Lecturer, Bioglaciology, Dr. Joseph Cook @tothepoles: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Dr. Joseph Cook

Dr. Joseph Cook

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).

WEBSITE:   http://tothepoles.wordpress.com

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!

What’s fun?

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!

Dr. Joseph Cook standing by a supraglacial stream. Copyright Sara Penrhyn-Jones

Dr. Joseph Cook standing by a supraglacial stream. Copyright Sara Penrhyn-Jones

What’s challenging?

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!


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  2. Kostas Mandilaris

    Absolutely fantastic! We recently had a seminar regarding the cryosphere and the degassing of methane from permafrost and we all got interested more in the topic! Glaciology sounds fantastic and challenging. Thank you Sandie!


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