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Surf's Up: A Career in Ocean Science

Francis Smith

All careers have their ebbs and flows, but coastal oceanographer Francis Smith experienced a massive storm surge during graduate school. "The best and worst times for me have been with my adviser Barney Nietschmann," says Smith, who did his graduate work at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. "We went on many life-changing adventures together for 7 years." "Then he died suddenly of cancer while I was in the middle of my graduate studies."

When Nietschmann died, Smith, who at the time was in his last stages of a master's degree in physical geography, lost a good friend and a mentor. They had traveled to exotic beaches around the world together, studying rip currents and teaching lifeguards about the dangers these currents pose to bathers. The unexpected death of his adviser meant that that Smith had to pick up the pieces and move on, without the help he had grown used to. It wasn't easy. "The loss of an adviser can end hopes of a Ph.D.," he adds. "Academic life was hard after Barney died." But Smith, who in his spare time is a surfer, a national kayaking champion, and lifeguard who has rescued people from powerful rip currents in the San Francisco Bay area, made it through.

Riding the Wave

Smith has always sought out water at every opportunity: surfing, sailing, scuba diving, and kayaking. "I always felt that I have a deep personal connection to the ocean environment," he says. When he was a physical geography undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he worked as a surf-rescue lifeguard. He took notice of the drowning occurring along the central California coastline due to rip currents and wondered whether he might be able to do something about it.

Rip currents occur when wind-driven waves get washed onto the beach and the water flows quickly back out to sea in a fast-moving underwater stream. According to Smith, the hidden outward flow dampens wave action and the apparent calm lures people to these areas for swimming. "Unfortunately, people regularly get attracted to these spots as great places to swim or surf," he says, "It looks like a safe area, but in reality there is a strong rip current lurking just underneath the water surface." Swimmers are dragged out to sea and become exhausted. Sometimes they drown.

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, about 48,000 people are rescued by lifeguards every year in California, and 80% of these rescues involve people caught in rip currents. Nationally, only about 100 people drown each year in rip currents, but the beach Smith looked at was exceptional. "At the particular beach that I studied, six people had drowned one year because of the strong rip currents there," he says.

According to Smith, scientists are only now beginning to discern the mechanisms underlying the formation of rip currents. "Rip currents are as elusive as earthquakes; you can't predict when and where they are going to happen," he says. "One day a beach can experience strong currents, and the next day they are not there at all."


With funding from the National Geographic Society, Neitschmann took Smith under his wing while he was still an undergraduate looking at beach hazards such as pollution, geological formations, waves, and currents. "After this study, I realized that rip currents were the most dangerous element at the beaches," Smith says.

Smith (left), Costa Rican lifeguard, and Professor Nietschmann

The two continued to work as Smith pursued his master's degree, studying coastal oceanography and geomorphology and analyzing the particular hazards rip currents posed along California's beaches. They developed and taught programs for lifeguards on how to recognize and deal with rip currents and other hazards.


"I felt I was just left hanging. After he died, it was a bit of a battle with the department for me to continue working," Smith says. He found his adviser's office closed up and his funds frozen. "I had to rethink what and how I was going to do and try somehow to get back on track with my research."

Recovering a GPS buoy used to measure and track rip currents.

Eventually, he managed to persuade two professors to jointly supervise his Ph.D. "I owe a great deal to Professor Stoddart and Professor Wiegel for keeping me on track for my Ph.D. They basically kept me focused and out of the petty politics of the Geography Department," Smith says. During his studies, using video and a system of Global Positioning System buoys, Smith was able to analyze rip currents in space and over time. His research showed that currents pulse in intensity rather than flowing continuously, as people had previously assumed. "The most important part of my research is how to use this information to benefit and promote beach safety," Smith says.

Nietschmann's expertise and reputation allowed him to tap directly into major funding sources, but Smith's new advisers--both emeritus professors--lacked these connections. He had to learn quickly to become more self-reliant and make big sacrifices, much of which would seriously test his commitment to pursue his research. He found a little funding in two departmental block grants, but these paid for only a couple of semesters. The balance of his funding came from working as a graduate instructor for a dozen different courses, most outside of his Geography Department.

"In the end, I worked as a graduate instructor and basically lived out of my Volvo 240 sedan," says Smith. "Hard to believe, but with the teaching (and not having to pay rent in Berkeley), I actually saved money." He finished his degree 4 years later, in 2004, on coastal geography of rip currents.

And Flow Again

Today, Smith is still at UC Berkeley, unofficially, helping to manage a campus lab and continuing his research, thanks to the generosity of members of the UC Berkeley faculty. He now has a place to live that doesn't have wheels, but he holds tight to his passion for the ocean and his work.

Smith training lifeguards at Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

His latest projects have him looking at satellite imagery of monster-sized rip currents produced by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. He still gets to go to the beach, conduct public safety awareness of the dangers of rip currents, and train lifeguards along the California coastline, Mexico, and Costa Rica. He is also excited about being a host (and researcher) for an upcoming National Geographic TV special about coastal hazards.

"Having my friend and mentor taken away from me, I believe that I have learned a lot about life and pursuing a career," Smith says. The years spent with his late adviser learning about being an academic and successful researcher have paid off, he thinks. He expects his new way of working--much more independent than before--to be a great advantage as he continues to search for the next big wave to ride.

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Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

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