Paul Sylvester - Professor, Earth Sciences

CurioCity Careers
16 October 2012

Paul Sylvester

Professor, Earth Sciences

The Apollo Moon landings got me interested in science and particularly geology and space exploration.

What is a typical day like for you?

When I am teaching, I prepare, review and present lectures and laboratory assignments and meet with students. At other times, I am focussed on research projects, which involves designing scientific studies that may produce significant results; writing proposals for funding the work and reports of completed studies for publication; supervising and reviewing the work of graduate students; and collecting information about rocks during field trips and performing chemical analyses of rocks in the laboratory. On some days, I attend meetings of various committees that serve the university and groups that support the profession of the Earth sciences.

What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

Making a scientific discovery or seeing a student become excited about science and wanting to know more.

What is the least enjoyable part of your job?

Dealing with the bureaucracy of the university and granting agencies. Filling out form after form is no fun!

Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).

I was educated in the USA – my BSc degree is from Purdue University in Indiana and my PhD degree is from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. I then did post-doctoral research at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the University of Chicago, and finally at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, before taking up my faculty position at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?

The Apollo Moon landings got me interested in science and particularly geology and space exploration. During high school, I took after-school courses on astronomy at our local science center, which I enjoyed a lot. Later, several good professors at university gave me some positive role models for an academic career, which was important.

What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?

If you are interested in science and are doing well in your science courses in school, try to get to know your science teachers and learn why they like it. Find out what kinds of science activities are going on after school or outside of school in your community, and participate in them! Get advice from all the people you meet in science about where you should attend university.

How does your job make a difference?

All successful societies throughout history, in terms of health, wealth, quality of life and opportunity, have been the ones that were the best educated, and therefore it is critically important to have good teachers at all levels, from primary school to high school to university. Successful societies, particularly in modern times, also have invested some of their wealth in exploration, basic research and the development of technology. My job is therefore part of a profession that plays a critical role for society, and we can make a difference every day, in the students we teach and the discoveries we make.

How do you use science, math and technology in your job?

I use the basic scientific principles that I learned in school every day, such as how to make careful and objective observations of the world around me; how to distinguish important information to think about versus minor details to ignore for the time being; and how to draw logical and defensible conclusions from the observations made. Basic math skills are important to assess information collected in a scientific study, for example to show that measurements are reliable and follow or deviate from the predictions of a theory. Knowing how to use technology such as computers and instruments to measure the chemical compositions of rocks and minerals is also very important in my job. I should mention though that many scientists are by no means great mathematicians or technology geeks and still are very good scientists. Math and technology are important tools of science but the most important thing is that a scientist learns how to make careful observations about the world around them and think logically about what they have learned.

Is there one course you wish you had taken in high school but didn’t? Why?

I wish I had taken more history courses. I think it is important to learn from the past.

What makes this job right for you?

The freedom to teach and do research in the way I think is best. This allows me to be creative, which makes my job exciting and rewarding when things work out well.

What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?

Probably some of the cultural experiences that I have had while doing fieldwork around the world might be considered bizarre in North America, but they also have made my job very interesting. In Egypt, our hosts arranged for belly dancers as after dinner entertainment. In Fiji, we had to remove our shoes and sit on the floor in order to meet with the village chief before being granted access to his tribe’s land. In Greenland, the community that our group was visiting put on a whale blubber feast to welcome us. In India, we had to chase monkeys away from the food in our backpacks left on the ground while we looked at rocks.

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

I like to read about (and occasionally blog on) current affairs in politics, culture and sports and specific important issues facing society today, such as government policies on science and technology, climate change, space exploration, and communication of the lessons of history.

You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?

I would set up a Foundation with a mandate to identify students from underprivileged backgrounds with special talents in the Arts and Sciences and fund them to attend appropriate higher education institutions. Far too many young people are not given the opportunity to use their talents to contribute to society, which is a loss not only for them but also for those who lives might be improved by what these students might accomplish if given the chance.

CurioCity Careers

We hope you enjoyed learning about this great STEM career! The information in this career profile was provided by this individual especially for CurioCity. We hope it helped give you a sense of what this type of job is really like.

Let’s Talk Science is pleased to provide you with this information as you explore future career options. Many careers require a background in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Even jobs that don’t use specific STEM concepts on a day-to-day basis benefit from the skills gained through a study of STEM. People with a STEM background are very much in demand by employers across all career sectors. If you would like to learn about more careers that have a STEM connection, visit

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