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Brian Tobin - Research Scientist in Forestry

Brian Tobin - Research Scientist in Forestry

Current Job: UCD Research Fellow (research scientist in forestry).

I am also about to change position and will begin as a Lecturer in Forestry soon.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

My main role is to carry out research into various aspects of forestry. My main research projects relate to carbon sequestration by forest ecosystems, an assessment of the potential of short rotation forest systems and tree improvement.

The main tasks include collecting information to describe the responses of various aspects of trees forests to changes in their environment. I supervise the research activities of a number of graduate students and manage the running of some multi-institution projects.

I am also the editor of a scientific and technical journal of forestry (called Irish Forestry) which involves handling the reviewing of scientific findings and preparing manuscripts for publication. This journal also includes technical, cultural and other material that adds further interest to the job.

It’s a really interesting job as it keeps one in touch with a fascinating variety of research work being carried out in Ireland, and there is a product produced at the end of every year (assuming the publishing targets are met! The main task is of course to publish according to a deadline, to ensure the material submitted merits publication, ensuring a fair testing of the material through the review process and every year to find sufficient material for a full issue.

Describe a typical day?

A typical day could bring me to

  • the field to set up, monitor or collect data from an experimental/sampling site. I have worked on research sites across the country and it is a fantastic way to get to know the landscape.
  • the laboratory to analyse or measure samples collected from the field.
  • the office to read and report on research already published and to report on and publish findings from my own research. There is a certain amount of administration that comes with large research projects, like the preparation of annual technical and financial reports for the funding bodies, the purchasing of equipment and supplies for research work, the recruitment and management of research staff and students.

What are the main challenges?

Time management!

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

I am patient (at least some of the time), I try to approach research problems with logic and care for details. I am good at solving logistical problems about how to practically manage things in field conditions, where remote forest locations can make research set-up challenging. I enjoy working with a wide range of stakeholders from forest owners and managers, to research workers, funding agencies, academics and students etc.

What's cool?

If you enjoy outdoor work, if you enjoy the challenge of setting up sometimes complex experimental systems to measure the functioning of natural systems in remote areas, if you like using gadgets and large machinery, if you like trying to get to the bottom of how forests work, this job is very cool!

If you like talking, writing and publishing about trees and forests, this job is right up there!

What's not so cool?

In common with many fixed-term contract roles, job security is a big issue. Having to convince a funding agency about your idea, or as often happens, to compromise significantly on an original research idea so a project can become quite different to how you may originally have envisaged it.

How did you go about getting your current job?

After completing a PhD, further research work is usually as a postdoctoral researcher or a research fellow and this involves ether applying for positions on other people’s projects or else writing funding applications yourself and funding your own research work. For the last number of years, I have been working on a series of projects that I co-wrote with various others

What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

The first decision was to choose forestry during my time at school.

During my time at university there were various subject and project choices that shaped my degree and professional competence. The next important decision was to pursue two research degrees -a masters and a PhD. I didn’t realise it when I began but this led me to research. At one point I wanted to see whether I liked teaching and tried teaching a module course.

It turned out that I liked this aspect of teaching, even more so when I have been able to use knowledge directly from my research work. Liking teaching is something of a prerequisite for an academic position in a university, though of course there are plenty of research institutes that would facilitate a research career without a teaching requirement.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

My father’s interest in art and nature first set me on the path to forestry. As a boy I was interested in trees and plants and forestry seemed like a practical option for a career. My “dream job” was to become an area manager with Coillte. However, at the end of my forestry degree, the Professor of Forestry (Jack Gardiner) offered me a position on a Masters project. This gave me a taste for the independence that research work provides. Prof Gardiner was again instrumental in guiding me into a PhD.

Since finishing, I have been influenced by the colleagues I have worked with since. I like the people working in the forestry industry as a whole, and in particular in academia.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

I took all three science subjects, which gave me a good base to build on. Studying science, biology and chemistry in particular, gave me the opportunity to build a career in research. I pushed myself to study maths at higher level which made my studies during my basic degree much easier.

What is your education to date?

I have completed three degrees: BAgrSc (Forestry), MAgrSc and PhD.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

The periods of work experience during my degree (with Coillte and the University of Dresden) as well as afterwards (with the Flemish Parks and Wildlife Service) gave me a sense of independence and motivated me to be more curious about research.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I have continued to take many training courses as the nature of my research work/subject areas changes or as technologies change. This pattern must continue if one is to stay abreast and make use of the latest developments

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

To publish research work and to see it cited by others.

To supervise and mentor graduate students doing research work proposed by me.

Teaching forestry material to students.

To edit and publish a scientific journal.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

A love of books and reading. One of the first things one learns in research is that most things have already been tried by someone else, so its often a huge step to find out about how others have tackled and solved some of the problems!

I am also deeply interested in plants and nature, in how natural systems work.

What is your dream job?

A lot of the time, I think I have it. Of course, if I were better paid, with more job security, things would certainly be better! However, this job has brought me to some of the most beautiful areas in the countryside, to carry out research about plants I find fascinating, to work in a university environment that is academically, socially and culturally stimulating, and to every day interact with a diverse range of people doing other really interesting work.

Research also means travel, sometimes to work with colleagues in other countries but more often to attend or present research findings at conferences. There is much to be enjoyed!

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Curiosity - this is the main motivation. If you don’t find the process of discovery interesting, then research will lose its gloss after a short period.

Patience – Rome wasn’t built in a day. Research usually involves a lot of trial and error, and winning research funding can sometimes take many attempted applications.

Perseverance – Likewise, the process of writing scientific papers can be tedious, even more so the process of having your work reviewed by peer scientists

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

To try an internship to get a taste of what such work could entail. To speak to senior people working in research to make sure they like the end position. Research work is a long-term commitment whose early years are demanding, and salary expectations are not impressive. However, with patience, there are many rewards in this career.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Good writing skills are extremely useful and any analytical skills (mathematical or statistical analysis) would be of great help. Otherwise, relevant practical knowledge of the area of interest or of the general forestry industry would be good background.

Forestry is a very applied science and brings together many aspects of biological and environmental sciences, business and economic analysis, mathematical and statistical modelling, etc. Sometimes the best background for research is sufficient knowledge of a job to identify a specific problem. This can be the motivation for research work to solve the problem and provide a solution.

 

 

 

Forestry Careers Ireland