Postdoc Research Assistant, Glaciology, Dr. Matt Westoby @MattWestoby: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Field observations in the Nare Basin, Nepal. This was the source of a catastrophic glacial lake outburst flood in 1977 that destroyed numerous bridges, buildings and valuable agricultural land for downstream communities. Copyright Matt Westoby

NAME:  Dr. Matt Westoby

CURRENT TITLE:  Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Department of Geography, Northumbria University, Newcastle, United Kingdom

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Glacial hazards / high-mountain glaciology; numerical dam-breach and outburst flood modelling; high-resolution topographic surveying methods for glaciological applications (TLS, SfM, etc.)

YEARS EXPERIENCE:  1 month Postdoctoral Research Assistant (Aug 2014 – present); 14 months private sector environmental consultancy (June 2013 – Aug 2014); 7.5 years higher education (BSc, MSc, PhD)

EDUCATION: BSc Physical Geography, University of Southampton (2004-2007); MSc Glaciology and PhD research, Centre for Glaciology, Aberystwyth University (2008-2013)

What’s your job like?

Fantastic! I’ve been in my current position at Northumbria for exactly one month, and the time has flown! I’m employed as a post-doc researcher on a NERC-funded project that is investigating the evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet over recent interglacial-glacial cycles. Sadly, I missed the boat on undertaking fieldwork in Antarctic, and so the majority of my time at the moment is office-based. This isn’t as bad as it sounds – there’s loads of exciting research going on in the department, and since I’m still relatively new to the department, I’m still meeting people and learning about what they’re up to.

My doctoral research focused on high-mountain (Himalayan) glaciology and glacial hazard assessment, which is really quite different to polar or ice-sheet glaciology. The overlap between my PhD and current position is the application of high-resolution topographic surveying technologies (e.g. laser scanning, Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry) to ice-marginal environments. The work is exciting and extremely timely, and I’ve been very lucky to secure this position given how competitive the post-PhD job market is at the moment.

supraglacial melt pond, glaciology

A supraglacial melt pond on Ngozumpa Glacier, Nepal. These ponds expand to form the large moraine-dammed glacial lakes that my PhD research focused on. Copyright Matt Westoby

What’s a typical day like?

It varies. At the moment, I’m spending the vast majority of my time processing raw three-dimensional topographic datasets from two Antarctic field seasons that the rest of the project team undertook. It can be quite repetitive at times, but I’ve got a clear road map of the data that needs crunching to get the results that will eventually turn into the key figures that future publications will revolve around. I find myself having to stop and think about where the data are leading me every now and again, but that’s half the challenge, and it keeps me on my toes!

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time recently in the lab where I’ve been dry-sieving a set of Antarctic moraine samples. The dry-sieving process is largely automated and fairly straightforward (and very noisy!), but manually measuring axes dimensions and roundness for hundreds of individual clasts takes forever – I’m heavily dependent on the radio to keep me sane for this part! I’ve also been doing some training to use a Scanning Electron Microscope to look at the very finest moraine sediment fractions in incredible levels of detail. This has been completely new to me, but great experience – it’s never a bad thing to work on expanding your technical competencies, given the opportunity.

Today, I spent an hour or so with the other staff in the department that are also working on the project. We exchange ideas and progress, and this helps to focus my workplan for the next week or two. If I can spare an extra hour or so at the end of each day, then I’ll use this to work on paper revisions from my PhD research (it’s nearly all published!) or work on preparing grant and fellowship applications, typically with imminent deadlines looming…

I was fortunate enough to spend a day at a workshop on glacial hazards in Turin this weekend – these are usually fairly informal affairs, and their real value can often lie in the opportunity to meet like-minded researchers (often people who I’ve had lots of e-mail correspondence with, but have never actually met!) to network and bat around ideas for future collaborations and papers. Unfortunately, these events are usually few and far between, but are a nice change of scenery and are invaluable for keeping up with the latest developments in my field(s).

What’s fun?

Well, luckily I enjoy my new job a great deal, so I find most days fun! Very rarely will I wake up and not be looking forward to cycling into work and getting started on whatever I’ve got planned for the day. I really enjoy planning fieldwork, although it can get pretty stressful, but when you end up at the foot of Mt. Everest, as I’ve been lucky enough to do a couple of times, I know that it’s all been worthwhile! I’ll never get blasé about receiving those ‘Revised manuscript accepted’ e-mails either – they never fail to put a smile on my face for the rest of the week! Other than that, I enjoy getting out on my road bike when I can, and I try to organise at least one SCUBA diving holiday with mates each year – it’s essential to get that work/life balance right at an early stage, and I struggled with this during the early stages of my PhD.

Cho La Pass, glaciology

Crossing the Cho La pass (5,420 m), en route to Everest Base Camp in 2011 – a very early start and countless stops to catch our breath! Copyright Matt Westoby

What’s challenging?

Well, the big challenge for me, as an early career researcher, is the continual background pressure to get papers out and expand my research profile and network with a view to securing my next post, whether that’s another temporary research contract, or a more permanent teaching or research position. Publications are essentially one of my main forms of academic ‘currency’ when it comes to securing the next position, or future grant funding, so these are always in the back of my mind.

I’m currently working on a large (5 year) independent research fellowship application which takes up virtually all of my time when I’m not doing my actual job. I’ve prepared a couple of these over the last 2 years or so, and they’re extremely challenging to do well, but the payoff, i.e. potentially my next job, would be well worth the countless evenings and weekends spent working on it.

Fieldwork can also be very challenging at times, but incredibly rewarding. We spent the best part of 5 weeks at high altitude (~5000 m) during trips to Nepal for my PhD, and the toughest thing in those situations isn’t necessarily the physical demands of trekking, living and working in such a harsh environment for an extended period of time, but to keep everyone’s spirits up. The two go hand in hand, but in my experience, the latter can often be more important.

What’s your advice to students?

If you find a field that you’re really, really interested in, then pursue it and be persistent. My interest in glaciology was sparked whilst studying for my A-Levels, and at that point, I pretty much made a conscious decision that this was what I wanted to do. So, I enrolled in all of the cryospheric-type modules I could at university, got involved with as many opportunities for fieldwork as possible, and have tried my hardest to forge the beginnings of a career for myself.

The enthusiasm of lecturing staff and academic supervisors to teach and guide you around a subject can make an enormous difference, but it also works both ways – don’t be scared to ask for guidance from your tutors, as you’ll often find that they’re more than happy to impart what advice they can, and this will often always help!

Another top tip is to search for little pots of money to support fieldwork at conference attendance for undergraduate, Masters, or doctoral study, even if this is a few hundred pounds. You could try this through your department or university, or a larger research body (e.g. the Royal Geographical Society). If you can secure these, and they’re often quite competitive, it will help to demonstrate to potential future supervisors/employers that you’ve got the initiative to secure funding for and carry out your own research. You can begin to do this at whatever stage of education you’re in, and it’s all great experience.

Khumbu Glacier, glaciology

The Khumbu Glacier – this drains the Western Cwm of Mt. Everest and is the site of Everest Base Camp. As far as fieldwork destinations go, this will take some beating! Copyright Matt Westoby