Interview with Sebastian Sonntag, December 2011

Sebastian Sonntag has been a PhD student at the School of Integrated Climate System Sciences (SICSS) since July 2009. In his research he focuses on biological-physical feedbacks in marine systems using models of different complexity.

What have been the main steps in your professional life so far?
I studied physics at the University of Freiburg and at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain. In my diploma thesis in theoretical physics I worked on mathematical modelling of dynamic intracellular biological processes. Two years ago I moved to Hamburg and started my PhD in the CliSAP research group “Advancement of Coupled Climate Ocean Ecosystem Models” at the Institute for Hydrobiology and Fisheries Science, University of Hamburg.

What is your contribution to CliSAP?
In my PhD project I study the direct biological-physical feedbacks in marine systems using models of different complexity in order to estimate the magnitude of potential impacts on upper ocean dynamics. Thereby we can assess which feedback processes need to be taken into account in ocean models used for climate scenarios to capture future changes appropriately. In a more general sense, being a physicist by training without previous expertise in oceanography and having some experience in the mathematical description of biological processes without a background in ecosystem modelling, I think I can contribute a lot to our group and CliSAP. I look at things from a different angle and bring in potentially helpful additional methodologies.

Reversely, how did CliSAP help you most?
I appreciate the goal of CliSAP to bring together the many different disciplines that are needed to understand the earth system as a whole. To learn from and interact with experts from the various research areas within CliSAP is a great opportunity. Yet, I have to say that a fair amount of one's own initiative is needed to get appropriate help. Personally, I benefit a lot from contacts to other institutes within CliSAP with expertise in ocean and climate modelling. In addition, also the IT and computing facilities provided by the Central IT Service and the German Climate Computing Center are very valuable for my research.
 
What is the current situation of PhD students in CliSAP?
As a former PhD representative of the School of Integrated Climate System Sciences I learned that many PhD students in CliSAP primarily appreciate the possibility to get into contact to other PhD students. Furthermore, also the offered financial support and supporting structures like the Advisory Panel System seem satisfactory. For the latter - and also for other support structures, however, the graduate school should clearly communicate guidelines and assure that students as well as advisors follow these guidelines. One thing that has been largely lacking is a general orientation for the PhD students within the very diverse research fields covered by CliSAP. Yet, one has to keep in mind that this lack of orientation is an inherent property and difficulty of an interdisciplinary effort. The goal of bringing together the huge diversity of research topics is very demanding and ambitious and the first steps have certainly been accomplished.

Why did you choose a scientific career, and why in your specific working field? 
Before I came to Hamburg I already experienced how it is to work in science while being part of a very dynamic and interdisciplinary research group for two years. I really enjoyed working scientifically and was fascinated by the success of mathematics in helping understand natural phenomena. While I was looking for a field of research where I could combine mathematical modelling, biology and physics, I also became interested in climate science and the issues arising when trying to model the earth's climate. So I was quite happy to see that announcement for the PhD position that perfectly combined my interests.

What would you do with a million Euros for your research? 
Although it's hard for me to assess how much or how little one could really do with one million, I probably would spend a good part on the development and application of theoretical concepts in earth system science. Topics I would be interested in include predictability and multistability in models of different complexity or the quantification of model uncertainty. I would also spend some money on research about how to communicate uncertainty about scientific results to the public. Another area I would invest in is earth system model development and computing time for long-term climate simulations. And of course it would be nice to have more quality controlled highly resolved observations of marine biogeochemical and physical variables. But I guess at this point I have already run out of money.

What do you think is the role of science within society?
In short, I think science should help society to gain knowledge and understanding of the world. In addition, science should also serve society in terms of well-being. However, there should always be a part in science that is not driven by applicability or utility but only by curiosity.

Is there a politicization of climate science?
Yes, although I am not sure whether this is still increasing. I think climate scientists should communicate their results properly and explain what the questions are that science is actually able to answer. Since proper communication to the public and policy makers is sometimes not that easy, I think there should be an open debate - and also research - about how to do this properly. Finally, and most importantly, climate scientists should be trained in communicating their science to the non-scientific world already at an early stage of their career.

What constitutes “good” science?
"Good" in an ethical sense is science without scientific misconduct. In the meaning of "excellent" I think good science is primarily innovative, critical, relevant and well communicated. In addition, I think that you don't have to be a genius to do good science, but rather a large portion of enthusiasm, fun, curiosity, a bit of calmness and structured logical thinking is needed.

Professionally, where would you like to be in 10 years? 
I would like to do a job I like...
 
The interview was carried out by Prof. Dr. Mike S. Schaefer, head of the working group “Media Constructions” at the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP, and Prof. Dr. Hans von Storch, head of the Institute of Coastal Research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.