Category Archives: UBC Geography – PhD

A decade-long odyssey from UBC Geography to geoscience consulting

By Sarah Davidson

It’s 7:30am and my field partner, Jack, and I are packing up for a long walk through the grassy rangelands of southwestern Alberta, in the Rocky Mountain foothills. We’ve driven our truck as far as we can through a bumpy farmer’s field but have reached a steep, impassable gully. We’ll have to continue on foot from here – it’s a hot August day and a fire ban forced us to cancel our ATV rentals at the last minute. We load our bags with our lunches, several bottles of Gatorade, and an extensive list of equipment: a laser rangefinder, transmitter and pipe locator, tape measure, chest waders, life jackets, field books, and an iPad. Over the course of the day we’ll assess 15 gullies, streams, and hillslopes looking for signs of erosion and slope instability.

Figure 1. Assessing the condition of riprap in a river in the rangelands of southern Alberta. Photo credit: Jack Park.

I first realized I wanted to be a geoscientist on a visit to the UBC geography department in the spring of 2009. I was on campus to meet my future Master’s supervisor, Brett Eaton, when I spotted a poster for the environmental geoscience requirements for APEGBC (now EGBC). The poster featured a glossy picture of a helicopter perched on a gravel bar and asked: “Do you want a career as a geoscientist?” I was immediately sold. I’d completed a Bachelor’s degree in environmental science at McGill University, though, and had had no idea at the time that geoscience existed. The history, political science, and economics courses that I’d completed for my minor in international development, while very interesting, were not featured on the APEG geoscience syllabus. During our first meeting that day I sheepishly admitted to Brett that I’d perhaps chosen the wrong undergraduate program and that I wanted to complete the geoscience requirements rather than a Master’s degree. Thankfully he assured me that I could do both (perhaps not realizing that I needed to complete 15(!) additional undergraduate courses).

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From Vancouver to Newcastle

By Craig Jones

I’m a Lecturer in Political Geography here in Newcastle and I’ve been here with my wife, Caitrin, for just over a year and a half. Life here is good. I’ve got beautiful views to the east and on a clear day I can see the North Sea. Today is cloudy, but my spirits are high because writing this feels like I’m reconnecting with you all at UBC, and that always brings a smile. I have few complaints and lots to be grateful for, not least my health. The transition back into UK life and work was surprisingly straightforward and despite having spent nearly nine years in Vancouver, in many ways it feels like I never left. Caitrin insists that my accent is become more British by the week, to which I incredulously reply, “I am British”. We like it here. Newcastle is an understated post-industrial city that seems to make the most of its fairly recent – and still felt – decline. It is understated, eminently walkable, comparatively cheap and is full of friendly Geordies who more than live up to their stereotype. It’s also surrounded by some of the most stunning countryside and coastline in Britain, much of which feels ‘untouched’ compared to many places in the South of the country. I sometimes even feel a vague and confused sense of northern pride. To the locals, I may as well be from Cornwall, and Caitrin, of course, is automatically a Trumplander.

There is no such thing as a day in the life of a Lecturer here at Newcastle – much like anywhere else, I suspect. Weeks and months have a certain rhythm, but during term-time the days feel like organised chaos. We are contracted to teach and do admin for around 60 per cent of the time – and the remainder 40+ per cent is spent on research. Student numbers are high, as are tuition fees, so there is a parallel responsibility not only to ensure ‘Teaching Excellence’, but also to create student satisfaction. The latter has a seemingly insatiable appetite, and one’s work is never done. One big difference between the UK and Canadian systems – so far as I can tell – is that here in the UK we do a lot of team-teaching. This can mean several people teaching on an individual course (or ‘module’ here). It also means that it is common to teach across and ‘drop in’ to several courses for the odd lecture. This has both benefits and drawbacks but one thing I have particularly enjoyed is the co-creation of lectures and knowledge and learning from many different pedagogic styles.

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My journey from a very keen but distracted (and probably depressed) undergraduate to a Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University

By Nadine Schuurman

Remember the Friendly Giant? Never heard of him? Well he was voted Canada’s most loved TV show last year in a CBC poll (you can find it on Youtube). He always started the show with “look up, way up” because he was a giant and very tall. To write this blog, I had to look back, way back.

I did my undergraduate degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), about as remote as you can get from Ottawa where I went to High School. I probably took just about every type of course in my first couple of years before settling on Geology as a major. Sadly, that did not go well. It didn’t go well because my little brother became very ill and died. Before he died, during the period that he was sick and in and out of hospital, I tried running long distances, then reading books by myself in my freezing cold bed-sit, then partying. It all worked to distract me – so much that I failed all of my courses in the Spring semester of 1979.

Me around the time of my expulsion (1979)

Failing all of your courses resulted back then (and possibly today) in what was called the Dean’s vacation: a two year forced expulsion. They weren’t very happy years but by the time I returned to MUN as a 21 year, I knew I wanted to become a geographer, especially a GIS type of geographer.

I was self-supporting after my spectacular failure at my first university attempt and that really sharpened my focus. I ended up doing quite well. I won a few minor scholarships, was given a Teaching Assistantship as an undergraduate and started to think “hey maybe I can go all the way with this academic gig”. Beginner’s confidence. Continue reading