Chris Bull interview for AMSI Winter School 2017

Chris Bull chats to other attendees at the AMSI 2017 Winter School.


Last year Chris Bull attended the 2017 AMSI Winter School. Afterwards he was interviewed by the people at AMSI for a story about the school. While the story doesn't appear to have made it to the AMSI site yet, Chris gave an interview that is well worth reading in full. You can read the full interview, which gives a great insight into the AMSI winter school, and follow the additional links Chris added below.  


What are you studying and what drew you to this area?

I am a PhD candidate in Physical Oceanography at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I use computer models to study the ocean circulation around Australia on daily to decadal timescales; I am interested in how Australia’s boundary currents are connected, under what mechanisms/timescales they vary and how their circulation will change in the future.

My interest in physical oceanography is three-fold. Firstly, understanding the processes and physics underlying earth’s atmosphere and oceans is a beautiful, ubiquitous subject! I think everyone can be captivated by the beauty of geophysical fluid dynamics. Secondly, it’s an amazing time to be an oceanographer, the world’s oceans have never been better observed/modelled and as a relatively new field there are still big interesting problems to solve. Thirdly, improving our understanding of ocean physics has important implications for understanding the impacts of global warming. More than 90 percent of the warming that has happened on Earth over the past 50 years has occurred in the ocean. Whilst the atmosphere has been spared from the full extent of global warming for now, heat and carbon stored in the ocean will eventually be released and our understanding of the ocean circulation is crucial to constraining projections of this process.


Can you give me a brief overview of your current research project and its applications for the general community and what you are hoping to achieve with this work?

Australia’s marine climate is largely regulated by boundary currents, including its heat content and availability of nutrients. At fourteen million square kilometres, Australia’s marine jurisdiction is the third largest on Earth; the marine industry contributes ~$42 billion dollars annually to the Australian economy. Australia’s marine ecosystems are under increasing pressure from warming ocean temperatures, and improvements in future projections of Australia’s coastal regions depend critically on our understanding of the dynamics of the Leeuwin Current and East Australian Current. My PhD aims to improve our understanding of the circulation, variability and dynamics of the Leeuwin Current and East Australian Current by characterising the importance of bathymetry and non-linear processes. We hope this can lead to improvements in the integrity of future marine climate simulations around Australia.


What drew you to Winter School 2017, what were you hoping to take from the experience?

Much of my PhD in physical oceanography has been running the large-scale ocean circulation model NEMO to shed light on the underlying dynamics of observed and modelled phenomena. Along the way, I have gained experience in the creation, manipulation and analysis of large geophysical datasets (total of ~26 Tb). I was interested in the winter school as it offered the opportunity to broaden my understanding of the underlying theory for computational data analysis methods. “Big Data” is something of a buzz word at the moment and I was interested in getting a first-hand account from real practitioners in ‘the field’; I was particularly looking forward to the lectures on machine/inverse learning, Bayesian inference and nonlinear optimisation. I was also excited about meeting up with other people passionate about computational data science and hearing about their research.


What were the highlights of this event for you? (e.g. subjects studied, engagement with a field leader). How have you benefited from this opportunity?

I work with large datasets on a daily basis but am mostly self-taught and have had little formal training; the winter school introduced me to much of the formal modern theory and mathematical rigour that has been applied to computational data science. Lecture highlights of the school include: Youssef Marzouk’s inverse problems, Linda Stals’ Numerical Linear Algebra and Brendan Van Rooyen’s Machine Learning. I also enjoyed the keynote talks by Peter May from the Bureau of Meteorology talking about the future of weather and climate models and the forum with Sir Timothy Gowers (a long time hero of mine and writer of this marvellous book). Another highlight was the opportunity to meet other PhD students that work on a range of data science problems from a surprisingly diverse range of fields.

There is increasing interest in using big data methods such as machine learning to solve climate science problems. Increasingly sophisticated data assimilation methods are used in a range of forecasting applications. Whilst I have taken an interest in these tools, I have been reluctant to use many of them in my own work without a formal understanding of the underlying theory and caveats in their application. The winter school has enabled me to be more confident in using some of these tools and assessing their applicability to a particular problem.


Would you recommend Winter School 2017 to other students? Why? Was this your first time at an AMSI Flagship event? If not, which other events have you attended and what brought you back for this event? Are you hoping to attend others?

Yes, I would recommend this event to other graduate students. This was my forth AMSI event (having attended previous Summer schools) and I greatly enjoyed it. I really like the AMSI format as its length enables a deeper appreciation of the presented subject area. I also appreciated that AMSI courses tend to present material at a more formal level than some of my other graduate vacation school experiences. Finally, like my other AMSI experiences, the 2017 winter school offered wonderful networking opportunities with like-minded PhD students.


What are the challenges facing mathematical students and researchers?

Firstly, I enjoy doing research and appreciate that it is a privilege to have unfettered freedom to pursue one’s intellectual interests. However, I have witnessed the reliance on short-term contracts and pressure to publish put undue duress on highly intelligent, capable scientists. Scientific research is similar to a pyramid scheme, and “tremendous bias in favour of the cheap labour that graduate students and postdocs represent” leads to a lack of permanent positions and flexibility. This environment is conducive towards scientists feeling challenged financially (and here) and in terms of their mental health (and here). Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide whether it (continues to) suits them.

Another challenge is that of diversity and equity in the working environment. In particular, we need more women in senior positions and we need to continue to combat gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious. As a way forward, I personally think we should communicate a range of narratives from successful researchers at all levels and from all backgrounds, both within academia and industry, to inspire the next generation of researchers to engage in STEM.


Why do you think AMSI and its services are so important for mathematical students and researchers such as yourself?

Australia’s research community is relatively small and geographically isolated. In this context, organisations such as AMSI are crucial to fostering collaboration and training across institutions and disciplines. The ACE initiative is a fantastic example of that. AMSI also plays other important roles, including linking graduates to industry, championing STEM careers and providing professional training for teachers in pre-tertiary education. Encouraging more women to pursue STEM disciplines is another super important AMSI initiative.


If you had a crystal ball and could see five years into the future, where do you think you’d be? Or where do you hope you’ll be?

Despite a non-linear path in my research career, an overarching theme is my interest in working on interesting problems, alongside great mentors and collaborators. In five years’ time, I hope to see this theme has continued to run deep. More specifically, I aspire to build an expertise in coastal Antarctic oceanography and contribute to Australian research through a DECRA fellowship, after broadening my research experience overseas. Is this where I think I’ll be? I’m optimistic and driven by excellence in science. Nevertheless, I am aware of the pressures and challenges of an academic career, and remain open to other possibilities. There is (and should be!) more to life than publishing papers. In the end, I simply want to make a positive contribution through my career, and love the opportunity to tackle challenging science questions.   


What other interests do you have outside of mathematics?

Baking sourdough bread, travel and playing board games!



1. I’m reminded of this when I watch people experiencing Michael Benson’s Otherworlds (during the winter school!) or NASA’s science on a sphere (trip advisor puts the Science Museum’s version on its top 100 things to do in London!).


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