Handling a Flood of Data

Research doesn't have to be directed towards some distant goal and only likely to have an impact several years down the line. Sometimes it can have an immediate application, as Jutta Thielen, who works in natural hazards research at the EC's Joint Research Centre, found out last summer!

My professional background is in meteorology, which I studied in Germany. Right from the start, it was really the interdisciplinary aspects of atmospheric physics that interested me most, as well as the possibilities that a scientific career offers for working abroad. These two interests certainly come together in my current job.

After my studies, I did a 1-year project in the United States; however, I felt that I really wanted to return to Europe to do my PhD. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the European Commission to investigate the influence of hilly terrain on the development of rain storms. My PhD research, at Lancaster University, UK, dealt mostly with the atmospheric aspects of this problem, but the hydrological applications were also an important part of my research. After my PhD, I decided that I felt most comfortable working in an academic environment, so I developed my career in the field of hydrometeorology with short- to medium-term postdoctoral and part-time lecturer positions in France and in the UK.

Studying and working abroad certainly had a big influence on my personal development and my future career. When a call for a Scientific Officer in Environment and Climate was published by the European Commission during my first postdoctoral position, it seemed like the perfect job for me. Nowadays, applying for a research job at the EC involves undertaking a number of preselection tests, but back in 1995, candidates were invited directly for an interview on the basis of their CVs. My training and studies abroad put me in a good position from the start. The most obvious advantage perhaps: languages. Another important point: mobility. Indeed, one of the questions the jury asked me was whether I was prepared to work in another country and to learn new languages! I think the most important issues, however, were my work expertise and interdisciplinary approach to research. And the fact that my main interest was obviously in applied research was well in line with the policy of the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

However, success at interview does not lead directly to a job at the JRC! Then, as now, the EC's periodic calls for applicants seek to produce a pool of suitable candidates who can be appointed to vacancies as they arise. So, in the meantime, I continued working in contract positions in academia.

In fact, it wasn't until 3 years ago that two positions of interest to me finally became available in the Natural Hazards Project at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy. One position was to focus on forest fires, while the other was to carry out research on flooding. I was recruited as a hydrometeorologist to work in the floods activity unit, an area directly related to my previous work experience, and one where my background in the field of atmospheric processes helped to complete the range of expertise required within the project.

Most of my work involves modelling of the hydrological processes in transnational river basins, something that is traditionally difficult for national authorities to do, although many rivers really do not stop when they meet a national border. I am also involved in a feasibility study for the development of a European Flood Alert system. Obviously, since the devastating floods in Central Europe in August 2002, this subject is high on the policy agenda.

During the crisis, the floods group was asked to react in real time, and our group came back early from holidays to deliver the flood forecasts. It was very exciting to see that the procedures we developed could be applied in a real situation and could be useful during such an event. Seeing that the JRC, despite being a large organisation, could act quickly and play an active role during a crisis situation was a very positive experience for me, and this added an extra dimension to my work.

Now that the immediate crisis is over, we are working hard to develop proposals for strategies that could reduce flood risk in Europe in the future. Because of its neutral status and its large databases covering all of Europe, the JRC is in a good position to have a real impact in this area and to bridge the differences between the relevant authorities in different countries. Because all of the JRC's research activities are aimed at supporting EU policy-making, the results of our work could potentially be translated into policy change.

I enjoy very much working on the project, both from the professional and the social point of view. At present, our group is truly multicultural, with Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, and Germans working closely together. And our professional backgrounds are equally diverse, covering remote sensing, hydrology, meteorology, forestry, biology, and engineering. The different cultural and professional backgrounds tie in together very well and help to make the individual research projects progress steadily.

Being at the beginning of my career at the JRC, the main focus of my work is in research, but this does not mean that I am not involved in other tasks. Normally, our working days are filled with a variety of responsibilities that include research, administrative tasks, meetings, and frequent missions to present our work--not only on a scientific but also on a political level.

The biggest difference to working at other academic institutions such as universities is probably the absence of teaching. Although there are frequent seminars and also PhD students to supervise, there are no lectures and practicals to prepare, which I sometimes regret. We are, however, encouraged to give specialised lectures and seminars outside the JRC--for example, during special summer courses. And of course, after the short- to medium-term contracts I had at the different universities, I really enjoy the possibility I now have of developing my work and research line over a much longer time period! I have a 5-year contract at the moment, which can be renewed to become a permanent position.

Obviously, the multicultural environment does not stop at the JRC gates but also plays a major role in private life. My son is now 5 years old, already speaks three languages, and is growing up naturally as a true European. I personally find the experience of working in the Joint Research Centre very enriching and would recommend it for everybody who enjoys a truly European environment


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