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James O'Donnell

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Jim is a Professor of marine sciences and Joint Professor of Physics at the University of Connecticut in the USA 

In my final year, I was able to choose from a range of career paths, from jobs with electronics companies to postgraduate study opportunities in the USA. As it happened, a former aeronautical engineer at the University of Delaware persuaded me to think about Physical Oceanography. He offered a scholarship for two years so I got a return ticket and 5 years later had an MSc and PhD in Oceanography.

Afterwards, I worked in a consulting firm doing numerical simulations of circulation and storm surges off Alaska for oilrig designs but despite the high salary, it was a little boring. I went to Cambridge as a post-doc in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMPT) for two years. That was the opposite - poorly paid but incredibly stimulating. My girlfriend (wife now) was doing a PhD in engineering there so it was just terrific. My office at DAMTP was overcrowded and shabby but it was just one door away from Steven Hawking so I figured it was good enough for me. The intellectual energy level and scientific curiosity that surrounded the whole place was incredible. I enjoyed every minute.

But, I wanted to be a little more secure so I applied for a few faculty positions. After a couple of close calls in the UK, I got a good offer from the University of Connecticut and I have worked here for almost 19 years. My research has ranged from lab experiments to expeditions in large boats but the fundamentals of applied mathematics and physics are at the core of everything I do. At the moment, I have several big projects underway. One of which is to try to develop an effective way to use measurements of surface current in the coastal ocean using radar to make short-term forecasts of where the Coast Guard should look for people in the water who need to be rescued. Some other areas of my research have been more innovative and complicated, but this project has been particularly rewarding because I expect that it will be useful to people in the near future.

I love the freedom I have to study whatever I want. Often I go to bed wondering about a puzzle that I'm just curious about and I can spend time the next day working out the details. In addition to working with graduate students and giving lectures, I have been to sea in boats, learned to SCUBA dive in the cold and dirty parts of the ocean, and have dropped instruments from planes. But there have also been many exciting times I didn’t anticipate. Once I was aboard 130 ft ship for a three week expedition to make measurements of the structure of the ocean 200 miles east of Cape Hatteras, in the Gulf Stream. The freshwater system failed so personal hygiene was threatened. After a couple of hot august weeks, we got permission to go for a swim. I dived off the ship into the spectacularly calm and clear water, took a few dozen front crawl strokes and then stopped. I turned around expecting to see a big white boat and almost drowned with the shock of seeing nothing but blue ocean and blue sky. It only lasted for a few seconds since the next wave brought me up high enough to see the ship. The ship was only a few wavelengths away and, though the waves didn't seem to be very big, the geometry was such that the crests obscured the whole ship. It is a memorable moment of my many weeks at sea. I swam back pretty fast!

Research scientists go to lots of meetings in hotels and conference centers all over the world. Normally there is little opportunity to see the sights but I try to make a little time to get out of the air conditioned auditoriums. I missed a plane after a meeting to coordinate a big experiment in Salt Lake City a few years ago and had to stay an extra day. I rented a mountain bike near my hotel and rode up into the Wasatch Range, mountains that border the east of the city. I vividly remember almost bumping into a huge Elk on a narrow mountain path. He dumped about 5 gallons of urine on the path in front of me, which I took to be a challenge. I tried to ride backwards down the mountain at first but it seems that bicycles are inherently unstable in that mode of operation. So I gave up my pretence at defiance and just turned and fled. Physics has provided me with some interesting opportunities and experiences.

I think I went to Strathclyde because it was accessible and I associated it with “useful learning”. I had a pretty good academic record but it was not perfect – I failed ‘O’ level French. I had little understanding of how Universities differed or why higher education was important. It really wasn’t part of a family tradition for me. Shipyards were still the big employer in the region when I was a boy. My parents pushed me in to University and Applied Physics attracted me because the curriculum was both strong in fundamentals but was also a little flexible. I studied geography and geology as optional classes and avoided the optimization theory course most of my classmates took. The thing that really turned me on to science though was the third year Applied Physics Project. I worked in England for Thorn Lighting in a research lab and wrote a thesis on how to measure temperature in a discharge lamp. That taught me what science was really about: getting instruments to make measurements, analyzing the observations and comparing them to a theory. That’s what I still do (when not lecturing or going to meetings).

I have 5 children so don't have a lot of time for hobbies anymore. I do run three or four times a week. When on sabbatical in Wales last year I ran in a track club and got pretty fast (for an old guy). I still like to play football whenever the opportunity arises. The physics club team at Strathclyde is where I really improved as player. Alistair Blair was our sweeper and he taught me to play centre half effectively. When I went to America the standard was poor so they thought I was good. People wanted me to play on their teams and that made it easy for me to make friends in a new place. Though the physics club is probably not the best place to meet girls or learn much physics, it has been my experience that being involved in these kind of things bring unforeseeable opportunities and generally enrich your life.