8 January 2018
Student beats the odds to win recognition for his master’s dissertation and show that with the right support “you can do pretty much anything.”

Michael Barrow comes from a neighbourhood and a family where going to university is not the norm. His father left school with few qualifications and neither parent has a university degree, but they were determined that Michael and his brother should get the opportunities they had not had.

“Where we lived most people did not go on to further education, there was a culture of disinterest,” says Michael. “But my mum was driving me to do everything, saying ‘never put a limit on what you can achieve, just have a go.’”

In December Michael proved his mother right, not only graduating with a distinction in his Masters in Ecology and Conservation at Lancaster, but also gaining a prize for his dissertation.

“It shows that in one generation, with the right upbringing, encouragement and opportunities, you can do pretty much anything,” says Michael.

Michael won the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) Keith Beven Prize for the best dissertation on a hydrological subject. His research aimed to fill a knowledge gap: how do small hydropower schemes impact a river’s phytobenthic biofilm (microscopic organisms), specifically the microscopic diatom, cyanobacterial and green algal communities that live on rocks on the river bed.

“These are the base of the riverine ecosystem, everything else depends on them: if they are affected, everything is going to be affected,” Michael said.

He wanted to explore the assumption that small scale hydro schemes are ‘environmentally benign’.  While there had been research into the impact of small hydro schemes on a river’s fish population, there was only one previous study of their impact on the microscopic organisms, carried out by a Lancaster PhD student Dr Laura O’Keefe.

“Laura’s was a landmark study, so to be the second person investigating this issue gave me the feeling that what I was doing was important and current,” said Michael, who became interested in renewable energy while studying for an undergraduate degree in Geography at LEC.

Michael wanted to look at how small hydropower schemes might change water flow and in so doing, the shape of the river bed, and how these changes might feed through to the microscopic organisms.

Obtaining the required data, however, wasn’t easy. Through Laura, Michael gained access to a recently installed small hydropower scheme in Stockport, on the River Goyt, the same river where she had completed her fieldwork. They then had to wait weeks until river and weather conditions were right to get his samples.

Michael and Laura, along with technician Vassil Karloukovski, spent a day in the river, facing difficulties with equipment and with getting access to all the areas he wanted to sample. Michael worried they had not got enough samples to provide the evidence he needed. His next job was to test what he had got in the lab, but he was under a lot of time pressure.

“I had a summer job with the International Office at the University, so I was spending every spare hour working in the lab. It was pretty gruelling, as soon as I finished work it was straight to the lab.”

His task was made harder because of a series of personal setbacks he suffered: he’d lost study time due to illness earlier in the course, and he was dealing with shock and grief after a close university friend died in a road accident.

But, with the support of fellow students and staff from the Graduate School for the Environment, he completed his dissertation.

“Angela and Amanda in the postgraduate office were really helpful and understanding, and gave me a great deal of support.”

Michael pays particular tribute to his friends Alvin Chao and Charles Stubington, who spent hours listening to him and encouraging him through a very difficult year.  “Alvin was the gaffer tape sticking me back together, every problem I faced he had my back. He was pretty much the reason why I got to the end.”

Michael’s results were not as conclusive as he had hoped. They clearly showed that the water velocities were higher on the hydro side of the river, with the scheme appearing to have an influence on their distribution. River bed elevation and nutrient concentrations did not show any significant differences. There were some differences in the diatom community between the two sides, with greater biomass on the hydro side, and greater species diversity on the non-hydro side, but these differences were not enough to be statistically significant. 
Michael believes that, as it was a relatively new hydro scheme, these differences may increase with time, and therefore deserve further study. 

“I was worried that my dissertation wasn’t good enough. So when I got the results and saw the percentage for the dissertation and that I’d got the award it was really amazing.”

Michael now works in  the University’s International Office. He is delighted to stay on working for a place that has offered him so many opportunities.

“This university has shaped me as a person: the diversity of people I have met during my studies from a wide range of backgrounds; the staff in the department who are really friendly and welcoming; the whole environment here has really enabled me to be as successful as I have been.”