Dr. Bob Embley is a geophysicist with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory who works with seafloor maps and images to analyze the processes that create undersea features such as submarine volcanoes. Read the full text of Bob's interview below to learn more about his job.
What is your title?
Where do you work?
I work at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. Our group is located at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon.
Do you travel often?
During my career, which began in the 1960s, I have traveled to many places to and from research vessels. These include Iceland, Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and South America. Most of the “travel time” away from home, however, is on the research vessels, which spend the majority of time in the open ocean out of the sight of land. I sometimes also attend international meetings, workshops and field trips.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
To be a research oceanographer, one usually has to earn a Doctorate. Technical jobs are also open to those with Master's and Bachelor's degrees in science and engineering.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
For a senior research scientist with a Ph.D., the salaries range between about 80 and 130 thousand per year.
How many hours do you work per week?
This varies—when at sea, 18 hour days are not unusual. Onshore, I work more than 50+ hours during the week and often put in time on weekends.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
I work with seafloor maps and images using various software programs to analyze the processes that create undersea features such as submarine volcanoes.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
One eureka moment was in graduate school when, in looking through some subseafloor sounding records, came on some extraordinary examples of structures which led to some of the first documentation of giant submarine landslides and submarine debris flows. More recently, we have had several extraordinary expeditions over the past 15 years where new phenomena have been seen for the first time. For example, in 1993 we conducted the first fast response to an underwater eruption that was remotely detected by undersea hydrophones and saw lava flows only a week or so in age covered with microbial mats. In 2004, we discovered several extraordinary sites along the Marina Arc in the western Pacific. These included a hydrothermal vent emitting droplets of liquid carbon dioxide, and an erupting volcanic vent at 1,800' depth emitting caustic fluids that corroded the submersible.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
When we go to sea in a new area that's never been surveyed before or never visited with a submersible, we are seeing parts of the ocean floor for the first time by any human, I feel very privileged. In recent years, I have also have taken on increasing responsibility for organizing and leading expeditions. These expeditions involve complex logistics and are composed of large, diverse groups of biologists, geologists, chemists and physical oceanographers from several countries. There is great satisfaction in working with these very talented and motivated scientists. It is always a rich learning experience, especially when we find some new phenomenon never seen before. Sharing discoveries with students and the public is also very rewarding.
How does your work benefit the public?
We conduct basic research on the chemistry, geology, biology and physics of submarine volcanoes. Our species is profoundly affecting the ocean's ecosystems but we still only have a limited understanding of what is out there. The extreme environments associated with submarine volcanoes contain very interesting microbial life which is able to cope with great pressure, high temperatures and very unusual chemical conditions. How life copes with these conditions is a new area of biology that holds great promise for producing discoveries important to industry and medical science. The microbes produce specialized enzymes that are of interest to biotechnology and could lead to new products and drugs.
What else could someone with your background do?
Ph.D. research scientists have specialized skills. Before pursuing a Ph.D., one should have a passion for research and/or teaching at a college level. The petroleum industry and offshore commercial survey companies also hire some marine geologists and geophysicists.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
When I was in High School the oceans were just beginning to be explored and the prospect of being able to explore 70% of the Earth held a great allure to me. I had been interested in science since early in grade school so the prospect of combining exploration with science was an excellent fit.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
I had several excellent teachers in my Grade School, Junior High School and High School who encouraged me to pursue science.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
I've been extraordinarily fortunate in my career and can't think of anything I would change.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
Going to graduate school was a major commitment of time but I was sustained by the excitement of doing research.
I had chronic asthma throughout Primary and High School and I wasn't sure how this would affect going to sea and being away from medical facilities for long periods. Fortunately, it moderated some by the time I began college and I've been able to deal with it okay.
What are your hobbies?
Reading (history, science fiction, science, mathematics), and playing pickup basketball and following professional basketball.
Interests in Elementary School:
Science and Social Studies.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
In High School after reading about Oceanography as the last frontier of exploration on Earth.
First Marine Science Class:
As a junior in college there was a colloquium on Oceanography. At the time there was very limited reading material - we used Volume 3 of The Sea for the course.
B.A., M.Ph., Ph.D.
First Career-related Job:
I worked during the summer between my junior and senior year in college describing seafloor cores at the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in New York.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
1966: Following graduation from Rutgers U., went to sea on 5 month research voyage on the Research Vessel VEMA, employed by Columbia University/Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory
1975-1978: Worked as postdoctoral research associate at Lamont
1979-1984: took position with NOAA in Rockville, Maryland
1984-Present: Team leader for geology, NOAA VENTS Program, PMEL
I have three wonderful daughters and two grandchildren.
2000: served on the Presidential Commission on Ocean Exploration
2001: received the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for Scientific Achievement.
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