Science TV Producer, Dr. Helen Quinn @quinney17: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Dr. Helen Quinn, Science Television Producer

Dr. Helen Quinn, Science Television Producer

NAME:  Dr. Helen Quinn

CURRENT TITLE:  Science Producer for TV documentaries

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  I have been working in television documentaries for about ten years, specialising in programmes about Earth Sciences.


EDUCATION:  I was lucky enough to study for a BSc in Physical Geography and Geology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and with Edinburgh, often referred to as the birth place of modern geology, I was in my element. I then continued my earth science studies and undertook a PhD looking at long-term climate change in Antarctica, heading south to the ice for a field season as part of my studies. I wrote up my findings as academic papers, but the science of Antarctica lent itself to a much wider audience, and I began to write stories for newspapers based on my PhD findings. I really enjoyed telling stories in this way and found myself heading into a career in science media.


TWITTER:  @quinney17

What’s your job like?

I work in television, either as a Producer on a show that is in production or as an ideas generator on a show that has yet to be commissioned. It’s a busy, exciting job in which you are learning new things all the time. Every day you learn something new and everyday is different. It’s a job filled with amazing “wow moments” when you are out shooting in places you never even imagined existed and visiting places that you can’t get to as a tourist. You see the world from a different perspective, meeting people who passionately want to share their knowledge with you, and it’s infectious. It’s a job of variety: you can be in the office making calls, reading or brainstorming, writing scripts or editing tapes or you can be out shooting underwater, in an emergency hospital or on top of a volcano. It’s a job for people who have an adventurous streak, are curious about the world around them, and most importantly, love getting out there and seeing it!

What’s a typical day like?

There really isn’t a typical day. On a geology-related shoot, I have been 50 feet underground in a silver mine in the Andes, wrestling with alligators in Colorado, or filming on the River Yangtze in China. We’ll usually shoot all day until the light fades, and the shoots can be anywhere from a few days to a few months long. A day in the office is a little less adrenaline filled but is usually taken up talking with scientists and getting to grips with the latest science, writing scripts and editing. I am based in London when I’m in the office but can be anywhere in the world on a shoot.

What’s fun?

Coming up with new ideas is one of my favourite parts of my jobs. Starting with a blank slate and a seed of an idea is an exciting place to be — wondering if one day this will make it on to our television screens. I love building the relationships with all our contributors and getting to know them and their work, I feel like I am learning all the time. And I love being out and about, usually outside in magnificent landscapes. I feel very lucky that we have the opportunity to excite and enthuse our audience about the world and the science around us all and hope we can carry on coming up with the ideas that make it possible to do this!

What’s challenging?

Juggling is a huge part of my job — juggling stories, ideas, people, crew, locations and generally making sure everyone is happy. But I think the biggest challenge is making sure the science is fairly portrayed. Distilling it down, making it visual and telling a story is really important, but none of it matters if the science behind it isn’t solid. As a geoscientist, I feel very strongly that we have a duty to tell all these exciting earth science stories, and it’s essential that this is done right. Having people in media who have a science background is really important — we just need more!

What’s your advice for students?

If you are interested in working in science media, make sure you have a science background behind you (and even better if it is in geosciences as we are a minority in the media!). Media knowledge can be learned on the job, much more important is your science knowledge and scientific way of thinking. Studying geosciences gives you the perfect opportunity for boundless adventures and the chance to see and understand the beautiful world around us. I had no idea when I set off where geography and geology would take me, but it literally took me to the ends of the planet.

