UPDATED: April 9, 2016
NAME: Joseph Cook
CURRENT TITLE: Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA), University of Sheffield, United Kingdom (UK)
AREA OF EXPERTISE: I am currently working on the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Black and Bloom project which aims to determine the effect of algal blooms and black carbon deposition on the melt rate of the Greenland Ice Sheet. My specific focus is on measuring and modelling interactions between sunlight and ice surfaces.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: I have been working in cryosphere research since 2008.
EDUCATION: My PhD examined microbial carbon cycling on the Greenland Ice Sheet and Svalbard glaciers, Norway. I then had a lectureship at the University of Derby (UK) where I developed a research agenda focussed on ice as a living landscape (‘biocryomorphology’). In February 2016, I moved back to the University of Sheffield to work on Black and Bloom.
What’s your job like?
It suits me perfectly – I am free to be creative and manage my own time, but also have a very clear set of challenging objectives to meet.
What’s a typical day like?
At the moment, I commute in to Sheffield to be at my desk by 8:30 a.m. I’m a morning person and generally try to organise my day so that the most mentally challenging and/or creative tasks are addressed first-thing. That usually means opening up Matlab or Python and working on a model, and analysing some data or writing papers. Sometimes I’ll get carried away and still be glued to the screen at 5:30 p.m. – but usually I’ll move on to organizing upcoming field work, testing equipment and generating preliminary data, designing and running laboratory work, helping out some of the PhD students or catching up on the ever-growing stack of unread literature. Most days I correspond with the other PDRAs on the project, or a project partner, or the principal investigators (PIs) about something. Every now and then a journal will ask me to review a paper, and I always try to do so unless it is way out of my expertise. My wife also works in Sheffield, so we usually meet between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to commute back home together.
In summer, everything changes – we deploy into a field camp and daily life becomes a routine of camp management and maintenance, field measurements and lots of unforeseen troubleshooting! Once we return, life will be all about analyzing the data collected in the field and writing up the results for publication.
All of it! It is a really exciting job, and I feel very lucky to be working on such an interesting project with great people.
Like most polar scientists, I look forward to field work, but I am also really happy to sit down and code or put in the hours in the lab, and I like writing – so there are rarely days I don’t enjoy.
I’m really grateful for the access to training opportunities and advice from the top scientists in the field – it has been an intense learning experience so far, and I’ve enjoyed every minute.
All of it! That’s what makes it exciting and satisfying!
What’s your advice to students?
Post-doc life is very free and flexible; however, it also requires a lot of commitment. It’s hard to switch off – I rarely do. I enjoy it, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of contributing to the project. My advice to students considering a similar job is that you really need to care about the project.
ORIGINAL POST DATE: October 2, 2014
NAME: Dr. Joseph Cook
CURRENT TITLE: Lecturer in Life and Natural Sciences, University of Derby, United Kingdom
AREA OF EXPERTISE: My background is in glaciology, in particular the “bioglaciological” processes that operate on ice surfaces. My PhD thesis focussed upon carbon fluxes in and around “cryoconite holes” – quasi-cylindrical pits on glacier surfaces that house a range of microbes.
YEARS EXPERIENCE: I have held this position for one year (since September 2013), so have only just settled into my current role.
EDUCATION: I completed my PhD at the University of Sheffield, where I was also an undergrad (BSc Physical Geography).
What’s your job like?
My job is very varied. The first year was very hectic. The learning curve was very steep, the hours long, and I was also commuting two hours each way each day to get to and from the uni. However, there are many hugely rewarding aspects of the job that balance it out! I spend my time with a diverse group of great students, staff and collaborators, and I am constantly learning and rarely have dull days. I feel very lucky to have a job that allows me to engage with my research – days when I can sit and think or write on my research for a few hours doesn’t feel like work at all!
My area of research interest is in glacier microbial processes, but this is very specific and my teaching is much wider than that. That means I have to maintain a high level of knowledge in a broad range of subjects – I’ve already seen the benefit to my research of engaging with seemingly disparate topics. I always go home feeling like I’ve really used my brain, and that’s a great feeling!
Each teaching session is like a project in its own right – it takes planning, resources, preparation and finally, delivery. A lot of work goes into each session – it’s a great feeling to be in a session knowing it is going well and the students are engaged, challenged and motivated by the activities you’ve devised. It’s great to see students go away more enthused for something than when they arrived.
What’s a typical day like?
My days tend to include a mixture of teaching and admin, and on average twice a week I will get approximately three hours in the morning to sit and engage properly with research or outreach – either analysing data from past field work, writing up manuscripts or preparing grant applications, or writing something for my website. Teaching is usually three or four-hour blocks during which I will usually lecture for anywhere between 45 minutes and 2 hours, set a practical exercise in the lab, on the computer, in the field or for group discussion, leaving half an hour for feedback and reflection at the end, but every session is different! Prior to each session, I will prepare by tweaking and updating lecture materials and checking the practical exercises and looking at my notes from last year – sometimes this is a half-hour job and sometimes it takes hours! Then there is admin, meetings and outreach work to do.
Several times during the year I go away on field work, either with students (this year I have taken groups to Assynt and Crete) or independently (this year, summer was spent on the Greenland ice sheet). These are the most memorable and exciting times!
Field work is fun – whether student trips or research trips. My summer in a field camp on the Greenland ice sheet with colleagues from Aberystwyth University and the Dark Snow Project was unforgettable and very productive research-wise. Similarly, the Crete field trip is one of the highlights of the undergraduate programme here – hard work but great fun for both the staff and students!
I recently took a group of third-year students to the British Geological Survey in Keyworth – that was really interesting and a great learning experience for me and the students!
The students I teach are often a lot of fun to work with – they are usually energetic and put me through my paces!
In my first year, the major challenge was really time management. Having no materials to draw from and building every teaching session from scratch before delivering it, learning to complete the admin tasks correctly and juggle marking, feedback and student support whilst maintaining a research career was a big task. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan — for example the timings of a teaching session might not work quite right or students interest lie in an unexpected part of the material that was less well resourced – that can be frustrating but ultimately forces me to be flexible and let things flow more organically – that’s a good thing!
Now. things have settled down a little bit. I think the major challenge is constantly reviewing teaching materials and updating things to make sure the students are always being given up-to-date information on the most relevant topics.
I am really passionate about my research, and it can be challenging to find time to engage with it and to stay upbeat when it’s not going as smoothly as I’d like!
What’s your advice to students?
Choose a subject you love to study. The lectures and tutorials at uni are only the start of your journey – the meat of your learning will be self-motivated, so you need to really want to get into the library and absorb as much information as possible.
Also, question everything – no lecturer will think less of you for asking questions, and there is no such thing as a stupid one – questions show engagement and an enquiring mind – these are great qualities!