Academic spotlight: Professor Will Blake

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

5 min read

Will Blake is Professor of Catchment Science in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Associate Dean (Research) for the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

His research focuses on landscape disturbance in river basins with a particular focus on soil erosion and downstream water pollution and siltation. He uses environmental forensic tracer approaches to understand river basin processes and connectivity, helping diagnose complex environmental problems.

He has undertaken research in South East Asia, Australia, East Africa, and Latin America funded by UK Research Councils, European Commission and environmental charities as well as spending time exploring catchment management issues in South West England.

Over the past decade, Will has delivered knowledge exchange, mentoring and capacity-building activities within research programmes – coordinated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – on the use of nuclear techniques to support water, food and energy security.

He is Director of the University of Plymouth Consolidated Radioisotope Facility and has taught on the geography degree since 2003.


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

“I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity and complexity of environmental systems – trying to work out how and why things happen. The roots of my passion are in early travelling adventures.

“Observation is a key part of geographical research and the more I saw of the world, the more questions I asked; the more I discovered, the more I wanted to explore. Geography was a natural choice for me and I feel lucky to have made a career out of deepening my knowledge and understanding of the world.”


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

“My research career has taught me a huge amount about the complexity of human-environmental interactions and the power of geographical thinking to help find solutions to environmental problems. Sharing this knowledge and new ways of thinking with the next generation of geographers is rewarding and motivating.

“As researchers, we naturally strive to make a difference to the problems we are investigating but perhaps the greatest impact we can have on society is using our research experience to help train graduates as critical thinkers.”


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

“Since my research degrees, I have always enjoyed and taken pride in rigorous environmental forensics approaches to understanding land-water interactions. In the early stages of my career I was driven by the thrill of unlocking new knowledge.

“As time went on, however, I began to question whether the impact of such research was always fully realised. I was walking through erosion-ravaged landscapes in East Africa with my Belgian and Tanzanian ‘tracer’ colleagues when the realisation hit that natural science evidence alone had limited power to bring lasting sustainable land management change. This triggered the conception of the interdisciplinary Jali Ardhi [Care for the Land] project with our Tanzanian colleagues at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology.

“I am particularly proud of this project as it crosses so many boundaries, through integration of socio-cultural, natural science and design thinking research, to lay a path from evidence to action.”


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

“‘Most special’ is hard to answer. I am fortunate to have undertaken fieldwork in a diverse range of exhilarating landscapes from wildfire-devastated bushlands in Australia to the savannahs of East Africa; from the jungles of Borneo to Andean glacial-fed rivers. Each have their own special character and are hard to compare. Standing in the pristine environment of primary rainforest in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo, enveloped by the sounds and smells of the jungle, is certainly awe inspiring.

“But overall, for me, it is the diversity and richness of the south Devon landscape that takes it. We have to pinch ourselves sometimes to overcome the anaesthetic of familiarity and remind ourselves what an extraordinary place this is to live.”


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?

“Yes for sure. I have seen first hand how critical, evidence-based geographical thinking can unlock solutions to some of the most serious environmental challenges we face and over the next 50 years geographical research will become increasingly challenge focused.

“Implementation of solutions is perhaps the trickier bit and that is what keeps me engaged with the higher education side of my job – we need geography graduates in all walks of life to help steer society to a better future.”

Plymouth students and Cape Point African penguins during South Africa fieldwork module (1995)


Celebrating 50 years of geography

2019 marks 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.