Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Researcher Profile - Chris Skinner

Ok, here at GEESology we have decided to tell you all a bit about ourselves and to do this in the form of a ‘Researcher Profile’. For some reason I have drawn the short straw, to put it cynically, and have to go first. The flip side of the coin is that in going first I can set the benchmark for everyone else and have a fairly free hand in doing so. I guess it is really a chance for us all to share a little bit about ourselves and what is behind our research, in particular what motivates us and why we do it. Each of us will provide one of these posts to you over the coming weeks and months, so without any further ado, here’s me –

Who am I

I am Chris Skinner, currently working as a Research Assistant as part of the Dynamic Humber project at the University of Hull. My role is develop the CAESAR-Lisflood model for operation on the Humber Estuary with the aim of providing forecasts of changes in the estuary for the coming century.

Me before my remote sensing days

What I do and Why do I do it

Last year I completed my PhD research that looked into the effects of uncertainty in satellite rainfall estimates on hydrological models. These estimates are vital in Africa, where there is a real lack of raingauges and radar that we use in the UK to predict rainfall, but as they cannot directly record rainfall they are often a little bit wrong. This in turn affects the models that are used to forecast droughts and floods. This chance of being wrong is termed by scientists as ‘uncertainty’ and this has a major impact on the people who have to make decisions.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.” 
Donald Rumsfeld perfectly, although unwittingly, describing the nature of uncertainty. 

Uncertainty leads to a lack of confidence and can mean that important decisions that influence millions of people can be delayed, sometimes at the cost of people’s lives. A recent example of this was the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, which was forecast several months before any aid began to be mobilised. My research interests are in looking at ways to either reduce the uncertainty, measure it better or just communicate better to people who have to make the difficult choices – I blogged about this on my (largely defunct) personal blog over two years ago in Why do we bother?

How do I do it

How I do this is by using a lot of statistics and numerical computer models that are far too complex (and not all that interesting enough) to be talked about in detail here, but the main method I use to show uncertainty is by using ensembles of forecasts – a set of possible futures, each equally likely yet different, within the bounds of what we don’t know. From this you can produce what is known as a probabilistic forecast. It’s the difference between Michael Fish telling you there is absolutely no chance of being hit by a hurricane, and him telling you there’s a 30% chance – subtle difference but results in different (and probably better) decisions.

How did I get here

Short answer, I walked. That’s very important, as my job before I started my PhD was as a Sustainable Transport Policy Assistant at a local authority in the Midlands, and a large part of my job was encouraging people to walk and cycle more. It was fun job on the frontline, getting to organise events such as bike rides, but I did not like the look of the career ladder ahead of me. I wanted to stretch my mind so in 2009 I decided to quit my job and focus on a career in Academia.

Sustainable Transport - It can be dangerous!

At this point I hadn’t chosen a discipline, I just wanted to do something that looked like it might help people and make a difference. In the end I got the perfect PhD back at Hull, which is where I got my undergraduate degree and close to where I grew up and my family live. I’m pleased to still be a part of such an excellent department but I know one day the Academic career will draw me away to pastures new.

Wow, 500 words isn’t a lot – I never got to tell you about the time I spent in the nappy factory, the garlic bread factory, painting student houses, data entering, on Job Seekers, as a Geotechnical Laboratory Technician or in the Planning Department...

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