Expert Breakfast Report for 13 March 2019: Dr Simon Cox, GNS Science

Dr Simon Cox, one of the Principal Scientists at GNS ( made several points of significant importance for students - and his acceptance of the invitation was influenced in part by the reports of SMC members cleaning out the Leith.

It was great to have Dr Cox give the Expert talk this morning, not least because he has a busy day in front of him with other things.

He gave some excellent advice on how to find the work that is best for you.

As a Geologist he spends quite a lot of time in the mountains, where from time to time, large bits fall off “and I think that’s quite a nice parallel for what it’s like being a graduate. You’re kind of standing there at the top of the hill and you’re getting pulled in every direction by gravity, and we kind of start to lean in one particular direction, and we’re never quite sure whether that’s the right way to go.” He then showed us a picture of an avalanche at Mt. Vampire in which the rocks had gone in many different directions and spread out in different ways. While this in many ways mirrored what happens to people when they finish at University, the difference is that “you can do a whole lot of things that deflect you in different directions, that give you perhaps a more positive outcome.”

Before developing this idea further, Simon commented on his own rather indifferent school academic record, noting how much better off he had been when he did not perform well in the scholarship group, but, when dropped down to the next stream, became much more comfortable as the pace of learning matched his own. Becoming much more interested and finding the teachers interested in him, by the time University beckoned he was enjoying the work he was doing.

Uncertain about what course to study, he started out on a Minerals Technology degree, the prime motivation for which was the attractiveness - and his desire to get to know her - of the daughter of the Prof. of Mineral Technology! Embarking on Geology in first year, he found it very interesting and was invited onto the Honours programme, ending up with a BSc(Hons) in Geology. Deeply interested in mountaineering, climbing and so on, he went to the Himalayas, Nepal and India, touring all around.

Again unsure about what the future might hold, he returned to Dunedin and was offered the chance to undertake Master's research in Antarctica, and it was Antarctica that beckoned more than the Master's degree. On returning, he found it difficult to settle down and write up the thesis, and wasted several months before finally settling into it. (“In 1988 I basically did nothing.” - except for having a “really good time”). Several pressures combined to change all that. A certain amount of parental pressure, a comment from his supervisor that, “If you can’t be bothered, I can’t be bothered" - coupled with the feeling that he owed the New Zealand taxpayer something for having his paid trip to Antarctica, and involvement with his future wife who herself was a motivated person, finally drew him into an intensive year and a half of research and writing resulting in submission of his thesis. The examiners' response was that he should have put it in for a PhD - so he enrolled for one, again at Otago, and submitted it successfully just 27 months later. Once again, the future was unclear. After working in the mining industry in Australia for a time. Now, however, “I guess the point I want to make here is that I’ve got possibly the best job in the world, because I wake up in the morning and I never feel that I’m going to work . . . because I love what I do.”

His work now is as an outdoor geologist, developing geological maps used in hazard zonation used by councils, fault line description and assessment of how active they are, landslide hazard assessment, working on a geological map of Antarctica with other people from about 15 different nations* this work to be shared around the world. Other work concerned the Christchurch earthquake post-recovery and he commented on the news yesterday that Australian insurance company IAG will no longer provide contents insurance for Wellington residents because of the earthquake risks. (See Youtube “Canterbury earthquake - first flyover of fault”, also Youtube GNS Dart Landslide). Dr Cox also works with the Ngai Tahu iwi on pounamu (greenstone), searching out where it is, what state it is in and if there is enough to develop a business around it, and ensure there will always be pounamu available for future generations. He is intrigued to work with a mineral which has such meaning to people, in contrast to the inanimate nature of most work with rocks.

“Find your niche, so that when you get up in the morning you feel really privileged to do what you do.”

So, how do you find the work that is best for you?

1. Know yourself - very difficult at your stage to know what you will enjoy in 20 years time - but, for most of us, look closely at what your parents enjoy doing. In the great majority of cases, you will not be much different - in essence if not in detail. e.g. if you father enjoys making things in his workshop, consider a job that will have elements of that.
2. Go for intellectual satisfaction above anything else. Money is fine, but does not bring happiness - and you’re here because you have a good mind.
3. If there is work that seems to fill the bill for you, market yourself, and that means knocking at the door and asking someone to talk about their job in exchange, perhaps, for a cup of coffee. It means offering to work for nothing at a place that appeals, having a foot in the door can well lead to a career.
4. Timing is important, and luck plays a part. When you graduate may not be the most ideal time to look for a job if, for example, employment is driven by commodity cycles. So keep an eye on any that may influence your area of interest, and plan accordingly.

*In response to a question on the geological map of Antarctica. Dr Cox commented on the widespread interest on the effect of the Antarctic landscape on climate change, eg different rocks give off more heat (partly as a result of isotope decay and whether they are dark or light in colour), so a large body of granite would produce more heat that a similar area of schist rock. This can provide conditions suitable for lichen and other plant growth, for example, making the work of great interest to biologists from a plant distribution point of view. As mentioned above, the survey results will be generally available around the world.

(As usual, there was more, including several excellent questions from members, but I have reached my limit of 1,000 words. Do try to attend these breakfasts to gain the full experience).

Posted: Thursday March 14, 2019