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Triple award-winning Geography MSc student reflects on his postgraduate experience

Robert Whiteside

MSc Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Management student 2020

17 December 2020

Robert Whiteside, MSc Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Management 2020, has won three departmental academic awards this year: the Best Thesis Award from his degree programme, the William Balchin prize for the “Best MSc Dissertation in Physical Geography” and the departmental prize for best graduating [overall weighted average] MA/MSc student. Here, Robert writes an overview of his time at King’s, what inspired his research and how he feels about this remarkable achievement.

There were a number of years between my undergraduate degree (in Biology) and my decision to study a master’s, during which I worked and travelled like many others tryingto figure out what career I wanted to pursue. My decision to return to academic study was therefore based on some careful deliberation about what I cared about and how I needed to develop myself to achieve my professional goals. Initially I was drawn to King’s because of its reputation and heritage, plus studying and living in the heart of the capital was very appealing. When I investigated the courses on offer it was clear that the MSc in Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Management was perfect for me – a broad environmental degree with a focus on practical skills and career development. Visits to Bush House on the Strand and exploring the wide range potential post-graduate modules available from the Geography department made the choice easy for me – I didn’t even apply to another institution as a backup.

Robert Whiteside
Robert Whiteside

The course definitely delivered what I was hoping for in terms of hands-on practical and marketable skills. From using satellite imagery to map flooding to building air quality sensors, each module taught new techniques from theory through to execution and was assessed by letting us apply our new expertise to our own scientific research projects. There was a great deal of freedom in how we could engage with the literature and explore the application of the techniques we had been taught. King’s also facilitated an internship with the Zoological Society of London, carrying out research on the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, which I found really fulfilling and has actually further influenced the direction of my career.

Anyone who is vaguely interested in the environment, and many who are not, will be aware of tropical deforestation. Despite massive media coverage and growing awareness of tropical deforestation over the last few decades, it still remains an issue of global importance. My own interests and past experience are in conservation, so when I started developing a topic for my dissertation I looked at protected areas and how they prevent tropical deforestation. Protected areas are a major tool in the arsenal of conservationists and governments in preserving important habitats, ecosystems, and species. Currently 15% of all land and 8% of the oceans are under some form of protection; these vast areas are major commitments so their legitimacy must be backed up by robust evaluation. I discovered a gap in the literature regarding the concept of ‘leakage’, where protecting an area of forest pushes the demand for the land or timber to the immediate surroundings, offsetting the benefits of the designation. I used deforestation data derived from satellite imagery to assess if newly created protected areas had significant levels of ‘leakage’, with the hope that a better understanding or identification of the issue could inform management of existing reserves and the planning of new ones.

I was overjoyed when I received my results. It is so gratifying to see all the hours and hard work pay off, especially for the dissertation. It was honestly a complete shock – sometimes when you work on something so closely for so long it becomes impossible to see if it really is at the high standard that you hope for. To then get the news that I had won two departmental awards was one of the highlights of my adult life, it still hasn’t really sunk in. It is such an honour, especially considering the quality of work that my peers and classmates have produced.

Robert Whiteside in the Seychelles

Robert in the Seychelles

Speaking of the unexpected, I can’t avoid talking about the pandemic – I was really fortunate in that my research was not adversely affected at all. If anything lockdown offered an opportunity for uninterrupted focus. There were obviously difficulties and stresses for us all, but my heart goes out to any of my peers who had their plans, research, or livelihoods disrupted, and anyone who lost loved ones over this tragic period. I feel very lucky that I was able to continue my studies relatively uninterrupted and achieve more than I could have hoped for. I would also like to thank my dissertation supervisor Professor Nick Drake for his advice and help developing my ideas and steering me in the right direction over the course of my research.

Read Robert's dissertation

'Analysis of deforestation leakage in tropical forest protected areas using GIS and a global remotely-sensed dataset'

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