The young man and the sea

Young and promising are words that are easily attached to Eirik Vinje Galaasen. Even before reaching the age of 30, he had achieved what many researchers dream about throughout a lifetime: He had an article published in the journal Science.

Portrait of Eirik Vinje Galassen
HAPPY ACCIDENT: "I had never planned on having an academic career, and at one stage I considered giving up earth science. But when I found such an interesting topic for my master's thesis, it proved very motivating. It eventually became my doctorate dissertation," says Eirik Vinje Galaasen.
Eivind Senneset

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While you were still in the final stages of your PhD thesis, your peer- reviewed article, ‘Rapid Reductions in North Atlantic Deep Water During the Peak of the Last Interglacial Period’ was published in Science. How did that make you feel?

“It was great. I had been working on the article ever since I took my master's degree at the Department of Earth Science at the University of Bergen (UiB). I spent about two years writing it. To begin with, I had a lot to learn about the process of writing as such. I have lost count of how many drafts I wrote. But I didn’t have much time to think over what the effect would be. I received the message about the publication whilst I was in the finishing stages of writing my thesis. But I must say that it was encouraging.”

Many researchers spend all their professional life trying to get an article published in a prestigious magazine such as Science. You managed that before you were 30. How did your colleagues react to this?

“I have only had positive feedback. Some have jokingly pointed out that I have peaked far too early. I personally don’t think that it is too early. Getting the article published also involved an element of luck, and I was lucky in that I was awarded the project. A  colleague and I were given a core sample from the sea bed. This formed the basis for our research. Without it, we would never have succeeded.”

The article in Science is also part of your PhD dissertation. Can you explain what this work is all about?

“I have worked on a reconstruction of climate variability. We can do this by to looking at sediment from the sea bed in the North Atlantic. The sediment tells us about temperatures, salinity and nutrient content, for example if there have been icebergs in the area. When one adds all the information we can find, we can learn a lot about how the climate was 125,000 years ago. The dissertation shows that the deep ocean circulation in the Atlantic went through major changes in the last interglacial period. At that time, the climate in the North Atlantic was much the same as we believe there will be this century.”

What does your research tell us about what to expect from the climate in the future?

“In one way, it shows that the North Atlantic can change and that these changes can occur fast. In the past, one has believed that this part of the ocean has been extremely stable, but our research shows that this is not necessarily the case.”

Why did you decide to study at UiB?

“I knew from an early age that I wanted to study at university level, and then earth science looked the most interesting. I have always enjoyed the natural sciences, and some friends and I decided to apply for the same subjects. One of them is a postdoctoral fellow, who has his office down the corridor from my office. I had never planned on having an academic career, and at one stage I considered giving up earth science. But when I found such an interesting topic for my master’s thesis, it proved very motivating and explains why my master’s degree gradually became my doctorate dissertation.”

And the transition from student to researcher. How was that?

“As far as I’m concerned it was fairly smooth. In the first year of my PhD studies I only took courses, and worked a bit in the laboratory. I noticed the biggest change when I started to write. Previously, I have never written so much in such a short time.”

You are now part of a large, international environment, with the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and UiB. What does that mean for your future research?

“I notice that people have different areas of expertise and different experiences. In my opinion, this benefits our research. There isn’t a great deal of competition between the researchers. Most of them are working on different topics, and at Bjerknes in particular, we are encouraged to cooperate across academic disciplines. It is vital to support each other’s research. That being said, a little competition amongst peers is healthy.”

What are you researching at the moment?

“I started a postdoctoral fellowship in the summer of 2015, as part of the same team where I took my doctoral degree. My work is a continuation of the discoveries that were published in Science. Now, we want to go back further in time, and be even more precise in dating earlier climatic changes. I want to discover new things and understand more of the world.”

Do you think your research is important?

“Both yes and no. I feel it is important to learn more about the climate and ocean circulation. At the moment, we are experiencing a period of change, and we need more knowledge. But when I sit and pick in my shells and sediment samples in the lab, it all feels a bit more mundane.”

What do you see yourself doing in ten years time? Do you hope to achieve another major breakthrough in your research on level with the Science publication?

“I hope I am still a researcher in ten years. As far as a breakthrough goes, research into the sea climate is a giant jigsaw puzzle. There are small and large pieces to fit in. It is difficult to talk about achieving a major breakthrough. But one thing is certain; I want to contribute to more knowledge about and a better understanding of how climate changes in the past have an impact on the future of our planet."

This article is also published in the UiB Magazine 2015/2016. You can download a PDF of the full magazine or browse the magazine online.