Flying doctor

Earth scientist Dougal Jerram is giving television viewers a bird's-eye view of Britain from his 'motorbike on wings'

August 21, 2008

The trailer for the BBC's new hit series, Britain from Above, includes a dizzying shot of a microlight aircraft swooping over the Scottish Highlands.

It contained Dougal Jerram, lecturer in Earth sciences at Durham University, who will be seen in the programme on 24 August microlighting down the Great Glen Fault.

"It's pretty much like a motorbike with wings," Dr Jerram said. "It's essentially a hang-glider with a passenger seat and engine suspended from it. On the second run it was quite windy and a bit of an adrenalin rush."

It was Dr Jerram's task to explain the country's origins to presenter Andrew Marr, who was in an accompanying microlight. The lecturer has frequently run field trips to the Highlands, but was thrilled to have a bird's-eye view of how glaciation has carved the landscape. The Great Glen is a classic geological landscape, revealing how mountain chains are built up and then eroded, he said.

His main concern was to communicate the key scientific points in a way that was accessible to the public. But he believes this may be less of a problem for Earth scientists than for those working in other disciplines. Many entrants have no background in the subject and have not studied A-level geology. "Initially we've got to assume that some have never looked at a rock or a geological map before, and think about ways we can explain it."

Dr Jerram won an excellence-in-teaching award from Durham for his Highland field trips. He uses digital photographs taken during the day to provide a "Cook's Tour" for the students in the evening, reinforcing the significance of what they have seen.

He has become increasingly focused on the importance of promoting an understanding of the planet. And he believes concerns about climate change are leading to a growing interest in Earth sciences. He has recently been involved in another BBC TV series - this time about a science expedition in Ethiopia - and has been featured in a Lufthansa advertisement. Both ventures are highlighted on his website, DougalEarth.

As a teenager, Dr Jerram was a keen mountain walker and canoeist, and when he had the chance to take geology O level he realised that this dovetailed with his hobbies. He took a BSc at Cardiff University where he developed an interest in volcanology, followed by a PhD at the University of Liverpool.

He hopes the BBC programmes will prove an inspiration to young people: "If I can get just one 13-year-old to think, 'I'll go on the internet and check the Caledonian Mountains,' then our work is done."

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