“Assessing Aquifers” by Sandie Will @RockHeadScience for @GeoDrilling International

Earlier this year, I was approached by GeoDrilling International to write an article for their magazine. Since their September issue focused primarily on coring, I prepared an article related to the work we do in water resources.  I have a staff of 15 who collect, test, analyze, and report on lithostratigraphic and hydrostratigraphic characteristics of several aquifers in Florida including the surficial, Hawthorn aquifer system, Upper Floridan and Lower Floridan.  Water supply is primarily drawn from the Upper Floridan aquifer in the southwest region of Florida and new studies are currently underway of the Lower Floridan aquifer. Staff include drillers, geologists and technicians who spend years at a site to collected the needed data.  This includes three phases of field work:  1) coring and testing; 2) well construction; and 3) aquifer performance testing.  The article, “Assessing Aquifers,” was published in the September 2014 issue of GeoDrilling International and describes how we collect the cores and various hydrogeologic data.  If you’re interested in what it’s like to work in the hydrogeology industry, this article will give you great insight into this specialty.

Here’s the link:  GDI1409Core Assessing Aquifers by Sandie Will

I would like to thank GeoDrilling International, for the opportunity to provide an article for their magazine and highlight the talents of my staff and drilling program.

Here’s the feature on my employer’s website (the link in the article no longer works – see the link above):

Magazine Article Highlights District Core Drilling Program

The District’s core drilling program was recently highlighted inGeoDrilling International Magazine. Sandie Will, manager of the Geohydrologic Data Section, was invited to write the article which stresses the important work of the program.

The article states how scientists use the data collected from wells to study how much water can be withdrawn from the aquifer without depleting it or causing impacts to the quality of these groundwater resources. A comprehensive understanding of the aquifer systems is a must, and core drilling and testing prior to the design and installation of these wells are essential.

In 1974, the District created the Regional Observation Monitor-well Program (ROMP) to explore the hydrogeology below the surface and install wells within the aquifers for long-term monitoring of groundwater levels and quality. More than 200 ROMP sites and 250 project-support sites have been constructed throughout the District.

The Geohydrologic Data section at the District oversees this program and characterizes the hydrogeology of a site in three phases:
• Exploratory Coring/Testing
• Well Construction
• Aquifer Performance Test

Will said the article emphasizes this important work.

“Data collected from programs such as ROMP are the foundation of groundwater assessments and will be essential for future analyses and planning as population and subsequent demands for groundwater increase,” Will said. “Continued collection of accurate and defensible data is needed in the future, and core drilling and testing is the essential first step in meeting this need.”

Atlantis Space Shuttle Launch 2000: Up Close and Personal

It was dark at 5 a.m. when I arrived at the guard shack with my coworker, Kerry Kates and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) badge on March 1, 2002. I had never been to Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, Florida that early before and was somewhat surprised by the long line of vehicles waiting for clearance. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. A NASA shuttle launch always drew in crowds.

We knew our way around the facility well, since Kerry and I had been working there for weeks on numerous geology-related field events. Since we had special clearance, we were able to view the launch near the press stands which is the closest spot possible. This was the first time I would see a shuttle launch and digital countdown clock in person. As we drove up to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the huge American flag painted on its face seemed larger than life in the lighting. Across the street, bleachers were set up in front of the clock and numerous news reporters and staff were standing about with cameras aimed at the eastern sky. The launch pads were located near the coast of the Atlantic and the salty smell of the coastline permeated through the air.

The shuttle on the launch pad was the Atlantis and held one Russian and six American astronauts. The mission (STS-101) was to bring supplies and make repairs to the International Space Station under Commander James D. Halsell, Jr.  This would be the first time the shuttle was launched with a glass cockpit.

As the clock wound down through the last few minutes, I could hear an engine sound in the distance and the audience grew quiet. The noise became louder and the excitement from the anticipation welled up with every ticking second. I could feel a sort of energy take over, and I glanced over to Kerry, as if to say this would always be a special memory in our lives.

At 6:11 a.m., I couldn’t see the shuttle at first but the noise became louder and louder until eventually I started wondering if it was a good idea to be standing so close after all. Then, I was overcome by unexpected booming waves of force that came in a series of pulses strong enough to make me back up a few steps, feeling unsure of it all, until I saw the streak of a rising shuttle against a beautiful sunrise backdrop that made me pause. How incredible it was to witness such a miracle of engineering and astronaut bravery. Within a few minutes, the rocket boosters dropped off and the shuttle was out of sight. All that was left behind were clouds of gas reflecting brilliant blues, purples and yellows from the morning sun.

