Dr Sandra Arndt

"Science is not really a job, it’s a passion. You get to follow your ideas and do what you really want to do. The excitement associated with discovering how everything interacts and how it all works - that’s just amazing."

Dr Sandra Arndt is a climate modeller for whom research is as much about rigorous detective work and time travel, as it is about resolving some of the Earth’s most intriguing mysteries.

She studied at Germany’s Carl-von-Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, Utrecht University in the Netherlands and worked at the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées in France before joining Bristol in 2011.

Her core research interest lies in the development and application of models that are designed to advance our understanding of the global biogeochemical dynamics and elucidate the environmental controls on past, present and future carbon cycling and climate.

I was always interested in science, especially ocean science. As a child I had a natural attraction to the ocean and all the nature around. My older cousin was a geologist and I had always admired him. He was going on a research cruise to the South Pole one time and I decided that this is what I wanted to do.

When I started to apply to study oceanography at university, I discovered that the Carl-von-Ossietzky Universität in Oldenburg offered an interdisciplinary marine science program. It was very small and only admitted 25 students per year, which meant you had direct and very intensive contact with the professors who were very passionate, and challenging teachers.

It was amazing to study in an environment with all these dynamic, dedicated students and teachers. Back at that time, the German university system was very open and you got to design your own personal course within a general framework according to your interests and needs.

I loved this academic freedom. It really forces you to think hard about what really interests you, what you want to do and which knowledge you have to acquire to reach your goals. It really helped me define my main study directions and combine those with all the other topics that interested me, such as geochemistry, geology, microbiology, ecology and environmental science.

After my first year on the Masters programme I went off on an Erasmus exchange year to Gran Canaria. That was great! I did not only get exposed to a new culture, language and country, but a whole new world of different marine science related topics, but above all, I really got into volcanology and geology.

When I later had to choose a topic for my thesis, I wanted to combine my mathematical modelling skills with biogeochemistry, geology and sediment diagenesis. I started to explore possibilities and talked to one of my professors, who had just come back from an ocean drilling program (ODP) research cruise to Demerara Rise (ODP Leg 207).

He was really excited about the data he collected and, especially, about using modelling to unravel the biogeochemical dynamics. So, we set up collaboration between the mathematical modelling group and the microbiogeochemistry group which worked out extremely well.

I loved working on this project since I got to slip into the role of both a time-traveller and an explorer. They basically came back with really long sediment cores; they had drilled almost one kilometre into deep Cretaceous ocean sediments that are about 100 million years old and allow us to travel back far into geological times, because they contain information about the ocean and the Earth’s climate at the time when this material settled onto the seafloor.

The Cretaceous world was very different from the world we know. The climate was very warm, sealevel high and the oceans contained very little oxygen. The Cretaceous black shales bear the testimony of this climate perturbation, but it is not easy to directly derive information from the sedimentary record.

You have to work like a detective who investigates a crime-scene. You have to put the puzzle together, which is where modelling comes in handy. We learned some very important things about the Cretaceous climate from working together.

We also found that this old organic material still provides a valuable food source for bacteria that live deep down in these sediments. This environment, the so-called deep Biosphere is one of last unknown environments on Earth and it challenges our understanding of life and how it works. It also provides us with some important clues about the potential for extra-terrestrial life and how that might look like.

I’ve always been guided by passion and interest. Looking back, I think that I was really lucky and made the right choices. Studying is not always fun though, especially when you have to study all the basic science but you really have to acquire this basic scientific knowledge, which takes time and determination - the fun only starts much later when you see how it all fits together and helps you understand how the planet works.

The best thing about doing research is that you can follow your ideas and do what you really want to do. If you can convince people that what you want to do in the next five years is really important you get the funding for it, it’s the best job ever – you create a your job, nobody tells you what to do, and you get to interact with some really smart, amazing and inspiring people.

Understanding the planet, how it evolved, where we come from, and how it all works, that’s just great – the satisfaction of understanding something, it’s just amazing. And the academic environment is just really inspiring - people who are driven by interest and passion, and less by personal ego, power or financial consideration, that’s the best environment you can hope to work in.

You’re dealing with the unknown so you have to be creative. You have to be a little bit brave as well because if you have, what might first seem like a crazy idea, you have to defend it; often in the beginning when it’s just an idea people will be very critical, so you have to be confident.

Along the way you encounter a lot of problems and you have to work around them, you have to be prepared to maybe even change your opinion or reject your idea because that’s what science is about, you don’t know what will come out, you just have a question and you want to figure it out. You never know where it will take you.

As a scientist, you often get asked the question; ‘so what are you doing for society, what’s the use of your knowledge?’ That is actually a very tricky question because fundamental research is not driven by direct applications or use.

It may lead to something very useful, but it is not directly driven by it. It is driven by curiosity. It is about increasing knowledge. It is also satisfying a very fundamental human need: the wish to figure out how something works, to be able to explain the world around us.

That wish has been very central to the development of our civilization. Therefore, it is hugely important for society. It drives progress, crosses frontiers, leads to great discoveries and provides important knowledge for applied research.”

Dr Sandra Arndt, NERC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Geographical Sciences

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Watch Sandra discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Can science save us?

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