December 9, 2015, by Michael Jennings

Global Research Theme Lead Professor Georgina Endfield

Q&A with Professor Georgina Endfield, Global Research Theme Lead for Sustainable Societies.

World-class research doesn’t happen by accident. It happens at The University of Nottingham because we put research excellence at the heart of what we do. The size and scope of global challenges pose critical questions which academics research to directly impact the lives of all. By grouping our Research Priority Areas (RPA) around five Global Research Themes (GRT) we can use creative interdisciplinary approaches to deliver world-class research on a global scale. Each month between now and March, we will post academic profiles of our five GRT leads, for you to find out who they are, their own research and what it means to lead one of the University’s five Global Research Themes.

You can also find more information on our new Research Strategy 2015-2020, Global Research Themes and Research Priority Areas on Campus News.

1. If you had to explain your research to someone who knew nothing about the field, what would you say to them?

My research is about making historical environmental and climatic concerns tangible, accessible and meaningful for contemporary society. For example, one of the ongoing Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded projects on which I lead, with colleagues at the universities of Nottingham, Aberystwyth, Glasgow and Liverpool, investigates how people in different parts of the UK have been affected by extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, frosts, hail and storms over recent centuries. The research examines how individuals, communities and institutions have coped with and responded to these events.

We are all affected by similar kinds of weather events today and these are possibly increasing in frequency and intensity with climate change so it’s natural for people to want to know more about them. Exploring the history of extreme weather can help answer some important questions: how did we cope with and respond to such events? How did spatial and temporal context influence the relative impact of past events, and society’s ability to recover from them? What adaptations did people come up with and why?

2. What inspired you to pursue this area of research?

I’m fascinated by how we remember and record the past, how that information is passed down the generations, and how we can use it today and into the future. Studying geography at university and adopting an environmental history approach through my research to date has given me the opportunity to work across a wide range of disciplines to address these themes from a variety of perspectives, and with different kinds of methodological approaches.

3. How will your research impact the average person?

My research seeks to demonstrate the importance of historical contingencies for understanding present environmental and climatic concerns. In my climate and weather work, for example, my purpose is to demonstrate the importance of spatial and temporal influences on the implications of weather events at a range of scales. I investigate the scale of impact of- and the nature of human responses to these events and the way in which time and place specific contexts may have influenced both impact and response; I examine how individual and community responses to climate variability, including the recording and recollection of weather and weather events, have changed over the course of recent centuries and are still changing; and I explore how social memory of- and adaptations to past events may have influenced perceptions of relative resilience and vulnerability. These kinds of issues are central to societal wellbeing in a context where extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency and intensity in coming years.

4. What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

One of the most memorable ‘moments’ was at Kuruman, in the Kalahari Desert, in the early 2000s. Myself and colleague, Professor David Nash from Brighton University, with whom I worked on the first climate reconstruction for the Kalahari, were fortunate enough to deliver a talk on our work to school children at this former 19th century mission station. Our chronology was in part reconstructed from weather descriptions extracted from 19th century missionary correspondence, some of which had been written by the likes of missionary and explorer David Livingstone from that very same location. It was quite a levelling experience.

5. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your field?

It’s important to pursue what fascinates you and to do research you genuinely want to do. Much of all our research is informed by real world issues, shaped by particular funding calls and increasingly driven by the impact agenda, but I think there is also plenty of scope for genuine curiosity-led research, and that’s vitally important and why we enter into academia in the first place.

I think, if you have an opportunity, try to take on some academic community roles. I’ve had a few such roles in recent years, including sitting on the AHRC’s Care for the Future advisory group, being Honorary Secretary for Research at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, and President of the International Commission for the History of Meteorology. All have been time consuming roles that have often placed a constraint on the time I have available to write up my own research, but equally these roles have been important to me personally. I like to think they have allowed me to promote research opportunities across the academic community, have provided an opportunity to shape and feed into research agendas and to identify new research opportunities. It feels like a real privilege to be in those kinds of positions. I would also say, with the benefit of hindsight, to pace yourself, don’t take on too much, but if you do, make sure it’s a responsibility you are really passionate about.

6. What’s the biggest challenge for researchers in your field to overcome?

It is fair to say the funding landscape has changed recently and will continue to change. Securing funding to support your work is obviously an incredibly competitive, frustrating and sometimes also a disappointing process for us all. In that context, I would say be tenacious and really pursue an idea if you think it has potential.

7. You lead the Sustainable Societies Global Research Theme (GRT) at The University of Nottingham. What does this entail?

The role is a new one and part of the University’s new Research Strategy, so there is no precedent. I see this very much as a catalysing role , engaging people from across the University in high profile research opportunities, ensuring Research Priority Areas (RPAs) are developed, profiled, and marketed appropriately, identifying key opportunities for impact related research within and across the RPAs.

A key part of this role is also to draw on the research excellence across the University to inform, shape and invest in research agendas and impact priorities. In order to deliver on the University’s strategic research targets, it’s important for the representatives of the Global Research Themes, myself included, and RPAs to work in partnership to recognise and build upon the existing successes of the University, and to ensure talent is recruited, nurtured and retained, at all levels.

8. How does your work fit within the Sustainable Societies Global Research Theme (GRT)?

I think my own work speaks directly to this theme. My current research, which looks at historical records of extreme weather and how different spatial and temporal contexts affected people, is funded under the ARHC’s Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past theme. This is very much about sustainable societies. Through this kind of work we can come up with pertinent messaging about the past which may go some way towards benefitting future societies.

9. How does being based at The University of Nottingham allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?

I think Nottingham has offered me a particular supportive environment in which to pursue research. This includes offering infrastructural support and advice to help develop and pump prime research ideas and ‘speculative’ research, for developing capacity, or for pursuing large grants. I have always found the University’s research environment to be very collegiate, supportive and responsive. I have also most certainly benefitted from learning and working with very talented colleagues at all levels at Nottingham, and some exceptional early career scholars in particular. In my 17 years here, I have been fortunate to be able to engage with colleagues on projects across the breadth of my own discipline, but also beyond and this has been a very rewarding and inspiring experience.

10. What is a sustainable society?

For me, a sustainable society is one that learns from past experiences and is able to galvanise that knowledge to endure into the future.

Professor Endfield has a BSc in Geography and an MSc in Archaeology from the University of Liverpool. She completed her PhD on Social and Environmental change in Colonial Michoacán, Mexico, at the University of Sheffield.

Professor Endfield was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2005, less than ten years after completing her PhD, in recognition of her ‘consistently high class scholarship’ in the field of environmental and climate history. She is currently Professor of Environmental History and is Sustainable Societies Global Research Theme lead at The University of Nottingham, President of the International Commission on the History of Meteorology and Editor of The Anthropocene Review.

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