2 June 2015

Lancaster alumnus Dr Ruth Boumphrey brings together the world’s best engineering brains to improve the safety of the structures we rely on.

Dr Ruth Boumphrey loves blazing trails. She is the first Head of Research Grants at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, a new charity that improves the safety of the critical infrastructure on which modern society relies through research, education and training.

“We work at the interfaces between structures, people and the environment,” said Ruth who leads a research programme worth £30 million plus. “An understanding of the environment is very important to structure safety: big ships, aircraft, rail systems, power plants and oil rigs, are all subject to extreme and harsh environmental conditions.”

“I love coming in at the start of something. Being the first one into a job is a very creative process, it allows you to innovate and set new diretions.”

Ruth is used to shaping new ventures. She was the first Head of Earth Observation at the UK Space Agency, supporting new research and innovation in the use of satellites to understand and manage our planet. She studied Environmental Sciences at Lancaster University in the late 1980s, when few UK Universities were taking the subject seriously. 

“Lancaster saw Environmental Science as a discipline in itself rather than an add on or marginal science. The environmental movement was taking off and Lancaster understood the need to put scientific rigour behind that movement,” said Ruth, who stayed on at Lancaster to complete a PhD examining trends in pollution in the North Sea.

Ruth’s journey from Lancaster to the Foundation has taken her to many places, from Bermuda to the Artic, and even to explore the world from outer space.

She started her career developing environmental policy, ensuring it was built on the best scientific evidence.  She then became Head of International at the Natural Environment Research Council, ensuring UK scientists are able to work across international borders,  collaborate with the best in the world, and address global research challenges by pooling funding, effort and resources. 

She represented the UK in negotiations on the European Research Programme and helped initiate major global programmes such as International Polar Year.

At the UK Space Agency she led UK efforts on Earth Observation, working with industry, government and academics from around the world to fund and develop innovative satellite programmes.  Some were focused on cutting edge research, for example programmes to measure the thickness of ice sheets and to use tomographic techniques to calculate the biomass of the Earth’s forests.  But other programmes supported critical operational services benefitting millions globally. 

“Satellites are vital to support relief efforts during and after major disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and floods.  These events change the landscape and knock-out critical structures such as roads, communication lines and power. There is an International Charter to help satellite owners share imagery with relief workers during times of crisis and disaster enabling them to get assistance to the right places.

“Satellites also play a vital function for people living in developing and emerging economies, helping to create infrastructure and provide services.  This is especially true in very large countries such as India, China and Brazil where remote areas rely on Space Agencies to supply satellite communications and imagery.  These then become critical infrastructures for the delivery of education, healthcare, early weather warnings and other services.”. 

The Space sector is underpinned by the ingenuity and skills of engineers around the world and these contacts serve her well today. She now works with the “best brains” in engineering from around the world, to support research into the safety of life and property. One of her projects, on the integrity and resilience of  nuclear power plants, is with Lancaster University’s Engineering Department.

In 2010 Ruth became a member of Lancaster University’s governing body, to give something back to the organisation which set her off on her fascinating career path.

“Studying Environmental Science provides you with the skills to change the world for the better, and there are the opportunities out there to do that.  I enjoy being able to create change for good, making sure environmental considerations influence government decision making and how businesses invest."

“Lancaster University shares my values. It is changing lives, not only through providing a world class education to individuals from all over the world, but also by leading research and producing new knowledge that changes the way we live and work for the better.”