John Curtin (Environmental Science, 1990, Fylde)  had no idea what he wanted to do with his life when he arrived at Lancaster University to study chemistry in the late 1980s.  

But, thanks to Lancaster’s flexible degree system, he discovered a passion for hydrology - the movement, distribution and quality of water - which set him on his career path.

The beauty of Lancaster University’s degrees is that you get to choose three modules in the first year which can be outside your subject, and I chose to do an environmental science module. 

“There was a hydrology element to this and I was excited by the energy and excitement of the department. I fell in love with hydrology and with catchment modelling and was able to change to do an Environmental Sciences degree, and then to take that passion into my job. I’m still using the hydrology I learnt at Lancaster in the job I do now.”

After Lancaster John did a masters degree to improve his computer modelling skills, and then found work with the National Rivers Authority (NRA) who were looking for “modellers who understood hydrology.” He worked in water resource planning and flood forecast modelling.

In 1996 the NRA became part of the new Environment Agency,  created by the UK Government to oversee the nation’s rivers, coasts and watercourses. John stayed on in a variety of roles, and is now leading the Agency’s work on mitigating the growing threat of flooding, offering advice to the Government on flood protection, awareness and risk management.

“The biggest challenge we have is the scale of the risk,” said John. “One in six properties  in England – around 5 million people – are at risk of flooding. But only 8 per cent of those people know they are at risk. If you don’t know, you are not  prepared.”

John claims he was an “average student” who was inspired by the ground breaking work being carried out at Lancaster by the distinguished hydrologist,  Professor Keith Beven.

“Recently, taking a catchment wide approach to flood risk has become a bit of a fad, but Keith was doing it in Lancaster back in the late ‘80s. Keith also taught me about the role of uncertainty in risk, and how to understand uncertainty, which runs through everything we do at the Environment Agency.”

John is now back collaborating with academics at Lancaster University, including his former Professor.

“Keith worked with us on a project called Sciencewise, working with communities to improve the language used to describe flooding, because the technical language can get in the way of people understanding what the risk is and what they need to do.”

John has also become involved with  another Lancaster project, this time based in the Sociology department, on how children and young people experience and recover from floods.

“The young people produced Flood Manifestos, full of practical advice about what needs to be done to help children and young people going through this traumatic experience. It was brilliant for us.”