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Sea of wealth

Oceanography is emerging as a mainstream science due to growing climate concerns and interest in undersea wealth, reports Rahat Bano.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:39 IST
Rahat Bano

Oceanography is for those intrigued by the sea and nature thereabouts (with the sun and sand thrown in), and for those fascinated by the multitude of life it supports and affects. It’s for those who can make sense of not just the goings-on in and outside the waters but also delve into sea-life for man’s benefit – ie those who can churn out knowledge profitable for the nation (monsoon-related), industry (ships and corrosion) and ordinary folks (treating industrial effluents with marine algae to produce drinking water).

Oceanography is emerging from the shadows for various reasons, including climate change. For you know, oceans have a big role in controlling the climate.
In thinking about oceanographers at work, don’t rustle up images of scuba diving in cobalt-blue water resplendent with nature’s marvellous creations, because all oceanographers do not dive, except some allied experts who plunge into shallow waters.

“This is what we tell people when they say, ‘So, you dive’,” clarifies Virupaxa K Banakar, scientist-G and head - HRD-SAC, National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), which is under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). “We have a marine archaeology division, from where people go for diving.

Moreover, you can dive only in shallow waters, up to a depth of 10-to-15 metres, to study corals, for example. We are concerned with five to seven kilometres of waters, beyond which you cannot go. At 5km depth of water, the pressure is 500 bars. So, for deep-water studies, we send down special equipment.”
Oceanographers use research vessels and other setups to carry out research.

India’s 500-odd oceanographers are involved in such and other assignments in government organisations, national laboratories, universities, and other organisations. They are in agencies like NIO, Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS, Thiruvanthapuram), Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL, near Kochi), National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai), Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Space Applications Centre (SAS, Ahmedabad), National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSA, Hyderabad) and Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (Hyderabad).

Indian oceanographers work as researchers overseas. “A number of our alumni now (hold) senior positions in R&D institutes of this country and abroad. Being a challenging and dedicated area of science, ocean scientists passing from this department are absorbed in institutions like NIO, CESS, NPOL, NIOT, IISc, IIT, SAC, NRSA etc within India and they also find research positions abroad, particularly in Germany and Japan,” adds R Sajeev, head, department of physical oceanography, School of Marine Sciences, Cochin University of Science & Technology.

Banakar says, “Almost all top universities and oceanographic institutions of the world have post-doctoral fellowship (PDF) opportunities for students with doctoral degrees.” In India, every scientific department of the central government such as CSIR, Department of Science and Technology, and Department of Biotechnology provide PDFs (research associateships) for up to three years on application/selection. CSIR also has a Project Assistant Scheme applicable to all its 36 national laboratories, where graduates, postgraduates and PhDs are recruited for up to five years as project assistants and project associates.

Those completing the MTech programme in ocean technology may work in areas of offshore structures and platform, submarine pipeline laying and maintenance, coastal and harbour engineering, ocean surveys, ocean material technology, fish farm engineering, acoustics and coastal area management with GIS, says Sajeev. These skilled candidates are “expected to serve in ONGC, port trusts, Geological Survey of India, central and state R&D institutes plus public/private oceanic and environmental consultancy firms.”

Banakar says, “In addition to the recruitment of junior-level scientists at various national laboratories/institutions such as ours, these days several private companies dealing with marine EIA (environmental impact assessment), offshore drilling etc recruit masters in oceanography.” Private-sector employers could include survey organisations, marine electronics and systems providers as also paint and anticorrosives manufacturers.

What's it about?
Oceanography, an offshoot of earth sciences, is the study of oceans. This multidisciplinary field has various branches — physical oceanography, chemical oceanography, geological and biological oceanography. India has about 500 oceanographers, excluding researchers in the industry. NIO has about 150 marine scientists working on various aspects of oceanography. Oceanographers don’t dive (though some may scuba dive in shallow waters, up to 10-15 metres of depth) because of extremely high pressure. Instead, they use special equipment for studies in the deep

Clock Work
In an average day on land, an oceanographer may do the following:
9am: Get to office. Discuss projects with PhD students. Monitor experiments
1.15pm: Lunch
2pm: Analyse samples. Write a research paper
5.30pm: Return to the lab for research work
On a ship, work goes on 24/7. Crew members have two shifts of four hours each in a day. For scientists the shift is adjusted according to experiments

