A career switch for the good of the planet

From the beaches of Wollongong to the frosty wilderness of Iceland

When Jay Borchard enrolled at UOW in 2009, he had no idea he would end up in one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.

“I made the move with no job and just had faith in a role materialising for me,” says Jay, reminiscing relocating to Iceland in 2022. 

The move paid off, with the UOW graduate now a project manager at Reykjavik-based environmental data company Svarmi, which provides data collection services to a range of clients researching biodiversity, from tracking seal populations to estimating seaweed stocks.  

“I was drawn to this work because it allowed me to properly explore the Icelandic wilderness and see some areas that are rarely visited. But more importantly it allowed me to use some exciting emerging technology such as drones and advanced cameras to really answer some interesting nature-related questions along the way,” he says.  

Svarmi’s work requires specialist skills, and the isolation and small population of Iceland prove to be the perfect combination for a range of clients needing environmental data, from universities to government departments to engineering firms. For Jay, it means every day is new and exciting. 

A man is scaling an icy cliff with rockclimbing ropes Jay's "office". Picture: supplied

“The day usually begins with checking the ever-changing Icelandic weather forecast. If the conditions are tolerable we head out with the drone and surveying equipment to map the landscape. In terms of the application this could be anything from mapping areas for potential geothermal activity, collecting information for monitoring avalanche risk, or better understanding vegetation distributions,” he says. 

“More often than not, just getting to the mapping area is an adventure in itself. I usually find myself leaving Reykjavik and driving along a ‘road’ that is more of a sheep track than a road. From here anything can happen. Access can be shut down by excessive snow coverage, road deterioration, and impassable rivers amongst other things. It’s not uncommon to hike through difficult untracked terrain with the equipment at some stage. After all this, then the drone imagery and data can be collected. The challenges in this kind of work are forever evolving and require some very creative problem solving.” 

The work is a far cry from his original plan, studying a double degree in communications and media, alongside psychology. 

“I really enjoyed my time in communications, and I felt like I got a lot out of it in terms of refining my critical thinking skills that got me thinking about broader issues relating to the media. Over time, I become more interested in how psychology plays a pivotal role in specifically the communication aspect,” he recalls.  

It was his specialisation in psychology that got Jay hooked on science, research and “the process of asking questions and solving problems” and led to scientific work across Australia, including data analytics and medical research. 

But his biggest adventure was yet to come. When Jay's partner was offered a job as an emergency doctor in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, he took the opportunity to move to the other side of the world.  

“I had heard that a company needed someone with a science background who was willing to work with drones and surveying equipment in harsh Icelandic conditions. After exchanging a few emails, followed by an interview, I was soon out there on my first day of work flying a drone taking photos of a gaggle of geese on a small island for a university research project,” Jay says.  

A man in a hi-vis yellow jacket is standing on a rocky landscape in Iceland, holding surveying equipment

No two days are the same for Jay's work. Picture: supplied

“It was a difficult thought to sit with - travelling to the other side of the world with no social support network and the uncertainty of the pandemic. However, there was huge anticipation to arrive in a place teaming with new adventures and opportunities. I knew I wanted to experience the harshness of the north in its fullest. I wanted to seek out something that was vastly different, confronting, and hopefully grow as a person in the process.” 

The cherry on top for Jay is his contribution to sustainability and encourages others to appreciate the world we have.  

“For me environmental sustainability is important to preserve these incredibly important and natural areas not just for us but future generations. I feel very privileged to be in this position where I visit these remarkable natural locations and I would like others to also have the same opportunity.”