Hydroclimatology, Shaun Harrigan @shaunharrigan: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Shaun Harrigan

CURRENT TITLE: PhD Student

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Hydroclimatology [I study what drives changes in hydrological extremes (floods and droughts), from climate change to human alterations within catchments].

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 5 (two years as a research assistant working on hydroclimate related projects, and currently finishing the third year of my PhD at Maynooth University in Ireland).

EDUCATION: 2006-2009: BA in Mathematics and Geography; 2009-2010:  MSc in Climate Change (both from Maynooth University).

PhD Student, Shaun Harrigan at Pikes Peak, Colorado, USA

PhD Student, Shaun Harrigan at Pikes Peak, Colorado, USA

What’s your job like?

I’ve always been interested in how the world works, and now I get to do this as my job! The majority of my motivation comes from wanting to better understand the hydrological cycle. However, there’s added motivation working on problems involving extremes, such as heavy rainfall, floods, and droughts, as these events have significant impacts on society. I’m always thinking about how scientific knowledge can be used to improve our management of these extremes now and in the future.

What’s a typical day like?

There is no typical day, which is another appealing thing about a career in research – but it always starts with a coffee! The majority of the time, I am working on a specific piece of analysis. For my PhD, I work mainly with observed precipitation and streamflow datasets and increasingly with larger atmospheric reanalysis products; all to improve our understanding of the drivers of changes in floods over multi-decadal time-scales. Eighty percent of my time is spent doing an analysis which involves tidying up these datasets and manipulating them into a workable format to be used for statistical analysis or as input into hydrological models. This requires a decent dose of programming (mainly in R), as it would not be practical to work with all this data otherwise.

There’s a great community of PhD students, post-docs, and staff in my research group at Maynooth, and we all make an effort to have lunch at the same time — guaranteeing a good conversation whether it’s sharing tips on writing your PhD or solving the current political problem of the day!

I’m also involved with the Young Hydrologic Society (YHS), and I’m the Early Career Scientist representative for the Hydrological Sciences division of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). Within these roles, I get the opportunity to work with other like-minded people from all over the world. We have monthly Skype calls to organize events for early career scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco and the General Assembly of the EGU in Vienna. Here’s an example of one of the sessions we organized at the 2015 EGU titled, “The mystery of evaporation”:  http://younghs.com/2015/05/11/meet-the-expert-in-hydrology-the-mystery-of-evaporation/

What’s fun?

One of my favourite parts of my job is the many opportunities to travel to some nice places for conferences and workshops. It’s always great to meet new people at these events who are working in the same area and see how they approach similar research problems. One of the highlights of my PhD has been participating in a three-week summer school at the United States National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. I met some great people and hiked in the Rockies!

What’s challenging?

Working with real world data is challenging. Measuring natural systems is not easy and sometimes a precipitation gauge will malfunction, leaving gaps in the record — or a large flood event will fail to be captured at a streamflow gauging site. It’s not always straight forward to know if your model is performing poorly because it’s no good or there’s something wrong with the underlying observed data.

What’s your advice to students?

If you’re finishing your undergrad or Master’s and considering doing a PhD but aren’t 100% sure research is for you, then try find a research assistant role for a few months (or even 2 years!). Even though I had spent some time during my MSc doing research and writing a thesis, I still wasn’t convinced a career in research was for me. That was until I worked as a research assistant. Doing this also gave me time to develop an interesting PhD topic and apply for PhD funding.

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