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River science students focus on Italy for postgrad project

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Tagliamento River north east Italy.
Tagliamento River north east Italy.

Queen Mary University of London environmental scientists headed to Italy this semester to see for themselves the Tagliamento River in the north east of the country – a key research site for the School of Geography’s academics.

From the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, the Tagliamento River flows from an alpine to a Mediterranean coastal plain environment. One of the few remaining near-pristine river floodplain systems in Europe, it’s an ideal place to study a river relatively unchanged by human intervention.

Dr Gemma Harvey (left) helps students explore the river environment.
Dr Gemma Harvey (left) helps students explore the river environment.

Dr Gemma Harvey, who leads the Integrated Management of Freshwater Environments masters degree programme of which this field trip is a part, said the visit provides a contrast to the heavily impacted rivers her students investigate in London and the south east of England.

“The Tagliamento is a very dynamic, near-natural river system; this is pretty rare in Europe. It provides our students with a unique opportunity to explore river processes and landforms in a natural setting and gives them a comprehensive understanding of river management issues,” she said. “It offers an interesting contrast to the heavily modified rivers we study elsewhere in the MSc programme.”

Students get hands-on experience of key field data collection skills for river environments during the seven-day trip. Their project work examines biophysical river properties such as flow, sediment, morphology and vegetation.

QMUL graduate Peter Duffell taking notes on the Tagliamento field trip.
QMUL graduate Peter Duffell taking notes on the Tagliamento field trip.

Peter Duffell, who has just graduated with an MSci Environmental Science degree from QMUL Geography, said as well as learning practical field methods such as field sketching, mapping, orientation, flow-gauging and sediment sampling, the trip also encouraged great teamwork.

“We were focused on looking at the role of the black poplar tree and the way it affects the geomorphology of the braided river itself. We were encouraged to collect notes in a forensic fashion so we could piece it all together and build a complete picture of the river, its ecosystem engineers and the biogeomorphological feedbacks at play,” he said. “But the project work also tested our people skills too such as working in a team, using our judgment in situations when collecting data, and learning to compromise and work together.”

PhD student Maria Vasilyeva helped masters students on the trip.
PhD student Maria Vasilyeva helped masters students on the trip.

The skills students develop during the MSc programme are ideal if they want to go into river management and environmental consultancy work. “We aim to produce scientists capable of stepping straight into roles in the water and environmental sector,” Dr Harvey added. “The topics they cover include monitoring and managing pollutants, river assessment and restoration, as well as flood modelling using industry-standard software.”

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