The role of a data scientist in researching sea level rise in Ireland

Amin Shoari Nejad, from Maynooth University, is working on projects to predict the coastal transformation of Dublin Bay.

Amin Shoari Nejad is a PhD candidate in statistics and machine learning at the Hamilton Institute of Maynooth University, who seeks to bridge the gap between mathematics and its applications in ICT, biology and other fields.

He has experience working on data-driven solutions to real-world problems, and his research now focuses on coastal transformation in Ireland.

“It is essential that we understand the changes taking place in the coastal ecosystem”

Tell us about the research you are currently working on.

Currently I am involved in a research project called Predict. Its objective is to increase our ability to predict coastal transformation in Dublin Bay.

Predict is a collaborative project between various disciplines and institutions. He integrates a multitude of methods in his research, including mathematical modelling, remote sensing and in situ sensing, physical and chemical oceanography and seabed mapping.

My role in the project, as a data scientist, is to interpret the data collected by my colleagues. I compile the data and decipher how the different variables correlate with each other. I then produce statistical models built on the data to predict the transformation of the coastline.

Recently I published a paper examining sea level trends in Dublin Bay over eight decades, which confirmed the high rates of sea level rise in recent years. The trend shown in the data showed that recent rates of sea level rise are faster than expected, at about double the rate of global sea level rise.

In another project, I am working on modeling the turbidity of Dublin Bay, looking at water transparency, which is important for the ecosystem. I try to build statistical models to see how different factors, such as dumping operations or wind, affect turbidity in the bay.

Why do you think your research is important?

Coastal ecosystems include humans, and any change in this environment will have serious impacts on our lives. It is essential that we understand the changes that occur in the ecosystem, and the causes and processes by which they occur. The research in which I am involved is crucial to this understanding.

In terms of predictable impact, our research is useful for a variety of things. This can help inform decision makers and policy makers to prepare for different scenarios, such as flooding resulting from sea level rise. This can help our preparedness plans for extreme events, as well as improving the chances of resilience after such extreme events.

What prompted you to become a researcher?

As a teenager, I used to read about science and was so interested in science news and big discoveries. I remember having believed, at that time, that you had to be a genius like Einstein or Newton to become a scientific researcher.

Then, in college, I learned about research methods and data analysis, and how we can discover things from data to answer big questions. Learning that I was able to dig up things hidden in data inspired me to continue my research in data science and focus on those skills.

During my master’s studies, I learned more about environmental research. Being able to contribute to climate research, and hopefully being able to help the community best prepare for impacts, is also important to me.

What are the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the biggest challenges as a researcher is keeping track of all the new research undertaken and new information uncovered. As a researcher, you are obligated to stay informed, and it can be difficult to keep up.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Public engagement with science has increased dramatically in recent years. People are voicing their opinions on scientific issues much louder, and public debates on topics such as vaccines and other health science issues are commonplace in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also seems that more and more people are starting to realize how useful data science can be to the public. Generally, this discourse is considered useful to the scientific community as it can help inform research.

In terms of encouraging the sharing of my own research, online platforms are a big part of the engagement. Social media websites like Twitter or platforms like ResearchGate make it easy to share research with peers and the general public. More traditional media platforms have also helped increase engagement with my research.

The aforementioned research on sea level rise has recently been covered in the media, which has helped people reach my work. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, it is useful to attend conferences in person to stimulate engagement.

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Sean N. Ayres