Denise Hills

Sector: Government

Field: Science

Occupation: Geoscientist

What is your earliest memory of being interested in science?

Honestly, I can’t ever remember NOT being interested in science. I’ve always loved science and math and nature. My parents and teachers always encouraged my curiosity about the world around me, and helped me learn how to discover the answers to my questions.

What is your current position and what was your career trajectory that got you to this position? Please include your education. 

My career trajectory is not a simple line, definitely!

I started college knowing that I was going to be a geology major, and that I was going to be a university professor. I graduated from William and Mary (BS, Geology, 1995) with a broad geoscience education, and went to the University of Delaware (MS, Geology and Geophysics, 1998) where I focused on near surface environmental geophysics. I loved geophysics, but wasn’t as excited about the environmental applications as I thought, so I decided to focus on a different topic for my PhD. I went off to the University of Hawai’i Manoa, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) to pursue a PhD in marine geophysics.

I spent five years in the program at SOEST, and I learned a lot during my time there. However, I am “ABD” (all but dissertation). I liked the research, and I especially liked the data processing, but I discovered that what I really wanted to do was get other people excited about science and why it was important. With the support of my family and my advisor, I decided to leave the program, and began my journey into informal science education.

I worked for several years as a museum science educator, first in Hawai’i, then in Alabama. This was a great time for me, as I got to interact with researchers and “translate” what they did so that school children and the general public would understand and appreciate its importance.

The biggest downside of the job was that I had a long commute, and I began to miss focusing on geoscience. Luckily, the Geological Survey of Alabama had an opening for a geoscientist with experience in geophysics. I was hired on and have been there ever since.

I am now Director of our Energy Investigations program, where we conduct research on geoscience energy. This includes oil and gas, coal, geologic carbon sequestration, and geothermal, to name a few. I also do a lot of work with data management and rescue, particularly with our geologic core collection.

And my path isn’t done yet – this January, I became a student again. I began work on an interdisciplinary PhD in Geoscience Policy, focusing on energy policy and data policy, at the University of Alabama. I’m not sure how long this will take, as I remain working full time at the Geological Survey of Alabama, but I’m very excited about this next step on my journey.

Can you give a brief overview of your job responsibilities and what your role entails on a day to day basis?

Our role at the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA) is to provide the information about the natural resources of the state that is necessary for all stakeholders to make appropriate decisions in support of economic development, conservation, management, and public policy for the betterment of Alabama’s citizens, communities, and businesses. Briefly, we provide the scientific information necessary for others to make decisions that work best for them.

My job as Director of the Energy Investigations Program means that I am in charge of the geologic energy research conducted here at the GSA. This includes hydrocarbon resource assessment (for example, looking at how much oil or gas might still be in a reservoir), research on geothermal potential within the state, and research on geologic carbon utilization and storage (for example, geologic carbon sequestration). I’m responsible for managing multiple research projects, including management of the budgets, reports, and people associated with those projects. No one ever told me that I would have to be able to plan a multi-year budget, conduct performance appraisals, and navigate the government bid system when I said I wanted to be a research scientist!

I spend a lot of my time conducting data analysis, writing reports, and making presentations. One of my primary responsibilities is to be a resource for our state geologist, providing him with information he may need to talk with various stakeholders. I also get to directly interact with various stakeholders, by giving presentations at rotary clubs or professional meetings or in classrooms, or speaking with industry leaders about ongoing research, or working with policy makers to ensure that they have the necessary scientific information to make decisions.

What’s the most exciting part of your work?

I love what I do, because not only do I get to conduct research, I get to share with a variety of people about why geoscience research is important! For me, this is the best balance of being a scientist and being a communicator.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

Being able to communicate clearly and succinctly is vital. If someone cannot understand my message, then I’m just wasting both of our time.

Data management skills are becoming more and more important. Much of the work we do is enabled by legacy data (data that were collected a long time ago or for a different reason), and if we don’t have the proper documentation on those data it becomes a much bigger challenge.

Computer skills are a must. This is not only general word processing, spreadsheets, and similar skills, but includes the ability to be able to teach yourself how to use a new program for data analysis or interpretation. I wish I had more coding experience (or time to learn) because that would make a lot of my research more streamlined.

One of the skills that has been most useful to me has been adaptability. We don’t always know what skills we’ll need on a project so being adaptable has been important to completely projects. As projects change, your place within the project may change so you may need to learn new skills along the way.

What is the most difficult aspect in your current position, and how do you handle those situations when they arise?

It can be frustrating to have to spend time on “management” tasks (budgets, performance reviews, and similar) when what I really want to do is the science or the communicating of science! When I get frustrated by that, I try to take a step back and remind myself that these seemingly bureaucratic tasks are necessary so that people get paid and supported to continue to do their research. If I can keep that in mind, my frustration usually diminishes enough that I can get through it.

What do you think is the most important factor in effectively communicating science findings to policy makers and the public?

Start by finding your common ground. When you start from where you’re alike, it’s easier to deal with where you’re different.

Be concise, and put your most important message first. Most people want to know why they should care first, and then they’ll look for the supporting information. If you present that foundation first, people tend to wonder where you’re going with it and miss what’s important.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

I wish I had known earlier that there is far more to being a research scientist than being in academia. There is not one winning career path, and that path also does not need to be straight. If you decide that one path is not right for you, that does not make you a failure. In fact, realization that a path isn’t right for you is a huge success!

My advice to those considering a career in Earth and space sciences is to be flexible, be curious, and be confident. Know your limitations, because you cannot be an expert at everything. Know when to try to puzzle something out, and when to ask others for help. Be self-directed, but able to work as part of a larger team. Take a scientific writing class, a creative writing class, and a journalism class, because knowing your audience is important if you want to effectively convey your message.