Great Minds

Sixty seconds with a Scientist…

Professor Fiona Tweed
Professor of Physical Geography

Fiona joined Staffordshire University in 1992 as a Lecturer in Geography. After studying for her undergraduate degree in Geography and English at Keele University, she returned a year later to study for a PhD in glacier hydrology. At the end of her PhD, she taught Geography for a short while at the University of Zimbabwe

What attracted you to Physical Geography?

As a child I was fascinated by the form of the UK landscape and by the natural events that caused it to be that way. I’ve always loved the outdoors and whenever I got the chance, I’d spend time in the Welsh or Scottish mountains, admiring the peaks and valleys and wondering how such amazing scenery had been created.

Who inspired you to become a lecturer?

At High School I considered myself to be particularly good at English, but had to push myself to succeed in Geography. Thankfully, I had an amazing Physical Geography teacher. A truly inspirational figure, he provided the impetus I needed to achieve; volcanoes, glaciers and processes of landscape change all captivated him. I was originally thinking about becoming a travel writer, but I think he was instrumental in changing my perspectives and ambitions.

What is it that you teach?

At Staffordshire University I teach natural hazards and Earth surface processes, landforms and landscapes to undergraduate students. I have also supervised PhD students who have worked on projects involving glacial processes, storm surge flooding, natural hazard management and landscape change.

How do you bring your teaching to life?

As well as teaching through lectures, seminars and workshops, I use fieldwork and field skills activities to engage students. With the Peak District and the Welsh Mountains close-by, there are so many excellent places where students can hone their surveying, mapping and data gathering skills. I’ve run around 50 residential field courses to date – taking students as far afield as Iceland and Tunisia.

What most satisfies you about teaching?

It is the opportunity to translate my research experiences and bring first-hand knowledge and understanding - and enthusiasm - back into the classroom so that my students can benefit.

What is the focus of your research?

My principal research interests are glacial geomorphology and natural hazards. I am particularly interested in the formation, evolution and drainage of ice-dammed lakes, the interactions between ice and volcanoes and the behaviour of water in ice sheets and glaciers. Catastrophic floods that occur in glaciated regions (known as ‘jökulhlaups’) cause damage to the environment and livelihoods, and part of my work involves understanding the processes involved so that we can predict and prepare.

Where has your research taken you?

Over the past 20 or so years, I have been fortunate enough to work in Iceland as a member of various international research teams involved in studying the causes and effects of glacier outburst floods. This research is helping contribute to our knowledge of landscape development and is assisting in our understanding of the evolution of Iceland’s breathtaking landscape.

What does your research involve?

My research involves mapping landforms, collecting various samples and recording physical changes in rivers, glaciers and the wider landscape. By looking at how particular sites are changing we can gain an insight into the processes involved. This can help us to better understand where and how to build bridges, as well as where - and where not - to build houses and roads.

Does technology play a part in your work?

Absolutely. For example, when working in the field we use lightweight temperature probes, highly robust laptops, GPS and highly accurate surveying equipment. The research teams that I work with also use LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) scanning technology. This is a precise and convenient way of measuring distances between objects using laser light and it gives us very high resolution data for areas that can be difficult to access. The advent of digital photography has also made it much simpler to generate high quality images for both research and teaching purposes.

And finally, what makes your job worthwhile?

At the heart of what I do as a researcher is a desire to try to decrease damage from natural hazards and reduce the threat to lives and livelihoods. Until we better understand the causes of flooding, for example, we can’t properly prepare or minimise the impact. As an educator, being able to interest and enthuse our students and encourage them to realise their ambitions gives me the buzz that I need to be in the classroom!

Fire and Ice photographic exhibition

An incredible display of photographs taken by Professor Tweed, during her visits to Iceland, can be seen in a special free exhibition that is being held at the Science Centre from 7 – 27 January 2013.