The Payoff
An entry-level scientist (with a masters) earns a gross salary of around Rs30,000 a month. The pay can go up to Rs1.5 lakh a month at senior levels. In addition to the salary, almost all scientific institutions under the Government of India provide additional benefits such as free medical assistance (including the scientist’s file), leave encashment (limited) on retirement etc. In academic institutions, the entry-level salary will be at par with an assistant professor’s pay

Skills
. Seaworthy and adventurous
. Observation and analytical skills
. Knowledge of basic sciences
. Inquisitiveness about the functioning of oceans in particular and the earth system in general
. Programming/computing skills

How do i get there?
Study science (preferably with maths) in Class 11 and Class 12. The entry requirements for masters in oceanography vary. Universities ask for bachelors/masters in various disciplines, including geology, marine geology, marine geophysics, etc. or AMIE (Associate Membership of the Institution of Engineers) in specified branches. Candidates need to pass the UGC-CSIR National Eligibility Test (for basic sciences) or the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (for engineering) to enrol for a PhD programme at NIO, Goa

Institutes & urls
.
MSc in oceanography/ hydrochemistry, MTech in ocean technology, Cochin University of Science and Technology
cusat.ac.in
. Five-year integrated MSc in ocean science and technology, Annamalai University
annamalaiuniversity.ac.in
. Doctoral studies at National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, nio.org
. BTech/MTech dual degree in ocean engineering and naval architecture, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Madras,
iitm.ac.in, iitkgp.ac.in
. MSc (earth science & resource management, Mangalore University
mangaloreuniversity.ac.in
. MSc in oceanography/MTech in oceanic studies, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam
andhrauniversity.info

Pros & cons
.

It’s an emerging field


.

Learn about the sea and possibilities of using its resources


.

Be away from family and work in high seas for a long time at a stretch. Can cause sea-sickness

This is a multidisciplinary science

A senior scientist talks about oceanography’s importance

At what stage is this multidisciplinary field in India? What are the challenges before oceanographers in the country?
Yes, oceanography is a highly multidisciplinary science that forms a component of the earth system science. It deals with complex interactions between the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere, hence requires good knowledge of geology, physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. It is fast emerging as a mainstream science due to increasing awareness and concerns about the global climate and our immediate environment, and about living and non-living natural undersea wealth.

The main challenges before the community are:
. Developing a precise, predictive model for the Indian monsoon system. This involves atmospheric science, physics, maths etc in addition to oceanography,
because, monsoon rains are the product of coupled ocean-atmosphere-land dynamics, each operating on different time scales.
. Generating required scientific information, developing models and techniques for preserving India’s vast coastal environment and coast itself.
. Precise quantification of underwater living and non-living resources to assist our country’s planners so they can develop strategies for resource management for
the 21st century.
. Creating complete oceanographers, capable of tackling scientific issues related to changes in the functioning of the earth system as a whole, too, is a challenge.

That requires developing courses on tightly knit multidisciplinary oceanography or, say, earth system science and introducing it at the secondary school level. Most of the present oceanographers originally studied basic sciences.

Can you elaborate a bit on what’s the relevance of an oceanographer’s work to society?
The objectives of modern oceanographers are to explore that wealth and understand the processes responsible for creating it underwater. This in itself is a direct contribution to society.

Coming to NIO’s achievements, recall the UN’s Seabed Authority’s licence given to India in 1987 for developing a mine-site in international waters for polymetallic nodule deposits. In addition, several national and international patents registered by our researchers on drugs from sea, useful metabolites and enzymes from marine life etc are important. NIO’s research work on marine corrosion has resulted in generating valuable information that could help develop corrosion-resistant material for marine structures and ships. In addition, NIO has contributed significantly to understanding ocean circulation.

We also provide scientific services to several industries, which come in contact with oceans for their growth. Our EIA (environmental impact assessment) studies undertaken for industrial clients are admired. Thus, we, at NIO, contribute directly and indirectly to the growth of the nation.

What are the pros and cons of being an oceanographer?
I have enjoyed a lot working as an oceanographer for the past 25 years, even though I had to be away from my family for about a month during ship expeditions. The opportunity to experience crystal clear, blue water extending vertically 5 km below – sometimes like a still lake and sometimes, furious and roaring – and the challenge of inferring the what and why from the data collected at sea has always been fascinating.

Virupaxa K Banakar, scientist-G and head - HRD-SAC, National Institute of Oceanography, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research interviewed by Rahat Bano