Senior Lecturer, Volcanology, Dr. Pete Rowley @OrbitalPete: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Dr. Pete Rowley, Senior Lecturer in Geology, leading an undergraduate mapping exercise on the Borrowdale volcanic sequence at Torver High Common,  Lake District, UK. ©2020 Pete Rowley

NAME: Pete Rowley

CURRENT TITLE: Senior Lecturer in Geology
Postgraduate Research Coordinator

AREA OF EXPERTISE: I’m broadly a volcanologist, but I dabble in sedimentology, rock physics, and a few other bits and pieces. My main interests are in using experimental techniques to try and understand how explosive volcanic processes like pyroclastic density currents behave.


EDUCATION: MSci Geoscience – Royal Holloway University of London
PGCE Secondary Science – Brunel University
PhD – Analogue modelling of pyroclastic density currents – Royal Holloway University of London


TWITTER NAME: @OrbitalPete

What’s your job like?

Hugely varied! Most of that variation is on quite a seasonal basis. When term is going most of my time is focussed on the provision of teaching, so lots of prep, lecturing, running practicals, marking, meeting students, and all the admin that goes with it. I try to spend an afternoon or morning a week moving research work forward as well, whether that be meeting with collaborators or research students, or actually getting some writing done (I generally save the data gathering for periods when I have larger chunks of time). 

I really love the teaching element and get a great deal of satisfaction from it. There is a pleasure in putting together lectures and practicals and field days that work well, and there’s a performance aspect to lecturing that I still get a buzz out of. Working out how to best navigate a topic and leading students through it is really enjoyable. And nothing is better than waving students off at graduation who you have seen develop through their programme.

Outside of term is when the research activity gets a bit more time dedicated to it. Of course, even out of term time, there’s plenty of course prep, exam writing, and paperwork to keep on top of too. Wherever possible I’ll spend a few days running experiments, analysing data, or even heading out to the field or to conferences. I always try and get to at least one conference a year as it’s a useful way to keep up on what everyone else in the field is up to, forge new links and connections, and get feedback on work that I’m pushing forward. 

A frame of high speed video showing a fine-grained, gas-fluidised dense granular flow travelling from left to right, simulating pyroclastic density current behaviour. ©2020 Pete Rowley

I’ve been fortunate over the years to build a network of collaborators who I genuinely enjoy working with. Couple that with the fab staff and students here at the University of the West of England (UWE) and I can genuinely say I look forward to going to work, which is a great privilege.

What’s a typical day like?

During a teaching semester, I get up at about 5.30, to get into work for 7.00. Bristol traffic is a nightmare, so this helps me avoid it, and I’ve always been a morning person. I can get a very productive couple of hours of work in before most others are even in, and as long as I haven’t been timetabled for teaching, it means I can get away at about 3 or 4. 

The day will usually be a mixture of lecture or practical prep, admin, and actual teaching, usually with a few meetings thrown in for good measure. I share an office with the other Geology staff (there’s only 3 of us!) so it’s a nice sociable day. We’ll often get students dropping in for a chat or a bit of help. 

Outside of teaching, it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m trying to write, I’ll generally work from home, as there are fewer distractions. Otherwise, it’s into the lab or the office, assuming I’m not out on a trip. 

The core of my labwork relies on flume experiments using granular materials, so it’s a dusty job with a lot of clean up. The runs themselves each take about 30 minutes to an hour to set up and clean down, and each experiment only lasts about 2 or 3 seconds. In that time, the high-speed cameras can record vast volumes of data to analyse though; you can run enough experiments to write a PhD and multiple papers in under a month.I’m still filtering through data I collected several years ago!

A sample of Etna basalt, having undergone tensile strength testing using the Brazillian disc method. ©2020 Pete Rowley

What’s fun?

Honestly, most of it. I love the teaching, I love the research, I love the fieldwork. If I have to pick one then I would probably go for the collaborative research angle. Sitting down with people who know their stuff to talk science is always refreshing. Bouncing ideas off one another – whether it be solving problems on existing projects or coming up with directions for new work – I find really deeply satisfying. I’ve been trying to make it a habit to have a call with at least one of my collaborators every week. Not managed 100% yet, but it’s something I hope to get better at.

I guess the other golden nuggets of greatness are where a student has a question or obstacle, and over the course of maybe seconds, maybe months, you get to see them solve it. Watching that lightbulb moment is just magic.

A view toward the collapse structures of Scafell Caldera, from Side Pike, with topography now dominated by glacial and fluvial erosion. Lake District, UK. ©2020 Pete Rowley

What’s challenging?

On the day to day stuff, the biggest challenge is just the amount of things that have to get done. The net result is you’re not always happy with the work you have done, you can feel guilty for any work you didn’t get around to, and you feel exhausted because you’ve been flat out. Over time, I’ve got a lot better at saying no to things, but the truth is I’m usually saying no to things because I have no time, not because I don’t want to. Which is a frustration all of its own.

Allied to this is the range of things; it’s really hard trying to move your thought process from dealing with a research problem, to a student welfare issue, or planning an undergrad field trip, or filing paperwork for an assessment you’re running in 9 months about a lecture you haven’t written yet. Trying to carve out discrete lumps of time to concentrate on things is really difficult, because there’s always more deadlines – whether it be teaching related, grant related, or otherwise. You have to get very good at switching what headspace you’re in.

What’s your advice to students?

Throw yourself at what you do. Ask questions, use office hours and study sessions, take advantage of all the opportunities and experiences that are open to you. And make sure to have something outside of the degree too! 

Probably the biggest thing, however, is to keep your eye on the wider picture. I think it’s very easy when you’re being taught module to module to see them as discrete packages of knowledge. Geology is a subject which – more than most–really benefits from a holistic whole-earth approach. Understanding how your sedimentology module links to your igneous and metamorphic petrology module, which links to your hydrogeology course, etc. are really important. When students grasp that I think they suddenly find the whole thing not only easier but also more enjoyable.

Geology is an incredible subject, and provides so many opportunities. Throw yourself at it and you’ll not regret it.

A view up to the Mt. St Helens crater from one of the main drainages, showing the hummocky proximal landslide blocks in the middle distance. ©2020 Pete Rowley

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