On the blue-skies fast track

December 26, 1997

The THES speaks with three academics under the age of 40 as part of an occasional series of profiles of young researchers making an early mark

Stuart Lane

When the people of West Bengal decided to build a new temple, they sought advice from the gods and from two British geographers.

Stuart Lane, one of the geographers, had never visited that region of India, but he was able to draw on his knowledge of rivers to question the wisdom of building a temple, designed to last 3,000 years, at the meeting of two tributaries.

At 26, Dr Lane, a Cambridge University assistant lecturer, is not short of such consultancy work. But, having won Pounds 250,000 in research council grants, he prefers to concentrate on the blue-skies research that public money enables. "Consultancy never gives you time to address the issues a question raises that are often more interesting than the original investigation itself," Lane says. "Consultancy requires you to provide an answer within a given time-frame; research council money allows you to follow through projects."

Lane - who supervises six research students, all older than he, and 30 undergraduate geographers - is developing computer models to predict the flow of rivers. He is particularly interested in how rivers mix. He goes into the field to collect readings from the catchment areas of different rivers and from the rivers themselves.

"I tend to go into the field with a particular question in mind and choose my field site very carefully. In some ways, the results you get in a laboratory are partly defined by the lab set-up. In the same way, my results are influenced by the field site."

His research has broad applications. "If you think of what is going on when pollution is discharged into a river, then my work influences where to site effluent outfalls and how to discharge waste to minimise the impact on the environment."

Lane has always regarded rivers as "immensely beautiful things". "When I was an undergraduate, the lecturer in rivers was the only person whose material I didn't understand. So I thought it would be interesting to do a PhD in it. I wanted to know more -I still do."

"My PhD students and post docs think I am older than I am. But age doesn't cause problems. Once you get into academia and on the funding ladder, age is fairly irrelevant".

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