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Date Posted... Jul 28th 2021

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Huw Williams CO97

What’s driving down the numbers of applicants to Earth Science degree programmes?

Huw attended Truro School from 1990 to 1997 and is now among our valued Old Truronians committed to passing on his knowledge to our current students by supporting the Truro School Connected initiative. He has visited school whenever his schedule allows, assisting Mrs Kenward (Head of Careers) offering advice and guidance and helping to inspire and encourage aspiring geologists. In 2019 Huw was also able to offer a Truro School Sixth Form student, Ollie Brocklebank CO19, work experience before he commenced his geology degree course at St Andrews.

In this interview Huw talks about his experiences and his passion for earth sciences:

I remember looking forward to starting GSCE ‘colouring-In’, or Geology as it was called by those unaware that they were living in the Holocene. As budding earth scientists, we were trained to gaze past our shoes and look into the ground beneath our feet. And weren’t we onto something special? Hammering home Mohs’ Scale of hardness, stratovolcanoes, Mr Kenyon’s (TS Geography Teacher) Jurassic ‘fashion’ ties, halite salt lick, the Moho discontinuity, uniformitarianism, a cold day measuring crustal shortening in Bude (I still carry the scars) and rocks accompanied by the informal rock music discussion forum.

I hoped at the time that this could lead into some worthy career. Perhaps peering at a desert from a helicopter looking for minerals or trekking through wilderness with a hammer looking for an outcrop to tap-tap-tap. I didn’t know what ‘rock time’ in the rock room could lead to. And as it turns out, 24 (!) years later I’m still on the rocks.

Although I haven’t had my helicopter ride yet, I have been fortunate enough to live in some amazing places; now based in Galicia, Spain for two years I have enjoyed two stints in New Zealand for nine years, three years in Sydney, Australia, three years in London and an unusual 18 months in Nuneaton (don’t ask!). I’ve worked on projects across Australasia, a highlight of which was Island hopping the Cook and Solomon Islands. What’s not to like about exploring New Zealand, Australia, California, Latin America… and all this can be traced back to the rock room at Truro School.

For me, this raises an important question – With a challenging and exciting career to be had, what’s driving down the numbers of applications to Earth Science degree programmes? Especially when the cornerstone of environmental practice and sustainability so often relies on the earth science community to find solutions to some our most pressing problems. The young seem geared up to save the planet, so why ignore a route through further education that may best equip them to do so?

It’s believed to be a perception problem… Yes, many in the earth sciences get involved in fossil fuel and raw materials extraction – but there’s no steel for windmills without iron ore and coking coal. I’m no advocate for more coal and more digging, but I am a strong supporter of obtaining the raw materials for more windmills, solar panels, heat pumps, batteries and anything else that technological and engineering sustainability solutions necessarily relies upon, in the safest and least damaging manner that we possibly can. After we’ve reduced, re-used and re-cycled, and until the day comes that we can do away with the extraction of raw materials altogether (not in our lifetimes!) we need a well-informed and experienced earth science community. I think we need to decouple the over-simplification that mining equals destruction with a better-informed understanding of how your smart phone, electric vehicle, solar panel and pretty much everything else that hasn’t been grown by a farmer, has actually come into being, and what legacy it can leave once an extraction site has been exhausted. That’s all well outside the scope of these few hundred words but think of this as a call to find out for yourselves.

It’s also worth pointing out that we’re not just talking mining when we talk of earth sciences. I wonder what comes to mind when thinking of the best route into an environmental career? Or a career in sustainability. Or even how one defines these in the first place…. They both suffer from being highly aspirational life and career goals without having a clear route as to how they are achieved. Certainly, when I bought my colouring pencils, I didn’t think a degree in geology and post-grad in hydrogeology would lead me to energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable groundwater resource management, which are the fields I now predominantly work in. Water and energy are directly involved in at least seven of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, and arguably more.

And that’s what gets me excited about work every day… the optimisation of energy efficiency and carbon emission reductions via Ground Source Heat Pump systems, for which I have been involved in many of the largest systems in the UK, NZ and OZ, having been lucky enough to be at the pioneering stages of this technology in each of these three countries.

Now I’m increasingly peering into geothermal energy production. Having lived in NZ where parts of the ground are literally boiling, it seemed silly not to, so I’ve been involved in projects across much of Latin America. You’ll have seen how Truro School alumni are involved in geothermal energy in Cornwall. Well, we’ve a similar situation in Galicia, for which we’re trying to establish a similar project.

And I still have time for sustainable water use. The basis of my hydrogeology post-grad and backbone of much of my career is concerned with how water flows through the ground and what a borehole or well, will do in a certain location and how to manage this resource in a sustainable manner.

These are the three main concerns of my career and life. I’m extremely proud and excited to work on the sustainability of these precious resources such that we can continue to enjoy them long after I’ve coloured-in my last.

Huw in Yosemite, California

Huw in Hill End, Australia

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