Dr Sam Dupont is a Researcher and an Associate Professor in Marine Eco-Physiologist at the University of Gothenburg and an Honorary Assistant Professor at the School of Biological Sciences, Hong Kong University. His main research topic is on the effect of global changes on marine species and ecosystems.
He currently has about 150 publications in journals including Nature, PNAS and TREE. His work aims at revealing the mechanisms behind species and ecosystem responses to environmental changes and at developing the needed unifying theory for large scale projections.
“To study without passion was never an option for me and I early decided that all my decisions should always be based on passion, not on potential jobs, not on potential positions.”
– Dr. Sam Dupont, Associate Professor at University of Gothenburg
#PhDCareerStories #Tips-and-tricks #Career-planning
My name is Sam Dupont. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
Let’s start by saying that I have a great life. I live on a small island on the west coast of Sweden. I have two kids, 9 and 12 years old. The quality of life we have here is outstanding. We have a nice house close to nature and the sea. It’s not even unusual for us to see moose wandering in our garden. I go running every second day in the forest, enjoying a really nice Swedish sauna and a swim in the fiord afterwards. Life is not too bad.
I’m working at one of two marine stations of my university, a place called Kristineberg. It’s one of the best marine stations I have ever visited. A classic day for me would be to wake up, go to work, meet with the gang in the lab and do experiments together. Today, we are spawning mussels and sea stars for a big experiment on the impact of ocean acidification.
A few years ago I realized that my subject was really highly societally relevant and that I had to get out of the lab if I wanted to influence society. That made my job quite diverse. Sure I’m doing experiments but I’m also teaching and communicating my work. To do that I have to travel a lot. These days, I probably spend around 40% of my time outside of Sweden. For example, in the last four months I gave talks in conferences in Belgium and China. I’ve been teaching in Senegal and Kuwait. Last week, I was at the IEA (International Energy Agency) in Vienna to develop a large-scale capacity building program with representatives from 29 different countries. So, I spend my time in research, teaching, but also policy, education and communication. All this is quite challenging but also highly rewarding and fun.
How did I end up here? To be honest, it wasn’t an easy path. It was actually no path at all. I had no plan. The route I follow today is just a succession of wandering and luck.
I was the first one in my family to go to the university. I was raised in Belgium in a small university town called Louvain-la-Neuve. I grew up surrounded by students and because of that, going to university was inevitable for me. It wasn’t so much for the knowledge side of it, but more for the crazy folklore and fun they seemed to have. When I had to choose a subject I didn’t really know what to do. In high school I liked biology, but decided to study civil engineering instead with the naive idea that it would ensure me a job and good life afterwards. I quickly realized that studying without passion wasn’t an option for me. After failing miserably in my second year, I decided to change.
At the time I was working in a restaurant to pay for my studies. I considered the idea to make it my life, but after a discussion with my parents, I decided to give biology a chance. And I loved it! I also decided that from now, all my decisions would be based on passion, not potential jobs, not potential future. I realized that it was probably a poor strategic decision, but as you will see, I’m quite a lucky guy.
I studied ecology and did my bachelor thesis on the physiology of flowering in tomatoes. For my master, I wanted to some marine biology. When I started biology, I wanted to study social insects but got a real passion for the ocean during a field course in France. I did my master’s and then my PhD in the same lab doing marine biology in my university. I spent four years studying an obscure little marine invertebrate. It was a fascinating species of brittle star called amphipholis squamata. It’s the only echinoderm with a truly cosmopolitan distribution. Basically, you can find it anywhere. My question was, “What makes this species so successful?” To study that I used a wide range of approaches, including genetics, physiology and behavior. At the time, I was really sure that I was very smart but realized that I had no idea what I was doing. But I survived my PhD.
I owe my success to an amazing person, a guy called Philippe Baret. He was a really busy professor in my university and had nothing to with me, my research or even my PhD but for some reason, we had a connection. Despite his crazy schedule, he always took the time for me. We had breakfast regularly, talking about science but also life, universe and everything. He always gave me great advice, channeling my energy, helping me to take the right decisions or giving me a cool book to read. Scientifically, I have to say that I’m not that proud of what I achieved during my PhD but I learned a few things and got the virus for traveling.
It was also during my PhD that I met another guy who changed my life forever. You have to remember that in life, it’s all luck, but also that you have to keep your eyes open when it shows up. My chance showed up during the second year of my PhD. I was at a conference in New Zealand. I went to the local pub with a few colleagues to watch rugby. I was at the bar enjoying a pint and I talked with a famous researcher there called Mike Thorndyke. We had a lot of fun that night and kept in touch afterwards. Several years later, I was looking for a postdoc. He offered me a 16-month position in his lab.
I will always remember my first day. I was nervous and really eager to prove myself when I arrived in Sweden. When I asked about the plan for my postdoc, Mike basically told me to do whatever I wanted and not to worry too much about money. It was quite overwhelming at first, but then I had the best postdoc ever. I took my chances and worked very hard. Under his wise supervision, I learned how to be a researcher. After several years, I developed my own lab and here I am today.
Mike and I are close friends. I asked him once why he hired me back in the day. After all, I had a really poor CV with only a few obscure publications that nobody was reading. He told me that he saw something in me. I’m not really sure what it was, but he gave me my chance. I often imagine how my life would have been today if I had stayed in my room during the conference to work on my talk instead of going out and meet with him.
I think that today, thanks to him, I’m doing quite a great job. I finished my PhD 15 years ago exactly. Today I work on something I consider important, the impact of global changes on marine ecosystems, and use science to influence citizens and policy. I have published 150 papers and I’m lucky enough to have a great network of colleagues.
But I feel more successful as a human being. I have two amazing kids. I’m gifted with great friends all around the world. I wake up most days with the feeling that I do something useful. I know very well that I won’t leave any trace in history, but it doesn’t matter. I’m using what I have to try and make a difference. That’s good enough for me.
Sure, life’s a bitch. Researchers and PhD students, including myself, can have a tough time. I’m sure that when you talk about this with other people, you will keep hearing that it won’t get any better. I’m afraid this is true. The more you advance in your scientific career and the older you get, the more you have to deal with annoying things like grants, administration, committees, and so on. If you’re like me and can’t resist a fun challenge, you’ll quickly be overcommitted. The good news is that you also learn that you don’t have to worry about everything. You don’t have to stress about everything. Not everything is equally important.
To survive this, my trick - and I’m paraphrasing the comedian Tim Minchin - is to be micro-ambitious. Everyday, I set some short-term goals for myself and I do the best I can every day to achieve them. I also set up my priorities. There’s one that’s by far on the top of my list - family. Every day, I dedicate some time to my kids. I never work between 4 and 9pm. Working more would not make me more efficient anyway.
You have to be generous with your time. You have to be generous with your ideas. If you’re limited by ideas, it’s maybe better to change jobs anyway. But remember that it’s a job, an awesome job, a fun job, a demanding job, an important job, but it’s just a job. The world will continue to spin if you miss a deadline. Do your best, but remember that life is family and friends.
If you have to take one piece of advice from this podcast, it’s to go out and drink beer, wine or whatever your poison is. If you’re at a conference, if you meet with colleagues, don’t stay in your room polishing your talk. Party, socialize, have fun, drink, dance, talk, goof around, be yourself. You never know when you’ll meet the key person of your life. Of course I can’t promise you that it’ll work. But I can promise you that you will enjoy trying.
Thanks for listening.
So now that you have heard how Sam shaped his career and how he sets priorities in Life, would you like to participate yourself or nominate someone we should contact to share their story? Did anything Sam talked about sound familiar?