Take 10 with... Martin Brook

Dr Martin Brook from the School of Environment gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss his applied geology research and its daily relevance to industry, governments and people.

Dr Martin Brook, School of Environment
Dr Martin Brook, School of Environment

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Soil, rock, gravity and water go on a Tinder date.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

The most common advice people are given is that in order to enjoy a highly successful academic career, you should focus on one theme and make your name in it.

Unfortunately, I did not follow that advice. I am an engineering geologist who is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. By that, I mean I have research interests from slope stability in urban Auckland, to roof stability issues in underground mines, to land stability in the tropics and above state highways.

The one linking theme is that my research is applied geology. That means its dealing with geological issues that are directly relevant to industry, governments and people on a daily basis.

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

Many of my day-to-day research activities are one-on-ones with postgraduate students, be it honours, masters or PhDs. Often conversations centre on thesis-related stuff, but it can also be about developing a manuscript for publication, or input into an upcoming conference presentation the student is doing.

I hate to admit it, but most of my research-related time is actually spent undertaking research-related administration tasks, rather than data acquisition, analysis, or writing.

I also like to keep abreast of innovations coming out in the academic journals and identifying newly emerging case studies that can be fed into my teaching. From a pedagogic standpoint, I am a strong advocate of research-led teaching.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

That my research is applied. I know where, when, and how my research has impacts on organisations and society. I tend to avoid blue sky research where I would have to try and make my research relevant, or fit within a funding paradigm.

Often, elements of my research do end up being published in a high-ranked journal. However, sometimes it ends up hidden away in a client report not for public view, or as an expert witness testimony, influencing a planning decision that affects tens of thousands of people.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research (it could be a discovery, an anecdote or even a funny incident).

I was running some geophysical surveys in Australia’s Northern Territory to investigate the limestone subsurface. Some graduate geotech engineers were helping out. The survey lines were quite long through the rain forest and across swamps.

Whenever a survey line got close to the edge of some water, no one would go to the water edge to put the geophones in the mud, because of the crocodiles!

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

I usually talk to people and get their ideas and feedback. I don’t mind coming across as an idiot to people, as long as the problem gets fixed expeditiously.

Running field experiments and testing in remote sites can be challenging, whether it’s underground in a coal mine with sponcom (spontaneous combustion) issues, or in oil fields in the Middle East, with security issues. There are always many challenges. Often its simple equipment-related problems - dealing with malfunctions or troubleshooting failing equipment. You just have to plan for things to go wrong, take spare parts, and stay calm!

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

I encourage my students to undertake numerical modelling experiments when it is appropriate and reflect on the outputs and tinker with the parameterisations. It can lead to fascinating ideas.

Often your deductive research leads to inductive research. So you find an answer to a problem you are researching, but happen upon something you never really thought about before, and start following that as a new line of enquiry.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

My research isn’t about putting astronauts on new planets (although I have an honours student working on a Mars project), or stopping ice sheets from melting.

My research aims to improve hazard resilience, which is essentially keeping people safe in a mine, or on a construction site or road. It leads to more appropriate planning laws, and influences national guidelines.

Of the dozens of research students I have supervised since arriving at the University of Auckland three-and-a-half years ago, my students have a 96% success rate in being employed in industry as professional geologists. Some stay in New Zealand, but others are in Australia and USA working for the biggest multinationals. The research skills they develop under me are sought-after by industry.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I collaborate with my colleagues in Faculties of Science and in Engineering. I also enjoy working with research students, especially through the new Masters of Engineering Geology degree we brought in this year. However, most of my work is with people and entities external to the University. 

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

First, network, network, network. Second, if you have followed the linear pathway from a BSc(Hons) to a PhD then an academic job, consider taking a sabbatical to work in industry for a year. It will inform your teaching and help contextualise your research, outside of the academic ivory tower. I resigned from my first academic job after nine years and then spent four years in the civil and mining engineering industry. For me, industry offers the exciting roller-coaster that academia cannot.