Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Smart Skills
A sea of opportunities
Usha Albuquerque

If you have taken science in Class XII, and are not sure what to do after that, oceanography is an interesting and unusual career option.

India, with its 7,000 km-long coastline and 12 states having access to sea, has a huge marine potential not utilised to the fullest. For centuries the seas have provided us a means of travel, trade, exploration and defence as well as a source of nutrition and wealth. And as our knowledge of the oceans increase, it offers great scope, particularly for a developing country like ours.

With this increased interest in the oceans, a career in oceanography is not only challenging, but also provides enormous growth prospects. Oceanography is a multi-disciplinary science attempting to understand the many secrets of the ocean and to tap its vast and mighty power to meet the demands of modern development. The purpose, therefore, is to study the oceans and discover more about their marine resources.

What is oceanography?

Oceanography is a research-oriented profession suitable for those with an intrinsic curiosity about the world around them, with a sense of adventure and a desire to venture into the vast realm of the unknown which exits in oceans. The exact nature of the work varies with the different specialised branches, and largely involves laboratory and field work, often at sea, collecting samples, analysing data, conducting surveys and studies, sometimes using extremely sophisticated equipment, and devising solutions to problems encountered. The specialised branches in oceanography include:

Marine biology, which is the study of the life processes in the marine environment, from the seaweed to the giant whale. Marine biologists study each of these creatures and plants to discover how much food is produced in the sea, how it is produced, and what can be further generated and exploited.

Chemical oceanography aims to study the chemical composition of the sea, and develop technology to profitably recover valuable elements from the sea at a minimum cost. Chemical oceanography also attempts to handle suitable solutions for pollution problems, sewage wastes and industrial effluents in coastal waters.

Geological oceanography involves the study of the oceans’ mineral resources as well as the geological and geo-physical characteristics of the coastal margins with regard to their suitability for marine structures such as pipelines and oil rigs.

How do you get in?

Physical oceanography deals with the physical properties of oceans such as wind power, water temperatures and remote sensing for development purposes and for assisting fishermen and sailors at sea.

Due to the highly specialised nature of this work, professional training is available at the post-graduate level, for which a B.Sc in any science is necessary. There are a number of educational and research institutions providing training in oceanography. As is to be expected, for the required proximity to the sea, most of them are located in states bordering the coast. These include the Indian Institute of Technology, (IIT) Madras; the Mumbai Institute of Technology; Cochin University of Science and Technology: Annamalai University and Karnataka Engineering College.

Career prospects

For research in ocean sciences and technology, there is the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa and the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani, and Andhra, Cochin and Goa universities.

There are a variety of jobs available for oceanographers. In the private sector, companies with interests in marine products and research look for candidates with the right qualifications. Compared to most developing countries, India with its vast 250 nautical miles of exclusive economic zone around its coast provides untapped potential for companies dealing with marine products, whether for food, medicinal or industrial purposes. There are also government and public sector organisations such as Oil India Limited, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Geological Survey of India, Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation etc that recruit professionals with training in oceanography.

In addition, research organisations offer opportunities for those interested in scientific and academic work.

The Gujarat and Orissa coastline were recently been lashed by storms, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives. The predictability of such storms, how they can be anticipated and handled are some of the many studies handled by oceanographers. Moreover, India has for several decades been conducting expeditions to the Antarctic continent, and extensive research studies are carried out each year. A custom-built ship with a sophisticated research laboratory on- board handles the extensive research.

Marine activities all along the long coastline have increased and will continue to require the support of oceanographic work, including weather forecasting, charting of the seabed and coastal waters, geophysical investigations, and the need felt to maintain archives on marine data.

While the career of an oceanographer can mean long periods spent out at sea — in research vessels — with all its attendant challenges and hazards, it can also provide great stimulation and the exhilarating sense of achievement. If life at sea is lonely, it is compensated to some extent by the community feeling generated by fellow colleagues, and the material comforts provided on board. There are also exciting opportunities for adventure in visiting different places or conducting experiments in locations such as Antarctica, where most people never reach.

The oceans cover 70 per cent of our planet and have yet not revealed their many and varied secrets. There is still so much to learn from them, so if you have an interest in the sea, oceanography could be a good career to pursue.

The writer is a noted career expert