Marine Scotland

Celebrating the Year of the Engineer with a father and son – Phil Copland

July 10, 2018 by No Comments

Phil Copland's motorbike

As we mentioned in our blog in January, 2018 is the Year of the Engineer as well as the Year of the Young Person. Over the course of the year, we’ll be introducing you to some of our incredibly talented engineers, as well as showing your some of their work.

Unusually within our engineering section, we have a father and son team – Phil and Danny Copland. It was too good an opportunity to pass up so this month you’ll hear from dad Phil about what he does (and what it’s like working with his son) and next month, Danny gets his own back!

Who are you and what do you do?

It was May 1974 when the fateful words were uttered “That’s the civil service. That means a job for life!” by my proud mother.

It’s not exactly what a hard-ish living, motorcycle riding 20 year old really wants to hear.

I’m Phil Copland and I’m a civil servant… still, after a smidgeon over 44 years. I work mainly with electronic and acoustic systems and my job title is Acoustic Survey Scientist. In my career I have been Scientist In Charge (SIC) on pelagic stock surveys, seabed mapping and demersal fishing surveys as well as taking part in various ICES working and planning groups.

How did you get here?

My qualifications are a handful of Highers plus an ONC in Electrical and Electronic engineering and a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt at a BSc. I did however get an offer to train with the Scottish national rowing squad which might explain my failure.

I’d answered an advert for DAFS (Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland who were offering four posts at ASO (Assistant Scientific Officer) level. I had only applied to work in the Electrical fishing group but was confronted by an interview panel of thirteen people (they had added two more posts between advert and interview). I was offered three posts and chose the Electrical Fishing one.

Most work in the Electrical Fishing (EF) section was field site and vessel based. The field site at Little Loch Broom was situated on the opposite side from any road access and had to be built from scratch with everything being ferried across by rubber boat. “Scientific work” included breaking and transporting rocks, mixing and laying concrete and refurbishing the stone jetty. I reportedly said that “It’s not an ASO you need it’s a JCB”.

Underwater, we dug trenches in the sea bed for fish cages and laid electrical and TV cables and we also moved a 1 tonne diesel generator to the site on a pair of rubber boats using a wooden frame and various block and tackles. That all went horribly wrong and ended in the small hours of the morning in the pitch black with the rubber boats trapped under the generator which was now suspended from a vertical rock face. The more glamorous part of job was scuba diving and driving rubber boats!

Much time was spent working on research and charter vessels, designing and building scientific equipment and electronic circuit boards. It was like being in the boy scouts, I do have knot tying and fieldcraft badges, with the added frisson of possible drowning and/or electrocution.

I continued working in the EF section until the project ended and moved to the Acoustics group. As I was trained as a diver and subsequently had limited imagination and the invunerability of youth, I continued to dive on mobile fishing gears demersal and beam trawls for a number of years until common sense overcame my testosterone level. My year was filled with field work at the Loch Duich site where we installed and removed a raft in the loch annually and sea time was on various vessels taking part in “Stock estimates using acoustic techniques”. In short, bounce sound off fish schools and the more energy that comes back the more are there. Simples! Imagine being asked to estimate the number of worms in your garden and being given 4 hours and a teaspoon. That’s stock estimation.

I hesitate to admit that after 40 years I’m back advising on the new electrical fishery for Ensis ( razorclams) and I really, really wished I’d paid more attention at the time instead of burning the candle at both ends and driving a large motorbike.

Tell us more about your work

We provide support for various groups in the laboratory as well as partner organisations, including the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), by operating multibeam and sidescan systems as well as acoustic positioning units which geo-locate images from drop and towed cameras. We maintain all of the acoustic net monitoring systems used on demersal trawls for our international surveys. Being partially retired, I no longer go to sea, apart from occasional single day training exercises, but in the past I could be away from home for up to 140 days per year.

At the start of my career, promotion for non-degree staff was very much delayed and being “too young” was a valid reason for non-promotion. I recall being criticised for publishing a paper early in my career as this wasn’t expected of staff at the lowest scientific grade. I’m glad to say that things have changed.

I concentrated on the practical aspect of my work and don’t regret that I didn’t “chase” promotion. I felt that I had an exciting and rewarding time as science was very much “can do” and much of what we did was ground breaking. I’m proud that the work that we did at the L. Duich site establishing the target strength of various fish species and species identification using multiple frequencies and broad band acoustic systems is still valid and the basic concepts and techniques are still in use 30 years later.

The large European, Norwegian and American institutes would look closely at the work we were publishing here at the Marine Lab in Aberdeen and this influenced their future work. As an institution, internationally, we punched well above our weight as our staff were innovative, practical and adaptable.

On a personal level my family, Christine Danny and Michael had to cope with my frequent absences because surveys were always during school holidays. I’m proud that they managed to cope so well.

So, what’s it like working with your son?

Danny has a big task ahead as we will shortly lose two out of four acoustic engineers. I’ve worked with countless students and colleagues over the years who had little or no acoustic knowledge and training staff in the use of acoustic systems is what I do. Danny is very realistic and has come in with no illusions as to the steepness of the learning curve in terms of the practicality of maintaining, and deploying equipment and collecting data with our systems. We must be getting on OK as he hasn’t complained to his Mum about me. Yet!

What would you say to any aspiring young engineers?

Engineers in the lab have become a bit of an endangered species. In general we have a top heavy age structure with many of our engineers having been here for decades. We need practical engineers who are prepared to get stuck in and learn from all of their colleagues be they engineers, scientists or sea going officers and deck hands. Our sea going engineers can’t work in isolation. Variety is the spice of life and for a sea going engineer there is nowhere better than the lab. Opportunities abound now for advancement and I would strongly encourage any entrant to take advantage of the myriad of courses that exist to help them progress their careers.

And one fun fact about you?

I’m not a very exciting person and that may be down to my time away from home. Getting home to the family was a holiday in itself and you will find me in the garden or taking the house apart to sort whatever bit has fallen off. However, either due to a flash of rebelliousness or more likely just a post mid-life crisis I have after 40 years, gone back to motorcycling. I am the proud owner of “Princess”, a very shiny, bling laden Honda CB1100 – a modern bike with 70’s retro styling. She is so named as the previous owner did only 165 miles in 3 years and didn’t take her out if it was wet or dusty. I didn’t reveal to them that I live up a long muddy farm road and that she would be going from a catwalk model to working the means streets of Aberdeen. I’m looking forward to some good weather so I can get out and about on her despite the inevitable cleaning required. So, if you see a rotund, stately gentleman, looking like a worried meerkat, on a shiny red bike, wave but DON’T PULL OUT!

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