A New Challenge

Meet (again) Rob Pockalny as he assumes the duties of associate dean

By Alexander Castro

It’s 1975, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws has inaugurated a shark trend with gallons of fresh blood. Like many a middle-schooler, Rob Pockalny is fascinated by the fearsome fish, and opts for sharks as the subject for his term paper. Pockalny figures marine biologist is a pretty cool career choice, even though he lives “basically next to a gravel pit” in tiny Portville, New York.

“I had a huge rock collection,” Pockalny recalls. He held onto this mineral love but also some of that deep sea terror, describing the ocean thusly: “It’s vast and I’m still petrified of it. It’s very intimidating. I like to study the rocks, the wet rocks. The water kinda gets in my way.”

Now, however, Pockalny is responsible for a lot more than stones. The oceanographer has been at GSO since 1995 as a marine research scientist. Recently, he became the associate dean of academic and student affairs.

“It’s mostly making sure students get through in a timely manner…[and that] students have access to resources they need to get their degree,” Pockalny explains. “[I] let the students know they have a catalog of courses that is predictable, but is flexible at the same time.”

Even over Zoom, Pockalny’s affability is obvious, as is his insight and empathy for the learning process. “I was not good in class,” he says. “I mean, I always got my grades. But I didn’t really learn anything.”

What Pockalny did remember was experiences. To his new role, Pockalny brings a sensitivity for different learning styles and needs. He notes the sciences are often a bastion for people who “don’t really learn the ‘normal’ way.”

Pockalny’s own route to oceanography was somewhat zigzag. As an undergrad in Buffalo’s State University of New York, he learned marine biology wasn’t as lucrative as earth science. “[This was] back in the oil boom…I quickly became a geologist after that,” he says with a laugh.

In 1985, Pockalny missed an admission deadline to GSO, only to be invited to join a research cruise. Another invite followed—and then another. Cruises took Pockalny to Bermuda, Cape Town, Rio and Acapulco. Eventually, he graduated GSO with a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1991, taking special interest in plate tectonics and seafloor morphology along the way.

Pockalny’s as interested in pedagogy as he is geology.

“I’ve never taken a faculty position because my interests don’t fit in any one slot,” he says. “I really enjoy my research, but I also enjoy curriculum development…and creating courses.”

He glowingly describes his experience as a co-principal investigator for GEMS-Net, a professional development project for K-12 teachers to improve their science tutelage.

Pockalny got schooled himself by these teachers. He “learned so much” from the ways they “used their skillset to get points across,” helping him find “a framework for instruction that I wanted to pass on to my colleagues.”

One template he gained is “Focus, explore, reflect, and apply,” which some of Pockalny’s peers have since adapted. “It’s great to see my own colleagues pick these things up…and have it guide them in their own quest to be better instructors,” he says.

In Jaws’ spiritual predecessor Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water…treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.”

Pockalny’s long scrutinized what’s “treacherously hidden beneath.” Now he’s in the position to empower even more students to do the same, in the way they learn best.