like Dr. Les Kaufman, former Director of Research at the New England Aquarium, who got very excited about what I was finding with fluorescence and encouraged me to pursue it in graduate school. And I couldn't have pursued options like quitting a perfectly good job and going back to graduate school just when our first child was due to arrive without the support and encouragement of my wife.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
I didn't even begin to go in a research direction until I went back to graduate school for my Ph.D. at age 38, after having worked in more technical sides of the marine industry for more than 12 years. I received my doctorate at age 42, and my research interests did not start to really turn into a career until I was 45! I suppose in hindsight I might have started earlier in this direction, but second-guessing is easy, and I enjoyed doing the different things that I did, traveled a lot, and accumulated a wide variety of experiences. Much of my earlier work might seem unrelated to the things I am doing now, but it all contributed to giving me the skills and thought processes that I bring to the research.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
I can't say there were any major obstacles, but there were (and continue to be) challenges finding research funding on an ongoing basis. Switching career paths relatively late (age 38) presented the challenge of going back to school after a long time off.
What are your hobbies?
I recently took up mountain biking and enjoy the exercise and getting off the beaten track. I occasionally SCUBA dive just for fun. But outside of my research work time I spend a lot of time on NightSea , which in many ways is more of a hobby than a business. With NightSea I play around with new approaches to lights and photography techniques for fluorescence.
Interests in Elementary School:
Pretty general—sports, stamps, fishing, etc., but nothing in particular that would foreshadow my career.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
I was always interested in marine work, but it was mostly technology-oriented. It wasn't until I had developed my early equipment for photographing coral fluorescence that I took a turn toward the sciences, when I learned that almost nothing was known about the phenomenon that I was photographing.
First Marine Science Class:
A course in Marine Archaeology during my sophomore year in college. After that, courses in Ocean Engineering for my Master's degree. I took my first marine biology course when I went back for my Ph.D. at age 38.
1973, B.A., Physics, Brandeis University
1976, M.S., Ocean Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1992, Ph.D., Marine Biology, Boston University
First Career-related Job:
After college I didn't really know what I wanted to do with myself, other than to somehow stay involved with the oceans. I contacted a physical oceanography professor from the University of Washington who I had met on another project, just to ask him who I could contact to see if there was a job on the UW research vessel. By chance my letter hit his desk the day his marine technician quit, and he had a cruise starting in a week. Even though I had no real idea what a marine technician did, four days later I was in Seattle (from Boston), and two days after that I was boarding the ship in Nome, Alaska, for a 6-week cruise in the Bering Sea..
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
Dropped out of college second semester of my junior year and worked in a dive shop in Boston (went back to college the next semester).
Three summers during college working at a summer institute in Greece, teaching fieldwork methods of marine archaeology.
After college, 6-week cruise as marine technician working for a physical oceanographer. After that, volunteered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography working on the design of an underwater explosive cable cutter.
After Master's degree, 2 1/2 years working for Western Electric Company doing deep-ocean surveys for planning underwater cable installations.
Some time off doing varied things, including Technical Director for a French marine archaeology project to locate the remains of the Medusa off the coast of Africa.
Five years working as a Field Engineer for Klein Associates, a manufacturer of sonar systems for mapping the sea floor.
Self-unemployed, developing my own equipment for exploring for and photographing fluorescence underwater.
The main transition in my career was leaving the marine technology field and moving into the sciences to pursue my interest in the fluorescence of corals.
During and after my Ph.D. program, I worked part time as manager of the Hydrodynamics Laboratory (water tunnel) at MIT.
After the Ph.D., I worked in the newly formed Edgerton Center at MIT, eventually becoming the Assistant Director and teaching the Strobe Projects Lab course (high speed imaging, like shooting bullets through apples!).
When my funded research increased I left MIT and joined Physical Sciences Inc., where I have now been for more than six years.
Developed techniques for viewing and photographing fluorescence, and now making them available to anyone who is interested.
Developed a specialized video imaging system for a process used in book and paper conservation.
Developed a diver-operated spectrometer for measuring the reflectance and fluorescence properties of corals or anything else on the sea floor. This let me make the measurement underwater, so I did not have to destroy the sea floor to acquire the data I needed.