Never will I forget the power of that awe-inspiring morning.  Little did I know that this mission could have had the same fate as the Columbia disaster in 2003. When Atlantis re-entered into the Earth’s atmosphere 10 days later, a damaged tile seam caused a breach in the left wing and allowed superheated gas to enter. Luckily, the gas did not penetrate deep enough to cause the disintegration of the shuttle.

Mission facts:

Atlantis STS-101 Launch Information




So, what’s it like to work as a geologist behind a drilling rig?

Working as a geologist behind a drilling rig is definitely not glamorous, unless long days in the heat or cold, smelling like funk and looking like you just fell into a mud pit are something you find attractive.  Depending on the type of site, you could end up wishing you had gotten a wastewater treatment plant operator license rather than surviving another day of hell behind the rig.  And you’re not even the driller!  To them, you have it made.

But if you insist on this career path, you might want to consider staying in the water supply or water resource management industry (having not worked on an oil rig, I cannot speak to this).  Unless you are absolutely desperate and would have to move back to your mother’s to survive, stay away from the contamination assessment arena.  At least with the former industry, you will be dealing with clean water, so you may still look and feel like you just mud-wrestled a gator, but at least you just smell like your deodorant gave up a few hours ago, rather than the lovely “perfume” of gasoline or creosote that you will share with those who pass by.  You’ll never be the same after you walk into a hotel and see the awkward expressions of the attendants, as you leave mud tracks, weeds and God knows what on the floor of the lobby.  Or for that matter, watching small children walk through it with excitement as they start their vacation.

The method of drilling depends on the type of work.  So, if you’re working at say a Superfund site (the word “super” in this name does not depict a positive), most of the work will probably be shallow and smaller equipment will be used such as something that’s called an auger rig or direct push technology (at least if you work in Florida).  For deeper work, more powerful equipment and drilling methods are used such as sonic, coring, mud rotary and reverse air for example.  The type of rig really depends on the available space, depth to rock, lithologic material, costs, purpose and other factors, but no matter which is used you can depend on taking samples of some sort.  The geologist is usually present for two reasons:  1) proper data collection, and 2) well design and installation oversight.

Data collection can include several activities, but most of the time, you will perform exploratory sampling and testing to evaluate the situation.  For example, if it’s a contaminated site, you may perform soil and groundwater sampling with a mobile laboratory to determine the extent and depth of the contaminants.  Soil or lithologic samples can be collected by digging with a bucket auger or by a rig that will collect the samples in core barrels or other samplers and you will transfer the material into appropriate containers following regulatory guidelines.  If the chemicals are strong or have a high risk of cancer, you may be required to wear a respirator or other personal safety equipment.  For groundwater samples, tubing is used to collect water using a pump and the method of sample collection will depend on the type of contaminants.  If the site is not contaminated and the purpose is to identify a good location for a water supply well, water quality, lithology and aquifer testing are primarily evaluated.  No matter the situation, all sampling has to be in accordance with the state’s environmental protection agency requirements, so get that manual!

Once the exploration is completed and it is decided well(s) are needed, you will normally remain at the site to oversee the installation of the well(s).  The depths, number and diameter of casings, etc. are determined from the previous testing and lithology.  If you are a junior-level geologist, you will most likely be working with a Professional Geologist to design the well.  Once the well installation is complete, it will be up to you to oversee the well development and make sure the well is pumped until the water is sediment-free.  You will also probably come back at a later date to sample the water and collect water levels, but that’s for another topic.

