As part of our celebration of this year’s medal and award recipients, we caught up with Professor Phil Ashworth, recipient of the Cuthbert Peek Award for his pioneering research methods through modelling of river dynamics, to discuss his career, greatest achievement, and most memorable fieldwork moments.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
Influencing or helping anyone in their careers and personal lives. I am particularly proud of a number of my PhD graduates and undergraduate project students who have since moved on to full professorial positions and are leading significant research programmes. I don’t take any credit for their progress but hope that they can remember at least one occasion when I influenced the direction of their career path.
Where did your interest in rivers come from?
The seed was sown by my A Level geography teacher, Mr David Pannett, who was publishing on the history of river dynamics in the River Severn. He was an inspirational, probably slightly unconventional, teacher who was committed to local history and fieldwork.
This prompted me to take a geography degree at Aberystywth where a number of us were mentored by, and then became life-long friends with, John and Jane Lewin. Coincidentally, John’s contribution to the discipline is also being recognised by the Society this year with an Honorary Fellowship. John is a great lateral thinker and taught me to consider river processes across a range of scales – from tagging boulders in the Ystwyth with Professor Bill Bradley (on sabbatical from University of Boulder, Colorado), to understanding the interaction and connection between floodplains and channels in the largest rivers in the world.
Finally, my PhD supervisor Professor Rob Ferguson introduced me to braided (multi-thread) rivers and coarse sediment transport. He took me on my first fieldwork abroad (to Arctic Norway with the BSES – now BES) and taught me how to write academic papers. David, John and Rob all completely shaped my career, life, aspirations and inspirations and I am indebted to them all.
Is there a particularly memorable project you have worked on, or moment you would like to share?
So many, and all related to fieldwork in some of the most beautiful fluvial settings in the world. Without doubt, our work over almost two decades now, on the South Saskatchewan River in Canada, holds some of the fondest memories. The river water is almost clear because of an upstream dam that traps the fine sediments and the bed sediment is mostly fine sand. So, downstream of the dam you get a fabulous view of all the sediment transport and deposition processes happening over time. We have almost a decade of specially-commissioned air photos and then drone images that show nature’s fabulous skills in creating a tapestry of sandy bedforms.
Our several fieldwork campaigns on the Jamuna (Brahmaputra) introduced me to mega-geomorphology, but also shocked me seeing how some of the poorest people live and survive. Geography leads you to experiences you would never get any other way.
How do you think this field will evolve in the future?
This will be technology-driven of course, including availability of more open-access remote sensing platforms - the days of intensive field measurement campaigns are starting to dwindle. It is relatively easy to rely on numerical models, calibrated or validated by field data, but there is no substitute for quantifying processes in the field.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to go into a career in this field?
Pick an inspirational teacher, tutor, supervisor or university. Their enthusiasm will be infectious. Then network and network – virtually, at conferences, in the field - work with others outside your university or company (if these are your domains), and above all, enjoy it.
Find out more about this year’s medal and award recipients.