Five minutes with Tristan Salles

Avid traveller and explorer, geophysicist Dr Tristan Salles, discusses his childhood in Africa and his experiences as an early-career researcher.

What is your background, and why did you decide to join the University?

I grew up in Africa, living in Madagascar, Cameroon and Senegal before moving to France at 17. My dad was an avid lepidopterist [the study of butterflies and moths] and I have fond memories as a child in Cameroon, following my father during his expeditions to collect lion poo, as it was a great way to attract butterflies. At the time, this seemed normal, but I realised later on that this was not a common childhood experience for most people!

At university, I did a double degree in marine engineering and physical oceanography, followed by a PhD in computational geology. I have always been curious and passionate about understanding the natural physical processes shaping the Earth’s surface. This curiosity has driven my research, starting with my postgraduate studies in France, to my current academic position in the School of Geosciences.

In 2007, I moved to Australia to work for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as a post-doctoral research fellow, where I worked on building new capabilities in sediment transport models. Between 2008 and 2015 I worked as a senior research scientist at CSIRO before joining the University of Sydney in 2015 to work as a geophysics lecturer in the School of Geosciences and to be part of the ARC Basin Genesis Hub.

As a chief investigator in the hub, I lead the development of Badlands, a parallel and flexible landscape evolution model, built to simulate sediment transfer from source-to-sink and sequence stratigraphy [study of rock layers].

What research or projects are you working on with your colleagues at the moment? 

In the School of Geosciences, I work in the EarthByte and GeoCoastal Research Groups. Specifically, I work on research projects involving computational geosciences with applications in sediment transport dynamics, Earth surface evolution, stratigraphy and deep time interactions between climate, ocean and geomorphology. Some of the projects I’m working on at the moment focus on sediment transport and sedimentary systems, geodynamics and landscape evolution and carbonate platform and ocean dynamics.

My research goal is to conduct coupled thermal, mechanical, stratigraphic and oceanic modelling of continental margins, sedimentary basins and associated landscape dynamics, to better understand the Earth’s evolution over time.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of being an early-career researcher?

I finished my PhD more than 10 years ago and have been working in the field ever since, so I find it funny that people see me as an early-career researcher. I certainly am an early-career teacher but not an early-career scientist. Being a researcher at a University like ours is incredibly rewarding. For me, the best part is the creative, flexible and stimulating environment. Talking with students and colleagues gives me the momentum to develop new ideas, and the University environment means I have the space to develop them. They might not be money-making ideas, but they’re ideas and that’s what counts!

Creating a balance to fit in all the preparation, teaching and marking alongside an active research career can be a challenge. I found that it is best to try to get some overlap between all three so they complement each other. As an academic, it can feel like the days are not long enough and working from home is a reality. This can affect your family life, as you often need to work during the evenings and weekend. Another challenge is that research funding is difficult to access, and subject to intense competition, making it crucial to publish and collaborate with new industrial partners and organisations to diversify the money available to underpin research.

What are your interests outside of the lab?

I have two young kids and try to share as much time as possible with my family. My childhood in Africa cemented a love for travelling, hiking and visiting new places. I have been windsurfing since I was 11 and started surfing when I settled in Sydney five years ago. I’ve volunteered for the Maroubra Surf Life Saving Club, patrolling Maroubra Beach. Over the past year, I’ve also started running along Sydney’s beautiful coastlines.

Where are your favourite places to visit?

My parents now live in French Polynesia, on a small island called Raiatea. The lagoon surrounding the island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The colours are intense, and the warm water makes it a pleasure to swim, snorkel or surf all day long. There is a huge diversity in the corals and fauna. The environment is peaceful yet full of life, and I find it revitalising.

Tell us about the project you’ll be working on as part of the Artemis grand challenge scheme where you’ll be using the University’s supercomputer for your research.

The impact of climate change on our planet is an increasing concern to society. Although part of the climatic trend is influenced by the natural orbital cycle, the consensus is that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are greatly accelerating the process.

In participating in the Artemis grand challenge, our researchers can study a major component of the carbon system that sequesters large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere over geological time frames. We’re trying to design a cutting-edge numerical framework that could provide the next generation of whole-earth models that can transcend multiple spatial and temporal scales, where perturbations of rainfall, sea level, erosion and sediment deposition will drive landscape change and shift in coastlines and ocean chemistry over geological timescales. Through this project, we will quantify how reefs and carbonate platforms develop in the context of sea level change, tectonics, oceanic circulation and changing sediment input, and how their demise will influence the global carbon cycle.

Last week’s participant, Joseph Toltz, asks: Where do you go (mentally) when you listen to music? 

I’ve always found listening to a certain song can take me straight back to a specific time and place. When I hear Edith Piaf or Leo Ferre, I’m taken back to holidays with my grandparents in France. Manu Dibango and Salif Keita whisk me back to my childhood in Africa. Then there are the songs that remind me of one specific person, and it’s impossible not to think of them when I hear them. Sometimes that’s a feeling of euphoria, sometimes of loss and sadness. One day, I’ll compile a playlist of evocative songs, but for now, I’ll enjoy that moment when I’m out and about and my ears prick up to a song which immediately transports me to some far away land.

And finally, please share a question that you’d like to ask our next ‘Five Minutes with…’ participant. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?