Innovation Placement? Yes Please!


Richard Mason isa PhD student based at Loughborough University. His research combines the fields of geomorphology and ecology, as he investigates whether caddisflies, small case building insects, can be impacting the movement of sediment in rivers. Rich recently enjoyed a placement in Portland, USA, during which he gained expeRichMasonrienceof both river management and a new culture.

What do ice storms, river restoration and devout bridges have in common? All were experienced on my recent trip to the U.S.A., funded by a NERC Innovation Placement grant!

NERC aims to provide training opportunities which will equip postgraduates with a broad variety of skills, and Innovation Placements are one way of doing this. The innovation funding is specifically targeted at helping PhD students undertake work experience with commercial companies. This funding allowed me to travel to the U.S.A. to gain experience of the world of environmental consultancy and river restoration on another continent.

I flew into Portland, OR, a charismatic city famous for hipster coffee shops, the largest number of micro-breweries per capita in the country, and for being brilliantly weird. Perhaps my favourite example of weirdness is Portland’s Unipiper – a unicyclist who dresses as Darth Vader and plays the bagpipes. Bagpipes which are on fire! I didn’t catch him this time, hopefully next.

The first week of my placement was spent at the River Restoration Northwest conference in Stevenson. The conference was very useful and I was able to gain a number of contacts for my future career as well as some interesting ideas for directions in which to take my PhD project. Stevenson is perhaps the polar opposite of Portland. Quiet and remote, Stevenson is a small town on the Washington State side of the Columbia river, the largest river in the PNW. Ancient Native American lore tells of a landslide cascading down into the Columbia River and filling it with more than five square miles of debris such that one “could cross the river without getting their feet wet.”. The current steel span bridge which connects Stevenson with Oregon state is named the Bridge of the Gods, after this historic event.

The Bridge of the Gods which connects snowy Stevenson with Cascade Locks across the Columbia River. This bridge is the lowest point on the entire Pacific Crest Trail which snakes over 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada.

In order to stretch my funding, I opted to stay in an AirBnB in Stevenson, rather than the 4* hotel where the conference was held. This turned out to be a fantastic idea both as cheap accommodation and a great way to gain a little experience of life in rural America. When I arrived, Stevenson had been covered in a thick layer of snow for eight weeks and more fell overnight. I also got to experience the aftermath of an ice storm; super cooled water which falls as rain but freezes upon impact.

IMG_20170206_165830Home for a week. Complete with log burner stove and affectionate cats.
An ice storm coats tree branches in Stevenson.

For my second week of placement I started the real work of the visit. Back in Portland, I joined Wolf Water resources (W2r) to gain some experience of working for a private consultancy. W2r manage projects to restore river and wetland habitats and are somewhat unique in championing the importance of working with the natural environment. While recognising the need for hard engineering in some circumstances they specialise in reconciling hard and soft engineering, according to the slogan; ‘working with nature, partnering with people ( I was also introduced to fried sprouts, which are something of a delicacy in Portland!

At W2r, I was involved with a project to plan the restoration of a small stream which has been severely degraded. Increased housing in the area has meant that water reaches the stream more quickly and therefore increased high flows. This has caused the stream to erode downwards, destabilising river banks and leading to a landslide which is threatening local houses. In practice this meant sticking on my waders and getting to grips with a bit of surveying and mapping the characteristics of the stream. I was lucky to be able to gain an insight into two stages of the project. I undertook the writing of a draft for the report on current site conditions and potential restoration measures based on the fieldwork. However, there was still time to get back into those waders and accompany my colleagues Rowyn and Joe to conduct some flow measurements at another, slightly damp, restoration site.

Rowyn and Joe gaining an approximate estimate of surface flow velocity at a very flooded restoration site, close to the Columbia River.

The experience has been fantastic and I am confident that the broader knowledge and contacts that I have gained will be very useful both during my PhD and afterwards in whatever career path I choose. I am very grateful to NERC and the Central England NERC Training Alliance (CENTA) for giving me this opportunity. In addition, I would like to thank Matthew Johnson and Colin Thorne (University of Nottingham) for lifts to and from the conference and the team at W2r for the effort that they put into making my placement fun and informative.


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