Dr Philippe Blondel works in the Department of Physics at the University of Bath where he is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Remote Sensing Laboratory. He is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Space, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, joint between Physics and the University’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering.
Philippe teaches undergraduate students in Physics, Maths & Physics (a combined degree) and Natural Sciences and fits this alongside a busy research role with fieldwork that can take him to places as far afield as the Arctic Circle and the Orkney Islands. His research focuses on the physical understanding of acoustic remote sensing and its uses in underwater environments.
Philippe talked to Sarah Marten on behalf of jobs.ac.uk about his interesting and diverse role.
“I teach physics across all the year groups, including students taking our four-year MPhys degree. The first semester is by far the busiest with respect to my teaching workload, when I have about 20 hours each week of scheduled face-to-face contact with students, either in lectures, laboratory classes or tutorials.
“The interaction with students is a hugely enjoyable aspect of my work, and is indeed the main reason why I wanted to become a lecturer. It is so rewarding when students understand difficult concepts for themselves, and can then apply that understanding and knowledge to other aspects of their work, perhaps a laboratory experiment or their own research project.”
With over twenty hours of lectures and tutorials to prepare every week one might expect Philippe to be taking work home to complete in the evenings or weekends on a regular basis. But this is not the case as Philippe explains:
“For me it is really important to maintain a clear break between work and home life. It would be very easy for me to take work home, but I try to ensure all my work is completed during the working day, which starts at 9 am and usually finishes around 6.30 pm. The reasons are two-fold – I naturally want to have some quality time with my family but I also believe that my research is better if I am not immersed in it 24 hours a day. If I’m to have fresh and original ideas, then I need to be relaxed. Taking time out, for example to walk in the park on a Saturday morning is important, since this helps me to see the bigger picture, whilst ideas are still brewing in the back of my mind. I could quite easily get trapped into working all the time, but I believe it is really important to have time to re-charge the batteries. There is life beyond work.”
Lecturers in the Physics department at the University of Bath see their students in weekly tutorial groups. Philippe has five tutorial meetings each week, with four students in a group.
“The main aim of a tutorial is to ensure that our students achieve their full potential academically. But in some ways my role is like that of a parent – ensuring the students can make their own decisions and become independent. Of course I deal with other issues concerning students’ well-being such as changing courses and so on.”
The teaching aspect of Philippe’s role also involves writing course content and associated teaching materials including e books.
“I have created a unit on planetary physics which combines all the physics students have learnt during their degree and applies this to planets and the solar system, drawing together research from other disciplines. This has been very popular with students who are always excited by this fast-moving area.”
Another aspect of Philippe’s job involves his role as Deputy Director of the Centre for Space, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, where much of his work is in the field of underwater acoustics.
“One aspect of this work involves mapping the sea-bed and looking at habitat and ecosystems. For example, what effect do noise and pollution have on marine habitats? We have been looking at the effects of renewable energies, such as tidal turbines in places like the Orkney Islands on marine life. This research is in its early stages, but it’s vital to understand how environmentally friendly the turbines are, and to assess their impact on ecosystems. For that, we work with marine biologists from the University of Aberdeen and a radar expert from the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool. I have around 20 years’ experience in marine scientific research, working closely with scientists in other fields such as marine geology, marine biology and oceanography.”
This research means occasionally leaving the hallowed walls of the university for a more diverse terrain, which can be exciting and at times dangerous.
“I recently spent several weeks in Orkney, where we deployed sonar instruments to monitor the impact on marine life of underwater turbines. Before departing for Scotland we designed the concept for the new instruments, and then proceeded through various phases to build, check and test this equipment in our laboratory facilities and in nearby open water, making any necessary refinements along the way.”
Philippe has also worked in the Arctic Circle, conducting his work on very small boats in order to navigate between icebergs.
“There was a dangerous element to this work – polar bears and sea gulls both inhabit this territory and both can be dangerous to humans, although in different ways. Sea gulls tend to be very protective of their fishing areas, and we had to wear helmets to protect us. But our research paid off and provided us with high-quality data to inform our work. I have also conducted research in whale feeding grounds in British Columbia, which involved staying in wooden huts without electricity or running water.”
Philippe’s own research has many strands. He uses acoustics to design new sonars which are then applied to important problems.
“One part of my research has been concerned with mapping the deposits left by tsunamis, which can help predict when these events might happen again. For this research, I collaborated closely with colleagues in Spain and Portugal. Another area I am interested in is how climate change affects ecosystems in the Arctic Circle, and for this we are collaborating with colleagues in Poland and the USA. We have also looked at how grey whales navigate using sonar.”
Scientific research in universities and elsewhere has been adversely affected by budget cuts in recent years and Philippe’s work has been no different.
“The amount of money research councils have to give out has decreased, so this is a difficult time for anyone involved in research. Our team here at the University of Bath is relatively small. However, I am fortunate in that around 20-30% of my funding proposals are usually accepted.”
Philippe worked as a researcher for several years before joining the University of Bath as a lecturer initially.
“When I was working as a post-doctoral researcher I had little job security, and I was always thinking about the next contract. Once I was working as a lecturer my research had a much longer-term perspective, which was a big advantage. Two questions remain paramount. How does what I do benefit society and how does what I do benefit science?
“Before I started working as a lecturer I wish someone had told me what would be expected of me. I had no idea how much hard work goes on behind the scenes, with preparation, teaching and research. But my advice to anyone who wants to become an academic is to follow your passion. Find out what really motivates you and go for that – having fun at work is really important too. I love my job here at the University of Bath, and the interaction between staff and students is really positive.”
After leaving school in France Dr Philippe Blondel studied physics at the University of Rouen Haute-Normandie, and then completed his PhD at the University of Paris-V11 Jussieu. Philippe has worked as a Research Scientist at the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington and as a Higher Scientific Officer at the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon Laboratory in Wormley, UK. He also worked as a Senior Scientific Officer at the Southampton Oceanographic Centre before joining the University of Bath as a Research Officer in 1999. In 2001 he was promoted to Lecturer and in 2004 he became a Senior Lecturer.
He is the author of many books and published articles including The Handbook of Sidescan Sonar (Springer Praxis Books/Geophysical Sciences)