When you’re one of the world’s leading experts in climate science, the global carbon cycle, and ocean acidification—a senior researcher in the tongue-twistingly comprehensive field of computational biogeochemistry—what’s your idea of an exciting day at the office?
“For me, great satisfaction comes from looking at observations of the ocean and figuring out something that I didn’t know before,” said Scott Doney. “Just noodling around with data on my laptop and a pad of paper and trying to figure out—how do things work?”
Doney is the University’s first Joe D. and Helen J. Kington Professor in Environmental Change, and a former senior scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who last summer joined the faculty of the Department of Environmental Sciences. He is also a member of UVA’s Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI), a cross-disciplinary initiative focused on climate resilience, water and energy security, and healthy environments.
“Scott is a tremendously collaborative scientist,” said environmental sciences professor Karen McGlathery, who is director of the ERI. “He adds to our department the strength of a world leader in this deep-ocean component, and that is critically important to understanding how environmental systems will respond or how they will change, now and in the future.”
A self-described “beach rat” as a kid, Doney grew up in coastal southern California and was drawn to the ocean from an early age. He majored in chemistry during his undergraduate years at the University of California, San Diego. Then an opportunity arose for him to spend a semester on a sail-training ship, “doing navigation and seamanship, but also oceanography,” he explains—including an ocean-going research sail from Woods Hole, Ma., to Bermuda to Nova Scotia.
“That opportunity made it pretty clear that oceanography was where I wanted to head,” he said.
He earned a doctorate in chemical oceanography, but the reach of his work has grown steadily since, a reflection both of the global scale of climate-change research and the technological advances that have greatly expanded the capacity for data gathering.
“When I started, almost all the data I had was collected by people going out in ships,” said Doney. Months-long research expeditions would be followed by many more months of lab analysis, followed by another round of ocean research, and so on.
Today, satellites and semi-autonomous ocean-going underwater drones make it possible to gather far more data on a much larger scale. At the same time, “Advances in machine learning and big data are giving us the tools to actually understand all of these observations that are coming in,” said Doney. That’s the “computation” part of computational biogeochemistry: “I do a lot of work analyzing large data sets,” he said. “For me, that’s quite a bit of fun, just digging down into numbers to see what’s there.”
Doney continues to do fieldwork both in Antarctica and in coastal waters. He also focuses on mentoring younger scientists—whether students in his classroom and lab or researchers around the world. Working with students in these ways and the opportunity to build meaningful collaborations made coming to the College attractive to Doney. At UVA, he can collaborate not only within his department, but across disciplines. Expertise in engineering, law, political science, business, and other fields will be essential, he said, to creating feasible, implementable solutions to address the challenges of climate change.
“I see the opportunities,” said Doney, “of being in an environment where there are all these different aspects of scholarship that can contribute to solutions."