The journey from scientist to executive

With remarkable frequency, I am asked about the career path that took me from science to pursuits outside of the academy. This is an increasingly common journey: universities produce PhDs at a far greater rate than the corresponding academic labour market is able to absorb. By telling the story of my journey I hope I can be of help to those looking to follow a similar path. 

Early career as a scientist

I started my career in the mid-nineties as a physicist. At university in Bologna I studied theoretical physics. I briefly flirted with neural networks and dynamical systems before settling on geophysical fluid dynamics.  

 

I began my research career by simulating the general circulation of the atmosphere on the Max Plank climate model ECHAM 4. Antonio Navarra, my advisor at the time, and I explored the implications of the sensitivity of the climate to Earth's rotation rate. I also did some work on teleconnections involving the Amazon.

I then moved to the US to pursue a doctorate. At Princeton University I focused in on the role of the ocean in defining the long term climatology of the planet. George Philander, Ron Pacanowski, Alexey Fedorov and I developed a number of numerical experiments and theory to explore fundamental questions related to the climate system. A number of papers came out of that experience. Maybe the most representative is one titled The Thermal Structure of the Upper Ocean which was an attempt at establishing fundamental physical constraints on the depth of the oceanic thermocline, a crucial parameter in a number of critical phenomena, including El Niño.

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In 2000 I was a fellow at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Summer School in Woods Hole. There I worked with Isaac Held, Alan Plumb and Wayne Schubert on an axially symmetric model of a monsoon. The idea was to study the effect of perturbations on the onset of this extraordinary tropical phenomena. The proceedings of that work and my paper on the monsoon can be found here, alongside Isaac's extraordinary lectures on the General Circulation of the Atmosphere. Another interest of mine was turbulence theory, specifically geostrophic turbulence. I had the good fortune of working on this with Isaac Held and Geoff Vallis, and resulted in a paper—led by Shafer Smith— in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics

My work on the physical controls on the climate system continued at MIT in collaboration with Raf Ferrari and John Marshall. We created a diagnostic for the poleward heat transport in the ocean, a crucial contributor to Earth's climate at the surface. We introduced the idea of a heatfunction to represent the integrated structure of the ocean circulation. 

The idea was simple enough. The traditional view of the circulation of the ocean, in places like the Atlantic for example, is that there are two independent overturning circulations: a shallow one, predominantly wind-driven, which reaches only a few hundred meters below the surface, and a deeper one, the thermohaline circulation, driven by density differences and which reaches to the abyss. 

Our hypothesis was that this crude division of the circulation, which might make sense in an average sense, did not fully reflect what was going on from a thermodynamic perspective. When the effects of eddies and perturbations was taken into account—the things that give the circulation its 3D structure—one found that the heat transport could be represented as one, large-scale overturning circulation from the top of the ocean to the abyss.  

The centrepiece of my work at MIT, however, was my work on Mixed Layer Instabilities. These are baroclinic instabilities which occur in the weakly stratified mixed layer, the first fifty meters or so of the ocean. They turn out to be hugely important for horizontal transfer of heat. My work was mostly on developing the theory for these phenomena, while Baylor Fox-Kemper dealt with high-resolution simulations. The paper that came out of that experience made an important contribution to meso-scale oceanography. It was also my last major project in science. Soon thereafter I left academia. 

Jumping ship

Towards the end of my time at MIT, as I was on the job market for a tenure track position, I had what felt like a profound realisation at the time: I loved the science, but I did not love being a professional scientist. I was set in a known track, with the risk that twenty years later I would realise I had made a mistake. I withdrew my applications for the jobs I was shortlisted for and announced that I was leaving. 

Of course a problem presented itself: what to do when one decides to no longer be a physical oceanographer? The answer was far less obvious than I had anticipated. I believed I wanted to enter the field of economic development. Through an acquaintance I managed to get myself invited as an observer to a meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development. Thousands of people had gathered for the meeting. The diversity was exhilarating, the range of issues and experiences captivating. 

I came away convinced that this was the right path. I sent applications to join the World Bank, the UN and a number of other institutions. At the same time, a friend at MIT was going through the interview process to join McKinsey & Company and invited me to a recruiting event. I didn't know anything about consulting, except for an acquaintance who lived in Australia and who, I knew, was at the firm. I decided to tag along. The recruiters encouraged me to apply. I did it, without much expectation. From there it snowballed. 12 interviews later I had a job offer from McKinsey, and that was before receiving acknowledgement of receipt from international institutions I had applied to. I decided to take that as a cue.

I joined McKinsey & Company in New York, hoping to be able to apply my knowledge of climate in some way. It took time. Initially they did not know how to staff a lapsed physical oceanographer, so they assigned me to a major piece of research on performance and health of organisations. I was a fast reader of academic papers, so they asked me to review all the available literature on organisational performance and health. Every time I read a McKinsey publication on performance and health that starts with "we read thousands of academic papers" I smile. I then joined classic consulting engagements, working on the reorganisation of a large pharmaceutical company for about six months, followed by another six months working on strategy and business organisation for a large insurance company. 

Eventually I found my way to the London office, becoming the first fellow of what was then called the Firm's Climate Change Special Initiative, led by Jeremy Oppenheim. 

One of the first things I did was support a coalition of companies under the Confederation of British Industries to develop an approach to climate mitigation for the UK economy. this was based on the production of a carbon cost curve, which a number of colleagues had developed at the time. The report — Climate change: everyone's business — was put forward by 17 CEOs of the largest companies in the UK. 

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The success of the carbon cost curve was remarkableThe world was heading towards COP Copenhagen and it seemed as though it might come to an agreement on climate change. As it turns out it would take several more years before the Paris Agreement could be signed. But those were the first years in which climate strategies were going mainstream.

 

An area I spent some time on was the role that the ICT sector could play in climate change.  I led the analytic work behind an interesting report in collaboration with the Climate Group and GeSI, called SMART2020, which explored the contribution ICT could make to solving the problem. Given the speed at which things change in tech this is a particularly dated piece of work. But some of the insights —particularly those about the enabling role of ICT—continue to be relevant

As I began exploring the world of water and building the firm's capabilities in water resource strategic planning, I was also involved in a number of green growth and adaptation plans, including helping out in the early stage of the firm's work on the Economics of Climate Adaptation in collaboration with SwissRe. I became a partner of the Firm during this time. My time at McKinsey was a happy one. I found a stimulating environment where every day I was learning something. But eventually consulting revealed its limitations: as a senior colleague of mine once put it, "consulting is a pie-eating contest, where the prize is more pie."

 

Much like in the case of my academic stint, having become a partner of a major consulting firm I realised that, had I stayed, the rest of my career would have been much of the same. I cared about the issues I was working on—water, sustainability, the transition to a low carbon economy—far more than I cared about being a consultant. It was time to move on. In 2013 I joined The Nature Conservancy as its Global Managing Director for Water. I eventually became its Chief Strategy Officer. 

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