PhD Student, Water Resources, Jimmy O’Keeffe: A Day in the GeoLife Series @Jimmy_Okeeffe

NAME:  Jimmy O’Keeffe

CURRENT TITLE:  PhD student at Imperial College London

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Water resources

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  Almost 5 years in consultancies in the UK and Ireland; mainly on a variety of water resource and land contamination projects. Two years into PhD programme at Imperial College London

EDUCATION:  BSc Environmental Sciences/Physical Geography, University College Cork; MSc Hydrogeology, Cardiff University


Jimmy O'Keeffe working in India

Jimmy O’Keeffe working in North India

What’s your job like?

My research looks at the impacts of irrigation on water resources in the Ganges Basin, mostly in the state of Uttar Pradesh in North India. Uttar Pradesh is home to about 200 million people, the majority of whom depend on agriculture for a living. Agriculture in turn depends on water, and somewhere in the region of 90% of all water used in the state is for irrigation. However, exactly how much water is used, where it’s used, and the different drivers behind water use in the region are not very well understood. Through fieldwork and modelling irrigation and water use requirements, I’m trying to build a story of how water is used in the region, and hopefully from that, find more suitable, sustainable and realistic ways of water use in the future. I’m fortunate to work in quite a large team with scientists from both the UK and India across a range of fields, including groundwater modelling, climatology and hydrology. I’ve also managed quite a bit of field work, including two months in the central region of Uttar Pradesh. This involved interviewing over 100 farmers on their water use practices, building a picture on the variation in irrigation practices across the region.

What’s a typical day like?

My day usually starts fairly early cycling through London traffic. I share an office with other PhD students and Post Docs in the Civil Engineering department of Imperial College’s South Kensington campus, in between the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and Hyde Park; we’re a bit spoilt location wise! It’s a busy place. There seems to be someone working no matter what time you arrive in. Over the last 12 months, I’ve been focusing on collecting and analysing field data, processing over 100 farmer interviews takes a surprising amount of time. I’ve also been developing a model to represent irrigation water volumes which is then calibrated and designed based on the insights gained in the field. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can. I’m also putting together another field programme which will take place in early 2015, in the middle of North India’s dry season and a perfect time to study how farmers use water in times of scarcity. My section, EWRE (Environmental and Water Resource Engineering) is made up of a nice mix of PhD students and Post Docs from a variety of backgrounds, so if you run into a problem, there are always plenty of people to ask for help and advice. We also have PhD Post Doc hydrology seminars, which usually take place every Wednesday. I’ve had the privilege of organising the meetings for this year, and it’s been a great platform for getting feedback on the work we are doing, problem solving, and hearing about research that is taking place outside the Department and University from invited external speakers. These involve a bit of extra work, but really add to the variety of a typical day in the office.

What’s fun?

Not knowing what’s coming next. One of the best bits about research, especially on a topic like mine with so many different facets is that it can lead you in unexpected directions. When trying to build an understanding of water use and water resources in India, you need to consider how climate, geology, land use, crop types and economics all interact. This provides for some very exciting research that’s constantly changing and leading to new questions. Also, the best way to understand something is to get as close to the action as possible, and nothing is more fun that carrying out field work. I’ve been able to design and organise my own field work which has included visiting villages and farms in some of the most rural parts of Uttar Pradesh. This provides insights that cannot be found in any literature and exciting challenges quite literally around every bend.

What’s challenging?

Again, not knowing what’s coming next! Having a topic where many complex processes are taking place can lead to exploring areas that are outside your main field, which in my case have included things like economics, farmer behavior and even politics. The challenge is to identify the areas that are of most importance, focus on those and use them to build a picture of what’s really happening.

What’s your advice to students?

Don’t be afraid to take a risk. It sounds like such a cliché but when you are applying for your next position, whether it’s in academia, research or consultancy, it’s perfectly normal to think there are other people who are better qualified or better suited to the job. But there is no such thing as the perfect candidate; your profile may be exactly what the interviewer is looking for, so don’t be afraid to chance your arm. The same applies in your day-to-day work. I think the best way to learn is to jump into the deep end, and grab any opportunity that comes your way with both hands. Sure, it’s not going to work out perfectly every time, but sometimes the best way to get on in life is to bite off a bit more than you can chew.

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