Sally Brown is a Principal Scientist in Flood Risk and Climate Change adaptation at the Environment Agency, based in Bristol.
I’ve always been passionate about working in the environment and I enjoy many aspects of geoscience. I took geography, physics and maths at A Level and completed a degree in geophysics, coastal engineering, and engineering geomorphology. I then carried out postdoctoral research in coastal flooding and the impacts of climate change. Although I began delivering lectures, I missed undertaking scientific research so in 2022, I moved to the Environment Agency in the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management team as a Principal Researcher.
As a researcher, I identify problems that need solving from an academic and industrial perspective, so my role involves an element of discovery. Once I have collected and analysed data, I publish the findings and engage with other professions to promote my findings in conferences, policy briefs and through the media. My role is incredibly varied, so I am flexible for whatever comes my way!
A key aspect of my role involves scoping and running research projects. This means liaising with colleagues within the Environment Agency to surface any research gaps. As I progress in my role, I will be running more of these projects, creating business cases to justify research, commissioning contractors, and ensuring projects run smoothly. As well as working with teams within the Environment Agency, I partner with academics to understand how the Environment Agency can work with them and use project outputs to improve flood models and projections.
I undertook a six-month placement at the National Trust which was a great opportunity to see how academic research links to science outside of academia. The experience made me appreciate how to make science useful for organisations and end-users, which I apply regularly to my current role at the Environment Agency.
Although I come from a discipline outside geography, there has been a huge overlap in the skills that I developed at university and those that are required in my current role. For example, using technical skills such as mapping, and modelling, as well as general fieldwork and team-working skills.
I love the freedom of research and discovering new ideas, especially when the impact of research is tangible. My favourite projects have involved working with scientists or engineers internationally. For instance, I have investigated the impacts of sea-level rise in small islands and delta environments. This work gave me an appreciation of the severity of climate change and the impacts experienced by vulnerable communities.
I’m not sure where I’m going to be in five years’ time – I love doing research, so hopefully something along the same lines!
In my previous roles, the biggest opportunities to make a difference were helping students grow throughout their time at university and through their research. I was very fortunate to work on a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding the impacts of 1.5ᵒC warming on coastal flooding. It was fantastic to see the science I generated included in the final report. Collaborating with scientists internationally, provided me with differing perspectives which taught me a great deal.
Although getting into research can be competitive and often tedious, it is really rewarding! Geography is an incredibly broad subject, therefore having that breadth has always been important to me to better understand the world from different angles. At school, the best advice I was given was to do something you enjoy. That still holds true today.
At school I loved looking at landscapes and imagining how they were formed. I also really enjoyed physics and understanding the science behind our landscapes, which is why I ended up doing a degree in geophysics. I slowly moved over to geography as I enjoyed understanding how the physical landscape impacts on people’s lives, whether through understanding how coastal erosion effects communities or the human impact of climate change. Geography is a very versatile subject and can take you in many directions.
* This interview was undertaken in 2022 and was correct at the time of publication. Please note that the featured individual may no longer be in role, but the profile has been kept for career pathway and informational purposes.
Job title: Principal Scientist in Flood Risk and Climate Change Adaptation
Organisation: Environmental Agency
Location: Bristol, UK
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