Career Profiles: Róisín Commane

Questions about your career and its development

  1. What is your name?
    Róisín Commane
  2. Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
    Assistant Professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University
  3. Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
    Yes, I manage my own hours. I decide how much I want to work but usually it’s more than a normal week. But I can take vacation when I want to. So, yes, the job gives me a lifestyle I’m happy with. I do a lot of travelling with work and for me that’s a plus because I love to travel. So, it’s been great from that perspective.

Questions about your current Job

  1. How did you go about getting your current job
    Dumb luck! I was looking for jobs during the recession in 2008 and the only job I could find that would even answer my email was to do some research in air quality in the US. So, I moved to Boston and I was there for about 9 years. That job was very much contract-based, so I would have funding year to year. So, in 2017 I applied for a job in New York that was a full 7-year contract and I got it. They decide whether or not to keep me on full time after that, but it means I’m no longer reliant on research funding coming through which is what I was relying on in Boston.
  2. Describe a typical day.
    For me, there’s not really a typical day. Some days I teach, other days I go and visit field sites. We’re measuring CO2 and air quality at a site in Harlem, in Northern Manhattan. So, I walk over there and do all the site servicing and check the instruments and that kind of thing. On other days, I’ll have meetings (now on Zoom) all day long, and that’s just depressing, but there’s no real set day, which I kind of like. There’s a routine in that I meet with the people I’m managing every morning and we just chat over coffee, but that’s about the only thing that happens every day… which I like. I like the variety.
    For the kind of work I do, we often do what we call “intensives”. So, for example, I’ll go somewhere for three weeks making measurements of some air quality gas, and oftentimes those are really fun but a little exhausting.  We’ll spend months getting ready.  We’ll do three months or a month, depending on the project, of an intensive “all-day-everyday” and then we’ll take a chunk of time and just relax. So that’s how I’ve managed to see much of the world. We’ll travel somewhere for two weeks and then I’ll take a week off to explore the country we’ve been measuring from.
    So, all in all there isn’t much routine if you don’t want a routine, but because I can control my own schedule, I could have that if I wanted.
  3. Are there any elements of your job that you dislike
    Sometimes the travel can get to be a lot. For a NASA project I was involved with, we flew around the world for almost a month, and with projects like that you’re constantly going and you pretty much have to suspend your life at home for a month or two. As you get older that can be tough. I used to really like that, but shutting down your life at home can get tough. So, I guess sometimes too much travel can be a downside.
  4. Can you elaborate a little on that NASA project?
    We were on the NASA DC-8, it’s a jetliner research aircraft, and we were based in California for a bunch of flights. Each of the flights was about 10 hours, and the idea was to put 25 different instruments on the aircraft and measure atmospheric chemistry; so, what’s in the air that we’re breathing, but then we also fly up and down as much as possible to get a “slice” through the atmosphere. We flew from California to Alaska, then we flew down the Pacific from Alaska to Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, and constantly going up and down as much as we could from top to bottom to get an idea of trace gases and what they look like from the surface and what they look like all the way at the top.
    We then went from New Zealand to Punta Arenas in Chile, which is right at the bottom of South America, and then up along the Atlantic. We stopped on Ascension Island which is usually a very difficult place to get to otherwise, so that was cool, and then the Azores, Northern Greenland, and then back to California. We did this 4 times across different seasons, and it was pretty exhausting.
    It became easier as we started having a routine. So, for the first one, dealing with customs in Fiji and things like that were mentally exhausting because they were all so new, but by the fourth time round it was routine and we knew exactly what to do and it was a lot less exhausting. It made me realise that routines can be good. Variety can be good but there needs to be a balance between both because the mental exhaustion was real. All of us were exhausted by the time we came back. By the fourth time we came back, we all had a lot more energy to do things. I did a lot more exploring on the fourth time around, outside of our 10-hour flights.
    It was a very exciting project to be involved with. I learned as much about myself as I did about the atmospheric data for the project. It was fun!

