Reaching, engaging and supporting ECRs in the atmospheric chemistry community

ECR Spotlight: Dr Gemma Purser

Dr Gemma Purser is currently a post-doc at The University of Arizona. Originally from England, Gemma earned her PhD at The University of Edinburgh. She is currently the chair of the iLEAPS ECSN plus the Early career representative on the scientific steering committee for iLEAPS.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on understanding the interactions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and their interaction with the soil microbiome. Understanding how VOCs may be transported in the subsurface, the fate of VOCs once in soils and how these interactions from atmosphere or plant VOCs can influence the microbial communities in soils and vice versa.

What is the greatest challenge you face in working life?

I think it’s widely known that the biggest challenge in working in academia is knowing when and feeling able to take a break. When you love the work you do it is so easy to get sucked into the mindset of feeling you have to do it all the time. Unfortunately and maybe sadly, I often think that this type of career choice is not simply a job but at times can feel like a lifestyle choice. The uncertainty too we all know is a real thing, with the temporary contracts, the demand exceeding supply of permanent positions etc. What I’m saying here is nothing new and in the many podcast interviews I have done for iLEAPS it’s a theme I hear repeated time and time again, regardless of the country of origin of the interviewee. It’s a global problem of the system.

[check out the iLEAPS podcast here]

What do you love most about the field?

I like how the field of Biosphere-Atmosphere interactions is so broad, you can learn so many different things and take the science in so many different directions. In terms of science on VOCs specifically, there is still much we don’t know even though we have been studying these compounds for decades! Still so much to discover about the processes that are occurring in plants, soils and the atmosphere and especially what happens at all these interfaces between, from the microscale through to the global scale. 

What have been the high points of your career?

So far I would say being part of the B2WALD campaign back in 2019, in which the team (led by Dr. Christiane Werner, Dr. Laura Meredith and Dr. Nemiah Ladd) tracked carbon and my main interest, VOCs, during an induced drought in a simulated rainforest biome at Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Historically, it’s a pretty cool place, having been the site of the two year experiment to discover if humans could truly live and survive in a self-sufficient way if we had to move to another planet or in outer space! In addition, it has been the largest field campaign I have worked on, it brought together a team of international scientists and it was a huge endeavor to monitor every part of an ecosystem through labeling the atmosphere, soils and plants using isotopes to be able to track the carbon allocations and processes in the ecosystem. It was a lot of hard work, but very rewarding to be part of and I learnt many things from my three months in Arizona at Biosphere 2, so much so it inspired me to go back!

What have been the low points of your career?

Again, in a one word summary probably, uncertainty. The uncertainty of thinking if you will find employment on short term contracts, uncertainty with your thoughts when it comes to being the right person for a task or role, or making the right decisions related to research, an experiment or presentation (aka imposter syndrome), uncertainty if you will win the funding to answer the scientific questions and ideas that you are so keen to discover and understand. I think the low points come from the days where the voices of the uncertainties and unstable nature of academia shout louder than the passion that I have for the science. This is the greatest challenge for me.  

What are your career aspirations?

I hope, and aim to be able to carry on doing scientific research, working on understanding more about volatile organic compounds, being part of the great community we have as part of iLEAPS and the wider Future Earth global research projects, of which IGAC is also part of! It would be great to gain a fellowship one day so I could undertake a big project of my own, but collaborate with all of  my global colleagues, together on one project, that would be a dream come true! 

What area of your field do you feel needs more funding and research?

Globally, our science on the emission, uptake and processes that occur in nature from a VOC perspective is not equal. There are so many ecosystems across the world that have yet to be studied as extensively as those that have been studied in the global north. I feel that it is important that we direct the funding towards the regions where we need to learn more. To utilize our networks such as iLEAPS and IGAC to build a collaborative environment to enable scientists working in these regions to access as many resources as possible to undertake the necessary research. If we can fill in this knowledge gap then we can get a better overall, hopefully unbiased, global picture of how important VOC processes may be in our built, managed, and natural environments.   

How do you create a good work life balance?

I think I’m still figuring this one out! let’s say work in progress!

What have been your proudest achievements during your time on the iLEAPS ECR committee? 

I think I have been grateful for the way that scientists in our community have given their time freely and worked together to get behind all of the events and initiatives that we have set up through iLEAPS. For example, our past events such as the early career twitter poster conference that ran for 3 years or our podcast where we interviewed early career scientists working in the field of biosphere-atmosphere about their research and perspective on life in academia.  It’s pretty cool to see the community get behind such resources. Overall, I hope I have been able to forge a path for other early career scientists so that they can be inspired to build their own events for the wider biosphere-atmosphere research community. I have tried over my time in iLEAPS to build platforms that enable other early career scientists a voice and the confidence to show their work or tell their story, to develop ideas for the community and to make things happen and I feel being part of the iLEAPS team, doing that, is what I’m most proud of, in terms of achievements.

What advice would you give to those joining international committees? 

I would say being part of an international committee is an exciting challenge but it does come with a lot of extra demands on your time and responsibilities which you have to balance with your current position. With anything, if you would like the benefits of being part of a committee then you have to also put in the work as part of the team to help build things for others. It’s not just about building your own career or having that line on your CV, this point is, for me, fundamental. Sadly it’s not always a shared perspective, and committees can suffer from this sort of problem. To be honest the mindset you should have is that it’s actually not about you, it’s about doing the best you can on behalf of the wider community, to bring people together or to create the opportunities for others at the expense of your own time and energy. So it’s a position you shouldn’t take on lightly but on the plus side it is the best feeling to be part of this type of international team. To have new friends and colleagues all over the world that can bring inspiring perspectives of science and its application to our global problems, teaching you more through their personal experiences and of the world seen through their eyes. Working together in this way is something special, it’s beyond reading papers, attending conferences for networking or doing the science on projects. I would say if you want to be part of a committee now you’ve read this then look for opportunities that open up as other committee members rotate off once their term of service has finished. The great thing about committees is that they are always evolving, so there will be future opportunities. Online is a great place to start looking or through word of mouth through your own scientific network and that kind of leads onto the next question…

What advice would you give to other ECRs?

Networks! We know that papers are our currency in science, maybe even the name of the universities on our CVs might be important for some. For me though it’s the people you work with that is the most important. The biosphere-atmosphere research and environmental challenges that we work on are often interdisciplinary. For us to do the best science, to be able to answer the biggest questions we have to work together. You will never be an expert in all things, and you don’t need to be, you just need to find others you can work with that  inspire you and vice versa. My advice would be to start to build your network early, try to talk to as many people as you can both within and outside your field about their science. 

Contact Gemma on social media:



, , ,