Cara James

Understanding deep-sea mining particulate clouds: predicting environmental impacts, informing regulation and monitoring pollutants
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

In 2020 I started my masters degree in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. The research topic of experimental fluid dynamics was outside what I had studied in my Bachelors, and I found it equal parts challenging and enthralling. This also introduced me to the topic of deep-sea mining, which I could see was going to become more important over the coming years, and lacked dedicated researchers. I hadn't planned on doing a PhD, but I was enjoying my masters research project so much that it soon became clear that I wanted to spend more time diving deeper into the topic, so I started applying for doctoral programmes.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I asked my masters supervisor for recommendations for PhD supervisors in Europe, and he replied with a list of 5 schools in the US and 2 in Canada. I had never considered moving to North America, but as soon as I started reading about Vancouver, UBC, and my supervisor (Prof. Mark Jellinek), I knew it would be an excellent fit for me.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences department at UBC is one of the largest in the world, with around 170 graduate students. I liked the idea of being part of such a large and prolific research community, with specialties ranging from biological oceanography all the way to weather modelling and mineral deposit research.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I really had little to no idea what Vancouver was like before I arrived. I had never set foot in Canada until the day my plane landed to start my PhD in January 2022. The biggest surprise for me was how hilly Vancouver/UBC is! Everywhere else I've visited that is near the coast is pretty flat, and even though I was familiar with the map of Vancouver before arriving, the topography surprised me (especially once I started cycling everywhere).

Modern and interdisciplinary courses offered at UBC really aim to train the next generation of leaders in the transition to a sustainable society, and give young researchers the opportunity to break out of their silos and collaborate with other disciplines.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

One of the dealbreaker criteria I had when applying for a PhD was to join a research group with a physical laboratory for doing analog fluid dynamics experiments. Our group has a large lab in the basement where I can design and test my own experiments and play around with mud, sand, water and all sorts of other materials. Being able to step away from the computer and get my hands dirty in the lab helps me link the 'physics' of my work to the real world problems I am trying to solve.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Deep-sea mining is an up-and-coming industry with a large amount of commercial interest. Pressure from contractors and mining companies means we risk allowing mining of the deep seabed before we fully know the risks we are taking and environmental impacts. As a scientist advocating for ocean health, my biggest challenge will be translating my raw scientific results to a format that can guide regulations.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

As part of my PhD, I have had the opportunity to take a specialized interdisciplinary course about the law and regulations surrounding mining. This course was shared by my department, the Faculty of Law, Department of Public Policy and Mining Engineering. Modern and interdisciplinary courses like this offered at UBC really aim to train the next generation of leaders in the transition to a sustainable society, and give young researchers the opportunity to break out of their silos and collaborate with other disciplines. I now have taken the first steps to understanding the complicated relationship between science, law and policy, which will be invaluable to me in my future career.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

Leadership roles in sporting and academic societies throughout my undergraduate degree have been invaluable in helping me navigate the academic relationships I have in my PhD. These opportunities taught me skills in communication, negotiation, and collaboration which I use daily when communicating with other academics and policymakers about my PhD research.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

British Columbia is an outdoor playground that I am taking full advantage of - in summer I go hiking or bikepacking, and in winter I have started ski touring. Closer to home I play squash pretty regularly, and I also knit and sew my own clothes and bags. Keeping a good work/life balance is really important to me and I try not to work past 6pm ever if I can help it.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Throw yourself into every social, academic, and professional opportunity that comes your way. Especially when you first arrive, as this is the best way to build a strong community around you. As a PhD student you will be at UBC for 3-5 years so it's worth spending your first term really focusing on your interpersonal connections and laying a good foundation for the rest of your time here. Don't worry if you don't feel incredibly productive in your first term, or even first year!


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