Not all chemists wear lab coats 

Jeffrey Tsang

When is a cruise hard work? When it involves dropping up to 2.5 kilometres to the bottom of the ocean, to test biological and geological samples from within a deep submergence vehicle.

Yet former Charles Darwin University science student, Jeffrey Tsang, loves every minute; he’s putting his learning into practice, in a lab 2.5 kilometres down.

Tsang now works in Marine Studies for the University of Delaware in the United States.

“I’ve followed a passion for science and marine life since grade seven, when my teacher asked the class to explain why beach pebbles were smooth.

“Though on the way I spent a lot of uni time as a ‘lab rat’ in a white coat, my life now is full of great experiences, including these spectacular cruises,” Tsang says.

Darwin born Tsang, now 29, did both his undergrad science degree and PhD in Environmental Chemistry at CDU, and says he owes a lot to his former supervisor, Associate Professor David Parry.

“He and Dr Munksgaard were great role models, particularly their work ethics.”

Tsang’s PhD research looked at the effects of environmental factors, such as light, pH, oxygen, temperature, on the release of toxic metals from sulfide minerals in aquatic environments. (Billions of dollars are spent each year in the US to either treat or manage this problem.)

Tsang’s overseas job came from a chance suggestion to offer a paper at a conference overseas.

“At the conference, I approached three US professors about working in their labs. Two came back with job offers and I took this one because it has field work that involves real time, on the spot chemical measurements,” Tsang says.

The research has taken him on cruises to Mexico, Costa Rica and Fiji, studying the effects of hydrothermal vents with the help of Remotely Operated Vehicle Jason II and Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin (also used to relocate the Titanic shipwreck).

“I’ve had three opportunities to go to the bottom of the Pacific. It takes 8 hours: 90 minutes down and up again, and 5 hours at the bottom doing research. You really don’t realise you’ve been down that long—so many things to see and do.

“It can be quite a tough slog. The days can be as long as 17 hours. On one hand, you don’t have to commute to work, no traffic jams. But because you sleep on board it feels like you’re at work 24/7, sometimes for three weeks straight,” he says.

“But the unexpected marine life that crosses your path and the awesome sunrises and sunsets make up for everything,” he says.

Tsang says he was very fortunate to study at CDU, where environmental science is one of the research strengths. The work relationship and friendship with Dr Parry strongly influenced him to do the postgraduate studies that got him into this exciting work, Tsang says.