A family sabbatical at the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences

a boatride in the harbor viewing the replica of the Matthew that John Cabot sailed to North America in 1497 -- an early link between Bristol and America
a boatride in the harbor viewing the replica of the Matthew that John Cabot sailed to North America in 1497 — an early link between Bristol and America

Associate Professors Rowena Lohman and Matt Pritchard from the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) spent just over six months visiting the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences, thanks to Institute for Advanced Study Benjamin Meaker Visiting Visiting Professorships.  We were drawn to the University of Bristol because of the outstanding research programs aligned with our research interests in volcanology, geophysics, and glaciology (the latter is part of the School of Geographical Sciences).  In fact, during our visit we were able to celebrate the Volcanology Research Group’s award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education (link to: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2016/february/queens-anniversary-prize-awarded.html).

Our visit to the department was everything we hoped it would be –intellectually stimulating, thanks to conversations with the staff and students, and an impressive array of seminars and visitors.  We were able to work with our collaborators here to complete joint manuscripts, develop new ideas for proposals and projects, and plan future cooperative activities.  Specifically, our research focuses on using satellite observations to better understand and forecast natural hazards like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  While we have been collaborating with scientists in Bristol for a number of years, there are numerous advantages to a visit lasting several months – being physically present (and in the same time zone) greatly facilitates rapid progress and the face to face interactions over a longer time frame allows ideas to develop in a more natural manner.  We also benefitted greatly from the ability to see how the School of Earth Sciences works and addresses the challenges and opportunities that face most departments – we go back with a fresh set of ideas and inspiration for how we can handle visitors, graduate student interactions, etc., in the future.

We brought along our two young children, who attended school in Bristol and traveled with us throughout the country.  We simply cannot overstate how rewarding this experience has been for them.  To help other families from the USA, we have written a few pointers.  Some of this is time-sensitive, so potential visitors should always check for the latest information.

  • Benjamin Meaker Visiting Visiting Professorships are typically for a maximum of three months. However, because we are married academics, we were able to each write individual applications, noting that if they could combine the two 3-month awards together in a consecutive 6-month period, they would end up with two visitors who were each there for the full 6-month timeframe.
  • The visiting professors are normally accommodated in the IAS’s Principal’s House, but since the rooms there cannot hold more than 2 people, we could not stay there with our family of four. Fortunately, the IAS pointed out to us that the University of Bristol has some limited family housing available, and we were able to stay there – Take home message is to be sure to apply for the housing as soon as you can.
  • The IAS office helped us to obtain the necessary Tier 5 (Temporary Worker) Government authorized exchange visas – be sure to consider the cost of these. While we did not have to pay any NHS fees as part of this visa, our children did – 400 pounds per child. Also, take note that dental coverage is not included.  Our US dental coverage did not cover work done in the UK, but we were pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive it was to pay for things like office visits and x-rays that we did end up needing.
  • Once we arrived in Bristol, the IAS office wrote us a letter so that we were able to open a local bank account, which was helpful for depositing our IAS cheques and electronic transfers. The procedure and requirements for setting up an account is very different than in the USA – in addition to the letter you need a rental agreement. Make sure that both spouses names are on the agreement if you would like both of them to use the account.
  • We were warned in advance that setting up schooling would be one of the trickiest aspects of the sabbatical, and we found this to be true. For our child in nursery school, we found several options available with space, and eventually enrolled her in a nursery program that is part of an independent school that takes kids aged 3-18, but that did not have room for our older child. The cost for nursery here was about what we were paying in the USA.  For children who are kindergarten age and up and who want to attend a state-supported school, the process involves an application where you also list your top three school choices.  You will not be able to get any confirmation of a spot until you are physically in the UK and have an immigration stamped visa for your child.  Through online research and a call to the Bristol City Council we found that all the state-supported schools within about 2 miles of our University housing were over-subscribed.  So the city council suggested that we also list a school that currently had spaces available that was close to the University of Bristol when we submitted our application.  In part this school was under-subscribed because it was recently rated “needs improvement” by Ofsted.  Although it is currently rated “good” (not the highest rating, which is “outstanding”), we found that school was an excellent match for our child and we would gladly keep her in that school if we were staying here permanently.  The lack of certainty on the school choice worried us a great deal before we arrived (we were not going to have a car, so location and commuting by bus was critical), but it really worked out just fine in the end.  One surprise was that the state- and independent- schools followed different academic calenders (for example, the independent school ended the summer term 2.5 weeks earlier), so be sure to check on this.

We want to thank everyone who made our visit to Bristol and the University so enjoyable: to the Institute for Advanced Study for funding and help with the all of the logistics, to our host Dr. Juliet Biggs, to the School of Earth Sciences for providing us space and making us feel welcome, and to

all of the friends we made.  We will miss you, and we hope to return someday!

The clifton suspension bridge and avon gorge
The clifton suspension bridge and avon gorge
Outside the planetarium At-Bristol
Outside the planetarium At-Bristol
Inside the planetarium
Inside the planetarium

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