NAME: Meagen Pollock
CURRENT TITLE: Associate Professor of Geology at a small liberal arts college
AREA OF EXPERTISE: I use lava chemistry to understand how volcanoes work. I mostly work on volcanoes that erupt under water or ice. I’m also interested in undergraduate research and how to improve the experience.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 10
EDUCATION: B.S. in Geology and Environmental Science at medium-sized state university, Ph.D. at a private research university
What’s your job like?
I’m one of four faculty members in a Geology department at a small liberal arts college. I think my job perfectly fits the description of teacher-scholar-mentor. I spend most of my working time with undergraduate students and largely focus on teaching. Even my research program and service activities are student-centered. Because I’m at a small institution and my students have a wide range of interests, I get to explore lots of different research questions and methods that I might not be able to do at a bigger institution. The rhythm of the job flows with the academic year, so there are moments when I get really busy (like at midterm) and moments when I can breathe a little (like when grades are turned in after the semester). Surprisingly, travel is a big part of what I do, whether it’s for field work, to use lab facilities, or for a conference.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day during the semester involves teaching classes and working with students. My classes cover topics like natural hazards, minerals, and rocks. We do a lot of hands-on activities, which means I have to put a great deal of thought into designing and preparing my courses. I also work with several research students each year, and we meet on a weekly basis to talk about papers, writing, and results. A few times a week, I have meetings with faculty and administrators to serve my community. This might involve talking with other faculty about the curriculum or how to support undergraduate research mentors.
During the summer, my days focus on research. I might be in the field with my students, collecting samples and making maps. I mostly work in Utah, British Columbia, and Iceland. Some of these places are wet and cold and others are dry and hot, so my field clothing might be different, but I always have my rock hammer (I call it “The Stealth”). I also spend time in the lab analyzing the compositions of rocks. This involves crushing the rocks and melting them or dissolving them in acid. We have our own X-ray lab on campus and I also visit labs at other institutions to use different kinds of instruments. Finally, I use my summer research time to write up my results as journal articles to share with the scientific community.
Please don’t think that my life is all job-related, though. As much as I can, I spend time on other fun things: exercising, cooking, reading, hanging out with my dogs, and hiking. Making time to do these things helps me be a better teacher-scholar-mentor.
The best part of my job is that I get to interact with students. I’m inspired by their enthusiasm and excitement for learning. Their questions and interests push me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to explore new ideas. I get to watch them grow and develop into confident young scientists. It is such a special honor to play a role in their lives. Plus, I get to travel the world and visit beautiful locations!
Although mentoring students is the best part of my job, it’s also the most challenging. I have to figure out when to offer guidance and insight, or push and question. I have to make sure that students know that they’re not alone when facing their challenges and that their ideas matter. It’s a challenge to know how to respond in a way that ensures their personal and scholarly success. Mentoring is a serious endeavor and I strive to be better at it all the time.
Other challenges involve the expectations of my community: the need to conduct campus business, secure funding to carry out research, publish results on a timely and regular basis, improve and keep up with new developments in teaching, and the demands of having lots of students with limited resources.
What’s your advice to students?
Connect with people who are supportive, and don’t leave out the virtual geoscience community as a source for potential mentors. Don’t rush through your education and do things just to build your list of credentials. It’s the quality of experiences and relationships that really matter. Exploit every opportunity for learning: try new things, listen to the ideas of others, don’t be afraid to fail or ask questions. Finally, pick your own path. Sure, many geoscientists do some common things to get to where they are (like research or taking certain classes), but your journey isn’t identical to anyone else’s. Be unapologetically you and follow your path with confidence.