Inspiring People - Matt Johnson
How we can manage rivers to provide the essential services we require
Matt Johnson is Associate Professor in the School of Geography and the Geoscience Research Theme lead.
Geographers are ideally placed to orchestrate the interdisciplinary teams necessary to tackle the world’s problems, such as climate change, environmental degradation and poverty alleviation.
How would you explain your research?
I am interested in how we can manage rivers to provide the essential services we require, whilst also protecting and improving aquatic ecosystems. In particular, I am interested in how animals survive in, and modify rivers. I am particularly interested in how invertebrates, which are often overlooked, respond to pollution and habitat degradation, and how the can change conditions to their benefit. By better understanding how organisms interact with river processes, I hope my research will help inform more sustainable and successful management in the future.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
I have always been fascinated by invertebrate animals and their behaviour. They are a key rung of the food chain and have critical roles in the breakdown of organic matter and nutrient cycling. They also have fascinating behaviours; for example, some caddisfly build cases from mineral grains and organic material, which have specific architecture and by binding sediment together can influence the sizes of sediment that rivers move. The complexity of the interactions between organisms and the environment, fascinates me.
How will your research affect the average person?
Human civilisation developed on the banks of rivers and rivers remain fundamental to human survival. How we manage and interact with, and utilise, freshwaters determine the success of our species. I hope my research will improve river management, developing more sustainable solutions to persistent problems, such as flooding and habitat degradation, as well as protecting and improving river ecosystems.
How does your research influence your teaching?
I teach a module on river processes to second-year students and freshwater management to third-year students. Therefore, the content I teach is very closely related to my research interests, which is something I feel strongly about. As part of these modules, we go on field courses and perform practical laboratory experiments. The data we collect is collated and provides an important resource for teaching and research. Many students who have taken these modules now work for government agencies, charities and consultancy companies working on practical river management and still engage with the course, for example, delivering guest lectures.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
It is hard to think of a specific moment or event, but I take great joy and pride in seeing my former PhD students graduate and go on to work in river management and research.
What's the biggest challenge in your field?
I think the key challenge in river science currently is the need for wide engagement and interdisciplinary study. River management requires us to understand and manage the cause of problems, rather than their symptoms in a holistic way. However, this requires engagement and education of the diverse groups of people living in river catchments, which can be challenging. This is a truly geographical problem, with a need to understand both the environmental and social context of management issues.
What advice would you give to someone considering an undergraduate degree in geography?
Go for it! Geography is a diverse, important and fascinating subject. There is an increasing need for people who can identify problems and understand the workings of whole systems rather than individual components. Geographers are ideally placed to orchestrate the interdisciplinary teams necessary to tackle the world’s problems, such as climate change, environmental degradation and poverty alleviation.