Justine McMillan, Staff Scientist, Rockland Scientific International, Victoria, BC, Canada
I am the staff scientist at Rockland Scientific, which is a small instrumentation company specializing in the measurement of turbulent flow. In my current role, I act as the liaison between our customers and our staff. Essentially, I do two things: (1) help scientists make successful measurements through education and software development, and (2) help our engineers and developers design instruments that suit the continually changing needs of scientists. In doing so, I enable interesting and diverse science done by many different research groups, and also participate directly in the occasional research project.
My “Road to Rockland” was non-linear because I didn’t exactly plan to do a PhD. In fact, in grade 12, I had to google what BSc, MA, PhD, etc. were, just so I could fill out my university applications. Since then, there are three opportunities that I seized that shaped my career:
- Participating in an undergraduate summer research project because it sounded “cool”. This opportunity arose while visiting a professor for extra help on a tough assignment about partial differential equations. We also happened to chat about my summer plans, which were to return to my job at a golf course. The professor then proposed a project to model the tides in the Bay of Fundy and I jumped at the opportunity because it was much better than mowing grass. Three months later, I was watching the tides ebb and flood on my computer screen. Very “cool”!
- Changing my PhD topic two years into my degree after joining a field trip to be an “extra set of hands”. At the time, I was trying to understand the dynamics of the mean flow at tidal energy sites using both measurements and simulations. But during this field trip, we collected turbulence measurements that were described by Rolf, the founder of Rockland, as “great for a PhD’’. Because the data was a nice addition to my already collected measurements, I decided to at least take a look. And I’m so glad I did – I not only completed an interesting thesis, but I also developed a great relationship with Rockland and, four years later, I accepted a job with the company.
- Participating in every opportunity I could to communicate science. This included giving a “Three Minute Thesis” presentation about turbines, tequila, and turbulence, and being the editor of “Current Tides”, a magazine produced entirely by oceanography graduate students at Dalhousie University. These experiences helped me realize that I liked the challenge of communicating complex ideas to a variety of audiences. And, according to my colleagues, I was also pretty good at it. (I don’t think any graduate student ever believes they are good at anything).
My academic experience, and in particular my PhD, allowed me to develop many skills that I use on a daily basis. I obtained a background in physical oceanography and turbulence that helps me to understand the science that our customers are doing. I also learned to write clearly and concisely and to present complex ideas effectively, which are skills that I use to write technical documentation and to teach training courses. And, I continue to use my data analysis experience to interpret data and to develop software tools.
My decision to pursue a career outside academia felt easy because the job at Rockland really interested me. I wanted to continue learning about turbulence, and I was keen to live in Victoria because the city was well-suited to my lifestyle. But, as my day-to-day responsibilities started to shift away from research, I found myself questioning my decision. Also, my “imposter syndrome” kicked in as other scientists asked why I “left academia”, as if my career choice was a lesser option. Over time, as I got better at my job and gained some perspective, I realized that my role at Rockland is nearly perfect for me. Sure, I don’t do as much research as I used to, but I help a lot of people do amazing science. And, that is pretty rewarding!