Questions about education and training

  1. What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?
    I did physics, chemistry, accounting and music along with the usual 3. I enjoyed the chemistry — I had a really good chemistry teacher. The physics I enjoyed but not as much as the chemistry. I was way better at accounting, but I decided I didn’t want to do business, I wanted to do something in science. I then applied to UCD to do science.
    I did honours maths for the Leaving Cert which, in an all girl’s school, wasn’t a very big class, though I learned later our school had a lot more girls doing higher level maths than others at the time.
    I met a lot of really good friends there at UCD, and even though we all did similar subjects we went on to have very different careers. I did Chemistry and applied maths, joint honours, and really enjoyed the applied side of the maths stuff. I never really took to the pure maths.
    They’ve all been really useful, but I spend most of my days coding these days. I never did any computer science during my undergrad. I went on to do a masters in biomolecular science and learned a lot about what I never want to do. It was a really useful year.  I had a great year in London and part of learning what you want to do is figuring out what you definitely don’t want to do.  I learned I definitely don’t want to be stuck in a lab, doing the exact same thing, every single day or having a really set routine.  I find that monotonous.
    I was looking for jobs and found a PhD position in Leeds that put my on the career path I have now. Up until that point I could have gone in any direction.
  2. Did you participate in any extra-curricular projects and if yes, did this affect your career choice?
    I did speech and drama at school, and a lot of music. The presentation skills I learned there are essential in any career. Being able to convey the science you’re doing is extremely important.
    I’ve moved from physical chemistry towards environmental chemistry. I look at things like air quality and environmental justice associated with that. I work a lot on CO2 and methane in the arctic, how much permafrost thaw is contributing to climate change, and being able to talk about those topics so that people understand them is extremely important.  I could give a talk that’s so high level only experts would understand it, but it will never have an impact on people.  Only a very small list of people would be able to follow that presentation. It took a lot of effort to change a presentation for a scientific audience to one for a lay audience e.g. my parents at home.  If they ask what I’m working on, being able to give them a real answer where they can follow what I’m talking about was difficult initially, but it’s an extremely useful skill to develop.  Being able to communicate the science you’re studying is a skill we don’t concentrate on half enough in college.

Questions about yourself

10.What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
During our last around the world trip, we were able to visit one of the local schools in Punta Arenas in Chile to explain what we were doing, and the reaction from those kids was one of the more fulfilling responses I’ve had. They were quite excited about it. Being able to communicate the science I’m doing and to get a reaction from people… that’s what I find rewarding.
Similarly, with our work in the arctic, we try to visit communities there and explain what we’re seeing. With the Arctic stuff, these communities are seeing the impact of the permafrost melting – houses are collapsing, villages are falling into the ocean. We’re measuring the trace gas implications of that but you can’t see gases. So, being able to explain to them that as well as all the physical implications “This is what we’re finding in the atmosphere and this is what it means” is quite rewarding.
Which is a kind of roundabout way of saying that we do all this science, but it’s only when people start to understand what we’re doing that it’s quite rewarding.

11. What is your dream job?
I don’t think I ever had one, other than being a singing superstar as a kid, or something cool like an astronaut.
I really like what I do now and maybe if I’d been aware of it back then this would have been one of my dream jobs, but I didn’t think that far ahead.
Most of what I’ve done I’ve fallen into because it’s interesting. I think that was something that was pointed out to us in school; if you find something fun, go for it. Get good at it, and you might be able to get a job out of it. That’s often how people end up being really good at what they do.
I really like this job. Being in the room where you are definitely not the smartest person there but you can help the really smart people to get work done; I find that really rewarding.
I have students who are brilliant and my entire job is to get obstacles out of their way so they can just go do stuff.
You’ve got to be able to manage people. It’s not something I got any training in, and it’s not something I would have thought I’d enjoy, but along with teaching it’s a part of my job that I really enjoy.

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

12. What advice would you give to someone considering this job? Are there important personal characteristics, or good work experience they can undertake for example.
If you’re applying for PhD positions in the US, having research experience is definitely a plus. We have people coming to us who have done a whole year of research and they’re applying to Grad school and trying to get into that is quite difficult.
I didn’t really have those opportunities. I did apply and worked as a technician on the water treatment plant in Ennis one summer, and then the wastewater treatment plant, and decided I was not doing that for a living.
I worked as a kind of intern at one of the chemical plants in Shannon and they were wonderful to me, and I really enjoyed it, but again I realised it wasn’t really what I want to do. So, all of that experience added up because then I was able to talk about what I did want to do when I started applying for jobs.
Any experience you can get doesn’t need to be exactly what you would like to work in, but if you can learn from it and reflect on what you did/didn’t like about it, and bring that analysis to your next position – That’s the best advice I can give.