The Coast Whisperer: Corinna Schrum
What drives oceanographer Prof Corinna Schrum?
Prof Corinna Schrum heads the department for Systems Analysis and Modelling at the Institute of Coastal Research."
Science has many aims. In Faust, Goethe put it in the purest and simplest of words: one wants to understand “what holds the world together in its innermost folds”.
This idea also applies also to Prof Corinna Schrum. The oceanographer has been the institute director for the Division of Systems Analysis and Modelling at the Institute of Coastal Research in Geesthacht since October 2015. The 55-year-old has travelled an unusual career path.
The native Hamburger found her way to oceanography rather by chance. “You know how young people are: they don’t know what they want,” she says. What she brings to her field of study is, however, not a wistful longing for the sea, or for the sound of the waves or the salty taste of the air. “It wasn’t ever my aim to save the whales,” she says. „What fascinated me from the beginning was theory.” The decisive push comes from an informational brochure from the Hamburg Student Advisory. The publication points out that oceanography requires a great deal of physics and mathematics. “That interested me at the time.” Schrum focused on the natural sciences even in secondary school. And so the „Girl of Mathematics“ heads to university to understand the sea through numbers and equations.
Schrum soon completes her studies under difficult circumstances. She becomes a mother in her sixth semester. Her second child arrives while she is still undertaking her studies, and her third while she is writing her dissertation. The topic of her work at the time is thermal stratification in the German Bight. As in other seas, the region has a “summer stratification” with a warm surface layer as well as a cold deep water layer, between which relatively little exchange occurs. A different scenario, however, also takes place occasionally in the coastal regions of the German Bight: “The tidal mixing in some areas is so strong there that the water column is also mixed in summer. This leads to more biological activity,” explains Schrum. Soon after completing her doctoral dissertation, she discovers the main topic of her scientific career: physical and biological coupling in her numerical models. One of her studies, for example, examines how sea warming affects the growth and abundance of cod in the North Sea. Her science and models can be used to draw conclusions about the future:
“What happens in a bight if I build a damn? If the climate changes? If I put a wind farm in the sea?”
Moving from Bergen to Geesthacht in 2015 is not an easy decision for her. “I actually didn’t want to leave,” she confesses. Not only because her family still lives in Norway – her husband with the two youngest of the five children. She also likes Norway as a country: the nature and the government system – but mainly because hierarchy plays a much smaller role, particularly in the relationships between professors and scientific staff. “You trust younger people more there and you give them greater responsibility than here in Germany.”
So why did she come back to Germany? “I’ve always said that if I ever move, that it will only be to Geesthacht‘s Institute of Coastal Research.” It‘s the topic of coasts that ignites Schrum‘s passion – the supreme discipline of her field. “Because all elements come together there: the sea, the land, the atmosphere.” Coastal modelling has made enormous strides in recent years. Movements in the air and water have been reasonably well researched by now.
The major scientific challenge for the near future lies in better understanding the interactions between these compartments. Another area of focus Schrum sees for her division is that she would like to more heavily examine the direct influence of humans on the coasts. Also of interest are the conflicts that can arise from time to time when competing for use – for example, when tourists or fisheries are bothered by new offshore wind farms. All these aims can only be tackled, however, in conjunction with other scientists. “As an individual scientist, I can work on a process my entire life, on a single term. I can, however, never understand the coastal system as one individual scientist.” Collaboration of many is required for such understanding. The big team full of specialists.
“A team like that can only be found in Geesthacht. That excited me.”
Schrum gave up a comfortable position in Norway. Not for career reasons. Not because of money. But because she recognised the limits of a single individual. “That‘s how it is now in science. We all know a lot – but of most things we know are little or nothing.” Corinna Schrum wants to understand the coasts. And perhaps she’s now found the place where she can do this better than anywhere else in the world.
Author: Jochen Metzger
Portrait from in2science #4 (June 2017)