Five questions: Prof. Michael Petterson

03 May, 2018
Michael Petterson

We asked Professor of Geology Michael Petterson 5 questions about his research at the time of his Inaugural Professorial Address.

Describe your favourite/most impactful research project?

The project that others find most interesting is the work I led in Afghanistan. This had a high level of impact, although Geopolitics may mean it may not last forever.  The project was an applied geology project. We were aiming to re-strengthen the Afghan Geological Survey and several Afghan Ministries, particularly Mines & Industry. Key aims were developmental: poverty alleviation, developing a national non-narcotic income stream, building the capacity of a new generation of geologists, and developing new applied geological science. I led a 40-person team for the main project (7 years long) and also won more modest funding to connect universities in Afghanistan with Pakistan, Czech and UK universities. Afghanistan is a fascinating and dangerous country to work in. Unfortunately, the security situation made it too difficult to operate in, on the ground post 2011 (we began in 2003).  Key successes included the refurbishment of the Afghanistan Geological Survey building, archiving a most precious but disparate geological data set and using this to build new maps and models, training around 100+ Afghans in science, IT and English and offering a little hope to people badly traumatised through decades of war.

What gets you up in the morning?

I believe in universities as institutions. Whilst they have many faults they are, on the whole a force for good, and a pinnacle of human achievement in terms of noble qualities, caring values, questioning of the status quo, and nurturing the next generation.

What advice would you give to new or aspiring researchers?

Don’t just think about yourself and your own career. Be passionate, be persevering, use your research for excellent blue skies work but think about how you can use it for the benefit of the planet and its people and the students around you.

What does being a Professor mean to you?

I am not so status conscious on the whole, although I have less high-minded moments. A Professorship is an acknowledgement of a certain level of achievement or peer recognition, and this is always welcome of course. It can open doors both inside the university and with the wider world. It is an honour and a privilege to be a Professor at a university and the position can help yourself, your colleagues and, most importantly, students.

What are your hopes for your area of expertise/industry?

Most of my work combines science (in my case geology/geoscience) with social science and many elements of leadership (in the past of organisations, ‘thought leadership’ and so forth). This area of work has led me to realise that interconnected approaches can be both enlightening, break new ground and have great impact. The approach is however, quite different to the reductionist, expert-driven ethos of some blue skies science and can be somewhat looked down on. I think our future depends on at least some great thinkers and doers working in this interconnected space, where science + context + the connections they bring can produce balanced outcomes for societies of all types in different parts of the world.

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