No matter what area of geology, you can expect to have to don the hard hat and steel toed boots if you are behind a rig.  Your work will also include preparing for the field work such as researching the background of the upcoming site, becoming familiar with the site location and nearby activities, getting forms and laboratory bottles together, checking and gathering any needed equipment (i.e. pumps, tubing, batteries, etc.) and meters (i.e. pH, conductivity, temperature, organic vapor analyzers, etc.) and coordinating with the property owner and hired contractors.  The locations of work can be anywhere including residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, parks, government centers, residential or in the middle of freaking nowhere.  Get used to spiders, snakes, bees, ants, mosquitoes, wasp, frogs, sweat, blood (ok – just occasionally if you don’t know how to properly use a knife), lightening, prickers, sunburn — oh yeah, and beer.

So, why do it?  It’s actually rewarding.  The data collected helps the environment and society.  You will be the unsung hero of many high-level presentations and decisions made my manager-types that will be used to clean up contaminated sites, provide drinking water for the future or help in some other way.  But you really won’t care about that — you’ll be too busy at the next site.  Just get yourself some good sunscreen and bath soap!

Drilling rig

Core drilling rig – Photo by Sandie Will

Space Shuttle Encounters: A Giant Leap for the Geokind

I have to admit, I’ve had some pretty cool experiences as a field geologist in my earlier years, and one place that offered me many of these was Kennedy Space Center. I’m sure most of you are familiar with this space exploration facility located along the East coast of Florida, and the numerous space shuttle launches that provided lucky onlookers an awe-inspiring view before the program was discontinued. I was one of them, only I had an even closer “relationship,” with the space shuttles. It seemed like, no matter where I was working at the facility, I was in some way reminded of their existence.

My first encounter with a part of the shuttle occurred on my first field job along one of the facility’s busy roadways during the late 1990s. I was there to assist another field geologist to oversee the installation of several shallow wells for three days. During that time, we worked with a drilling contractor who was hired by our company to install the wells. I can remember pulling up to the site and being totally disappointed by the look of the buildings which were dull and lackluster, and the area which was industrial. It was not the flashy, picturesque facility I had envisioned it would be like the Visitor Center you see when you first drive in. Where were the futuristic flying cars and all the space-station shaped buildings with the hustle and bustle of scurrying scientists?

Anyway, I had little field experience at the time, so I primarily followed the guidance of the other field geologist on site with whom the drillers were arguing over a well design and costs when I first arrived. The project manager, who was back in the office, was making the decisions, but the field geologist was delivering the bad news, and the drillers argued with him about it for the entire day. I observed and said very little, until about 4 p.m., when I finally had enough, and blurted out of nowhere, “Look! You heard him! It ain’t gonna happen!” And thus the nickname, “No Shit, Sandie” was born, as well as some acceptance from my fellow geologists after this was repeated to them later.

Begrudgingly, the drillers continued their work over the next couple of days, and I, in my new, sparkly clean hard hat and boots obliged to try to help them as much as possible, even attempting to twist together polyvinyl chloride (PVC) casings, as if this was really helping. I have to say, the drillers were kind, despite my outburst and inexperience, and the rest of the field days were uneventful. That was, until Day 3.

We were at the last well site, and I was overseeing the concrete pad that was being constructed by one of the drillers. Suddenly, we both noticed that the entire area grew dead quiet. No cars, no people, no wind. Literally, no sound which was extremely unusual, being we were between two, red-light intersections. All I kept thinking was, “Where did everyone go?” We both scanned the area for signs of life, but we were the only ones as far as we could see. It was eerie.

Then, within a few minutes, the reason was revealed. There was no traffic, because a minor thing such as a SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER was being transported by what I presumed was a crawler along the roadway. That’s all — I mean, that happens every day, right?

We watched the enormous rocket booster crawl by inch by inch, until it eventually took a right hand turn at the light and disappeared. Once gone, the traffic returned almost instantaneously and all was back to normal. After I collected my jaw from the ground, the driller resumed work. That was when I noticed I had one boot in the wet cement. I quickly jumped back and there was a size 8 footprint as big as life. Rookie mistake. The driller just shook his head.

Guess the story now goes: The astronauts may have taken one giant leap for mankind, but I took one giant leap for the geokind. And my footprint is there to prove it!