Alumni Services

Hermione Cockburn

Dynamic Earth's new Scientific Director Dr Hermione Cockburn, talks landscape evolution, small screen success and how her career has come full circle.

Name Dr Hermione Cockburn
Degree Course BSc. Hons Geography / PhD (Geomorphology)
Year of Graduation 1993, 1998
Hermione Cockburn

Your time at the University

I confess to not knowing much about Edinburgh before applying to read geography here but the prospect of going to a Scottish University over 450 miles from Brighton, where I went to school, seemed both exotic and alluring.

More by luck than judgement, I found myself in a city with an incredible landscape of its own and in a department that excelled in geomorphology - both these things heavily influenced my passion for landscapes and geoscience.

One the best things about University were the field trips. I thoroughly enjoyed departmental trips to the Cairngorms, Snowdonia and Iceland. In addition, I’d go off to youth hostels around Scotland with a friend who had a car (very unusual in those days!) and developed a love of walking and the Scottish landscape.

My second love was Edinburgh University Theatre Company. I acted in various productions and spent a couple of summers doing box office and Fringe shows at the Bedlam.

I knew I wanted to take my studies further and won a NERC-funded PhD studentship to stay at Edinburgh to research landscape evolution in Namibia using a new technique called cosmogenic isotope analysis. My PhD involved lots of fieldwork in southern Africa, several months living in New York learning geochemistry at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and lots of lab work in East Kilbride. Overall it was a wonderful experience and I feel proud of both my Edinburgh degrees.

Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University

When I finished my PhD, I heard rumours about a brand-new visitor attraction and science centre being built near Holyrood Park called Our Dynamic Earth. I was determined to work there and before embarking on a post-doc at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, I got a job at Dynamic Earth developing their original education service.

I had a great time in Melbourne exploring and researching landscape evolution in Australia and Antarctica as well as back in Africa. But Dynamic Earth has given me an insight into science communication and when I came back to Edinburgh that’s what I’ve focused on ever since.

You could say my career has come full circle in that I’ve just started as the new Scientific Director at Our Dynamic Earth.

Dr Hermione Cockburn

In 2002, I won a BBC Talent competition called Science on Screen largely thanks to the many friends and family who phoned up Tomorrow’s World and voted for me!

Since then I’ve presented various science and history shows for the BBC including What the Ancients Did For Us, Rough Science, Midsummer Live and Coast. I wrote a book “Fossil Detectives: Discovering Prehistoric Britain” to accompany the BBC2 palaeontology series I presented, for which I interviewed my hero Sir David Attenborough about his life-long love of fossils - undoubtedly a highlight of my career.

I’ve also presented Radio 4 programmes on subjects ranging from lead pollution and lasers to reservoirs and greenhouses, and an award winning series on bacteria. Alongside working in broadcasting, for the past ten years I’ve taught environmental science for the Open University in Scotland which has been a great way to engage with students of all ages and backgrounds.

You could say my career has come full circle in that I’ve just started as the new Scientific Director at Our Dynamic Earth. It is wonderful to be back, taking over from Professor Stuart Monro who I worked with right at the start, and who has been an inspirational figure throughout my career.

Dynamic Earth is the only centre of its kind in the world dedicated to communicating Earth and environmental science in a fun and accessible way. I’m looking forward to working closely with the academic community, particularly at Edinburgh University, to ensure that visitors to Dynamic Earth not only find out about how the history of the Earth and how it works, but also about the cutting-edge research that goes on in the city.

Alumni wisdom

Enjoy first year and the chance to explore your subject and find your feet in a new city. I skipped first year but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Take advantage of all the opportunities to try new things - from hill walking to trampolining, science writing and theatre management, you never know what will inspire you.