NAME: Guillaume Thirel
CURRENT TITLE: Researcher
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Hydrology, impact of climate change, snow accumulation and melt modelling, hydrometeorology, hydrological modelling and forecasting
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 11 (three as a PhD candidate at Météo-France, France, three as a postdoctoral fellow at the Joint Research Centre, Italy, and five as a researcher at Irstea, France)
EDUCATION: PhD in hydrometeorological forecasting and data assimilation (2006-2009), Engineering School and MSc in Mathematical and Mechanical Modelling (2003-2006)
What’s your job like?
As a researcher with a fixed position, my job is to investigate some research questions through projects I coordinate or participate in, through the supervision of several PhD and MSc students or postdoctoral fellows and through, when I find time to do so (i.e. not so often!), personal research. I also teach in a couple of universities or engineering schools, although it is not a substantial part of my job as Irstea is not a university. I am also involved in editorial processes, as a reviewer for around 10 papers a year in peer-reviewed journals, as well as an associate editor for the oldest hydrological journal, the Hydrological Sciences Journal (HSJ). Finally, I am also participating, on a regular basis, in quite a lot of conferences, such as the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) and the General Assembly of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS). The main questioning of my research is to better predict future streamflow conditions. Indeed, streamflows are very useful for risks assessments, water resources management or ecological issues, and what their indicators such as their high or low values or their regimes are determining. For this, I try to improve the hydrological modelling tools we have, namely the hydrological models, for making them provide us better predictions of streamflows. This can be done by improving the process representation in these models, by improving their calibration, or by finding new paradigms for hydrological modelling for example. I am also involved in other activities such as data assimilation or flood forecasting. For my research, I (or the people I supervise) handle large datasets — both hydrological and meteorological datasets, over hundreds of catchments —, but I do not collect data. I work most of the time with the hydrological models developed in our team and make analyses and graphics of the outputs of these models, which can also represent large datasets. I mostly work with the R and Fortran programming languages.
What’s a typical day like?
Working days are always different! Conferences, seminars, meetings and travel are indeed often disturbing my daily routine. What could be considered as a typical day is an office day: sitting behind my computer and working there. This mix between typical days and ‘disturbances’ from the routine make my job as a researcher very interesting! Even office days do not offer me typical time schedules. Although they always start with an email reading / sorting / deleting / answering time slot, then the possibilities are various: reading and correcting a PhD student’s or colleague’s paper, working on that project I should have finished some months ago, making a review, searching for reviewers for the HSJ papers I am responsible for or making recommendations on their acceptance or rejection, planning my agenda for future meetings, attending meetings, preparing missions, dealing with administrative issues, helping colleagues with programming, discussing (new) ideas or projects with colleagues, writing project or PhD thesis proposals, updating our research team website, working with a colleague on the open source airGR modelling tool we developed, organising the conference session I am responsible for at EGU, watering my plants, etc. However, some recurring tasks rhythms most of my typical days: helping my PhD students with technical or philosophical issues, practicing some sport over lunch time, and spending some time on Twitter.
Research is fun. By this, I mean that having the possibility to investigate new or crazy ideas, possibly coming from fields different than hydrology, is a very stimulating! I also like the interactions with students; observing them evolve in their career of young researchers and in their way of doing research, is a very nice thing. Also, a great part of my job is travelling to conferences: I could visit countries where I would never have had the possibility of going. Not only it is great to discover new potential collaborators, but also I like using this opportunity to discover the local landscapes and people. I also appreciate making the efforts of diffusing our research to a public other than scientists. I do that a bit through Twitter, our website, and some popularization events. I am not sure about the real impact of it and if I am doing it right, but most of the time it is something I appreciate doing.
As can be understood from what my typical day can be, the job of being a researcher has plenty of facets. In addition to being a researcher, a researcher is also sometimes a teacher, a mentor, an author, an administrator, a manager, a fundraiser, and a communicator. Most of these additional jobs are not ones we learn during a MSc, or even during a PhD. We learn them on the heap! Other challenges concern data and programming bugs. Data are challenging since we, in our group, are not producers of hydrological or meteorological data. We rely on other providers. Since we work on hundreds of catchments, organising and checking those large amounts of data, as well as dealing with our results, represents some hard work sometimes. Programming bugs can also be quite challenging: some of our models can become quite complex, and tracking a bug and its implications in them is demanding. However, it is always nice when the problem is eventually solved and the model becomes better or quicker!
What’s your advice to students?
Becoming a scientist is a very rewarding job. However, as most rewards, it is necessary to seriously work on it to obtain it. But, if students are really motivated, are not afraid of putting their hands in the dough, learning new skills, and traveling, then there will be a way for them to find their path in a scientific career. It is also necessary to be curious, i.e. listening to talks that are not directly related to their main interests, reading a lot, and digging into data or models. More specifically, I think that programming skills are necessary in many water-related jobs now (researcher in a public institute or at University, consultant, water agency staff, etc.), so students absolutely should not neglect it during their education.