How long have you been working at Royal Holloway?
I was an undergraduate at Bedford College, so taking those years into consideration, I have been a part of Royal Holloway – one way or another – for 43 years. My relationship with the College is possibly unique in that I have been both a student and a member of staff and have degrees from both Bedford and Royal Holloway. I was at Chelsea College London at the time of the merger of Royal Holloway and Bedford, and was also part of another merger when the Geology Departments at Chelsea, Bedford and King’s merged to form what is now the Earth Sciences Department (then the Geology Department) at Royal Holloway. I have been involved in many aspects of College life, including at the founding of the North American Alumni Association, and am thrilled to see the launch of the Bedford Society as well.
Tell us about your work at the College.
Up until recently, I was teaching at undergraduate level but now I am a Distinguished Research Fellow, meaning that I undertake research and promote and publicise the research in my field. I love public speaking, radio interviews and presenting at research talks and, after 27 years, I have probably given more public lectures at Royal Holloway than most! The public engagement aspect of my job is important to me.
What are your research interests?
For me, Earth History is a fascinating subject because it is cross disciplinary, bringing together research in science and history to develop an understanding of life on land, specifically for me the evolution of plants. More recently, my research has been on the 400 million year history of fire on Earth and have a new book about to be published
. There is a frequent misunderstanding about the nature of fire on Earth, centred upon the notion that human intervention is the only cause of fire. Actually, its history is rather more complex and precedes human intervention where lightning is the major trigger. Moreover, we now know that fire is critical to particular types of vegetation; in short, some areas, like the African Savanna, need to burn or it would not exist and many of our favourite animals depend on it for their survival.
How do you see your association with the College developing in the future?
I would love to continue my association with Royal Holloway and I have an enormous passion for both my research and the College, such that I cannot think of not being involved in some way. I see the College’s distinct challenge as being that we need to be better known: public and international perception is fundamental to the continuing success of the institution. I look to what we did at the merger of the Geology departments as an example as a way to raise the profile of Royal Holloway; these distinctive departments merged and were stronger for it but we had to make our mark both nationally and internationally very quickly. We need to find a way where Royal Holloway is talked about as a place ‘where that happens’ and has the highest reputation for scholarship. The key over the next few years will be delivering on the aspirations laid out in the College Strategy.
Andrew is Professor of Applied Palaeobotany in the Department of Earth Sciences, and a Distinguished Research Fellow. He was awarded a BSc in Geology from Bedford College in 1973, followed by his PhD from Birkbeck College in 1976, where he was supervised by Professor Chaloner FRS who later moved to Bedford and then Royal Holloway. He was awarded a D.Sc. by Royal Holloway in 2002. His first lecturer position was in the Geology Department at Chelsea College in 1978, which went on to merge with the Geology departments of Bedford College and King’s College London in 1985 and was for many years also Director of Science Communication. In his spare time he enjoys reading, watching plays and films, travelling, researching family history, collecting and designing postage stamps on geological topics and watching West Ham United with his son.