11 August 2017
Prizewinning Lancaster student celebrates his graduation by tackling the Mongol Rally, a 20,000 mile journey through 21 countries

Chris Brown was rushing around getting car parts and visas when he heard that he had won the prize for the 2017 graduate who performed best in a BSc at Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC).

So the day after picking up his prize at graduation, Chris left the UK for the three month trip to Mongolia and back.

Chris, who gained a first in Environmental and Earth Sciences, has no experience of rally driving or car maintenance but still decided to tackle the gruelling Mongol Rally, along with six Lancaster friends.

“We have mostly recently graduated and wanted to do something adventurous and fun before the world of work,” Chris explains.

“We all help put up camp each night, cook and clean, but our big challenge is break downs as we all have limited knowledge on how to fix cars and we have already broken down twice (once in the UK just after we left!).  But it’s a good thing as it makes us integrate and interact with locals a lot more, asking them for help and staying with them.”

The philosophy behind the rally is that it’s for amateurs doing it on the cheap with: “no backup, no support and no set route’, according to the organisers. “If nothing goes wrong, everything has gone wrong”.

Chris’ love of adventure and travel is one of the reasons he chose to study at Lancaster.

“Before I started I was interested in global issues like climate change and water shortages and looked at loads of universities, and Lancaster was one of the best. One thing that got me was the study abroad scheme: at most universities, you have to do it four years, Lancaster is one of few places to do it in three.”

So Chris spent his second year in New Zealand, at the Victoria University of Wellington.

“It was amazing, one of best places to study earth and environmental sciences. There are the southern Alps, caves and beaches: we went on field trips every other week around New Zealand, and I lived in a house with people from lots of different countries.”

Chris also took advantage of field study opportunities while at Lancaster too: “I did a field trip to Iceland including a glacier hike in an ice cave that was another massive plus point,” said Chris who was part of the University’s snow-sports teams.

When choosing his final year research project topic, Chris again ignored the easy route.

“Chris took on the hard task of doing a social science dissertation, without having done much human geography or social science prior to that,” said Dr Nils Markusson, his dissertation supervisor.

Chris’ research looked at how different age groups respond to the latest smart energy monitor technology - which shows householders how much energy they are using in real time - and whether these encourage people to reduce their energy use.

He was lent 20 of the newest monitors by Cumbria Action for Sustainability: he distributed them to local households - and then interviewed people about their experience, dividing the results into people aged 25-59 and people aged 60 and above.

“My main findings was that the monitors were not so effective for the older generation because they had already been brought up to be frugal with energy and water use.

He also found that the devices “trigger feelings of worry and depression amongst older adults about how much electricity they were using, potentially leading to dangerously cold homes for them,” while younger people were more likely to get bored with the monitors once the novelty value had worn off.

Chris came up with a series of recommendations to make the monitors more useful to both age groups, including providing information about the energy use of individual appliances such as kettles and fridges rather than just a household total and offering an energy tip of the week to keep younger users interested.

When he’s back from the 3-month Mongol rally, Chris will be working with Nils to submit his research to an academic journal, hoping to get it published - a big achievement for an undergraduate research project.

As for the future, Chris would like to work in the sustainable energy sector, perhaps working with renewables and how to reduce energy demand further. Eventually, he hopes to do a PhD on sustainable energy.For the moment he is focussing on completing the Mongol Rally.

Find out more about studying for a degree in LEC.