Academic spotlight: Professor Anne Mather

Anne looks back at her career, reflecting on her achievements and love for geography as we celebrate 50 years of geography at Plymouth

Anne Mather is a Professor of Geomorphology and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is renowned for her research on long-term landscape development in tectonically active and dryland areas, caused by rivers and shifting sediment.

Her work has particular importance for understanding how landscapes respond to environmental change (for example, tectonic, climatic, etc.) over long (million-year) and shorter (historic) time-scales. This understanding is important for mitigation and prediction of geohazards, land management, engineering and sustainable mineral extraction.

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and Deputy Chair of the British Society for Geomorphology, her research fieldwork has taken her around the world to countries including Spain, Turkey, USA, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Iceland and Morocco.

A passionate advocate for experiential learning through field and practical work, Anne incorporates learning technologies including virtual reality, satellite data and aerial drone technology for landscape evaluation in her teaching.

At the University, she regularly lectures on subjects including: fluvial geomorphology and sedimentology; arid environments; tectonic geomorphology; and cold environments.

<p>Geography 50 Anne Mather</p>

Relaxing in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Can you explain what makes you passionate about the subject of geography?

“Geography unites core passions in my life (curiosity, problem-solving, exploration, travel, the great outdoors) and gives these passions purpose. Geography is uniquely placed to explore the interaction between earth surface processes and society. Its diverse multidisciplinary approach provides a unique and dynamic attitude to problem-solving.

“It provides the skill of reading a landscape (geomorphology) to better understand not just how the landscape is now, but how it has come to be. This understanding in turn forms a powerful framework for understanding the most important issues we face today from landscape management to sustainable mineral exploration and geohazards and the implications of climate change.”

You’ve made a career out of geography – what inspired you to want to teach that subject?

“Primarily I wanted to share my passion about the subject. I loved the experiential learning aspects of geography, especially through the medium of fieldwork. It also did not escape my notice that during my entire education (from School in Derbyshire to Doctorate at Liverpool University) I was not taught by a single female within the geoscience sphere. So combine the curiosity, passion and a wish to contribute to a greater diversity of educators, teaching seemed a natural choice.

“As a career I didn’t start out teaching geography. That came later. I started my post-education geography career in industry (petroleum geosciences) but had the opportunity to undertake a PhD which exposed me to my first experiences of teaching the subject. I loved it, and I still do!

“I love the light bulb moment when somebody understands something for the first time, or connects new ideas. I love the opportunity to inspire a new generation to experience those problem solving skills and thrills that I enjoy so much. I love the thrill of seeing those skills applied successfully by an increasingly diverse range of students across a variety of careers and I love the teaching variety from undergraduate and postgraduate teaching to knowledge transfer in industry.”

Is there a piece of research that you have undertaken of which you are particularly proud?

“I led the research that identified, for the first time, a suite of giant landslides along the coast of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. These landforms had remained undiscovered due in part to their great antiquity (the oldest are more than 3 million years old) and size (several kilometers) which meant they had been difficult to recognise using a single traditional approach. These landslides highlight an under-recognised hazard in the area (both from the landslides and resulting tsunami where they enter the Pacific Ocean) and they are now being used as analogues for understanding Martian slope failures. They provide exciting insights for understanding the long-term evolution of landscapes.

“In particular they provide a means of getting sediment into the off-shore Peru-Chile trench, which has implications for associated earthquake size and frequency, and they provide important information on climate change in South America that is currently helping us to understand how the Andes got so high.”

Where is the most special place you have visited on this planet and why?

“That’s a difficult question as there are so many unique and amazing places I have had the opportunity to explore through fieldwork. I’d probably go with the Arcas alluvial fan system in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The lower end of the system is located in the driest place on earth (at an average of less than 1mm per year, basically it doesn’t rain here), 1 km above sea level. The highest part of the system (more than 4km above sea level) is ‘wetter’ (some 50mm rainfall per year) but just this small difference is enough for life to survive. This area has taught me a lot, and is still teaching me, for example about the sheer size of floods and landslides that such a dry environment can generate. 

“The remoteness and scale of the landscape provides a simultaneous awe and pioneering feel to the field exploration. Camping and waking up in the morning in this untouched landscape and being greeted by wildlife that is simply not used to humans and curious rather than scared of you is amazing. In the catchment every morning we had a party of finches that cleaned up after us. We had a horned owl who kept an eye on our fieldwork and a condor who checked us out every day, plus a herd of guanacos and wild donkeys that we would occasionally see disappearing over the hills in a cloud of dust. The remoteness and beauty provides freedom to think, and to be truly quiet in a noisy world.”

Do you think studying geography is especially important given the current state of the planet? And do you think that might change over the next 50 years?

“Geography is critical to understanding both the past (which provides needed context) and current issues we face on planet Earth. The relevance of geography is likely to increase given the current challenges we face such as climate change. Not only is geography crucial to understand what has happened, what is happening and what could happen, it is also well placed to help mitigate change in a sustainable way, by embracing how the physical processes work and how humans interact with these changes.

“The power of geography as a subject lies in the multi-disciplinary approaches used which encourage innovative ways of problem-solving and application of new and emerging ideas and technologies, take for example the application of aerial drones for field survey and the use of social media for natural-hazard evaluation.”

Celebrating 50 years of geography

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of geography as a degree subject at the University of Plymouth.

In the last half century, 6,394 students have graduated from our geography programmes and 154 staff have worked with us, supporting and carrying out world-class research and teaching.