The role of a data scientist in researching Ireland’s rising sea levels

25 Oct 2022

Image: Amin Shoari Nejad

Maynooth University’s Amin Shoari Nejad is working on projects to predict coastal transformation in Dublin Bay.

Amin Shoari Nejad is a PhD candidate in statistics and machine learning at Maynooth University’s Hamilton Institute – which is looking to build a bridge between mathematics and its applications in ICT, biology and other areas.

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

‘It is vital that we understand the changes that are occurring in the coastal ecosystem’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

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

Predict is a collaborative project across various disciplines and institutions. It integrates a host of methods in its research, including mathematical modelling, remote 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 coastal transformation.

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

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

In your opinion, why is your research important?

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

In terms of foreseeable impact, our research is useful for a variety of things. It can help to inform decision and policymakers to prepare for different scenarios, such as floods as a result of rising sea levels. It can aid our preparation plans in the case of extreme events, as well as improve the chances of resiliency after such extreme events.

What inspired 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 believing, at that time, that you had to be a genius like Einstein or Newton to become a scientific researcher.

Then, during college, I learned about research methods and data analysis, and how we can discover things from data to answer some big questions. Learning that I was able to unearth things hidden in data inspired me to pursue further research in data science and focus on these skills.

While studying for my master’s degree, I learned more about environmental research. Being able to contribute to climate research, and hopefully being able to help the community to prepare for the impacts as best we can, is also important to me.

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

One of the biggest challenges as a researcher is to keep up with all of the new research being undertaken and the new information unearthed. As a researcher, you are obliged to stay informed, and it can be challenging to keep up with the pace.

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

Public engagement with science has dramatically increased in recent years. People are much louder in expressing their opinions about scientific matters and public debates around topics like vaccines and other health science issues are commonplace as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also seems that more people are starting to realise how useful data science can be to the public. Typically, this discourse is seen as useful for the scientific community as it can help inform research.

In terms of encouraging sharing of my own research, online platforms account for a great deal of 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 participated in increasing engagement with my research.

Aforementioned research on rising sea levels was recently covered in the media, which helped people reach my work. With pandemic restrictions easing, in-person conferences are useful to attend to boost engagement.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.