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Former professor and energy expert, James Tamerius, on leaving a tenure-track position

James Tamerius: Senior Research Advisor at Center for Sustainable Energy

This week’s guest, James Tamerius, has hardly had a linear career path. “I’ve never been really good at planning life decisions,” he admits to Nick. “I always just kind of let it happen.” Rather than constructing his future rigidly, James focuses on answering the problems that interest him the most at any given time.

Fittingly, he was drawn to graduate work in geography, which he considers to be “kind of an anti-silo.” As a field, geography brings together expertise in geology, climatology, sociology, and biology in order to get a handle on where things are in the world and how they came to be that way. After starting as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, James quickly became interested in studying geography through the lens of epidemiology; his dissertation concerned the effects of climate on health.

Why There is a “Flu Season”

In work at Arizona, the National Institutes of Health and a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University, James endeavored to explain why illnesses like influenza were seasonal and why that seasonality followed different patterns around the world. There are a lot of broadly-accepted theories which purport to answer this question (for example, that the onset of influenza season in the United States is initiated by the start of school,or that cold weather impedes immune function). James came to believe that none of these theories on their own were perfect, and that many other factors play a role. For example, people tend to pack themselves inside at times of year when influenza spreads readily. James also found that, while thermostats ensure that indoor temperature barely fluctuates with the seasons in most households, the onset of winter also introduces changes in absolute humidity which affect both the indoor and outdoor climate, and exerts a strong influence on how well the influenza virus can survive outside of a human host.

Even as he finished his postdoctoral fellowship, James knew that his enthusiasm for studying these questions was starting to wane. “I was starting to lose my passion for the research,” he says. “It was interesting, and it was important, but after ten years of studying the same stuff I wanted to do different things.” He resolved to apply to a wide range of jobs, both inside and outside of academia. Ultimately, he decided to accept the best job offer he got: a tenure-track professorship at the University of Iowa. But after several years as a professor, James knew for sure that he wasn’t cut out to spend the rest of his life in academia. So he did something very brave: he quit his job, moved with his family to Baja, Mexico, and he lived as frugally as possible while plotting a new career trajectory for himself. And in the meantime, he spent a lot of time surfing.

Leaving Academia

After many months catching breaks in the Pacific Ocean, James caught a big break in his job search. He got an interview at the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego, California, a nonprofit which endeavors to promote the use of clean, efficient, and renewable energy sources. CSE works like a consultancy, administering various programs in support of its mission (such as providing partial rebates for the cost of installing solar panels). James is responsible for analytically evaluating the success of these programs and helping to develop new initiatives. This position is perfectly suited for his broad range of interests; he gets to learn on his feet constantly and he’s on a rapid time table that ensures he gets to work on an entirely new project many times a year.

[My research] was interesting, and it was important, but after ten years of studying the same stuff I wanted to do different things.

James Tamerius

While James didn’t have any technical knowledge about renewables or an understanding of the economics of the field when he first started, he had plenty of other skills–such as the expertise in coding and data analysis that he developed in his training as a geographer–that made himwell-prepared for this job. If he had advice for today’s graduate students, it’s that they should “get really good at a skill or a tool that can be applied to a wide array of things.”

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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