PI Profile: Dr Susan Hegarty

Biography and Background:

What does my role involve? The answer depends on what role! I am a lecturer in Geography in the School of History and Geography. In that role, I enjoy bringing the wonders of Ireland’s physical landscape (its geology and geomorphology) to our Bachelor of Arts Geography students and talking about the pressures to our Irish water resources. I love bringing students into the field, and also incorporate technology (particularly GIS) into my undergrad teaching as much as possible. I really enjoy teaching, and seeing the students grasp concepts.

My love of landscape, and my interest in our interaction with it, grew out of childhood walks with my family, where my mother would instil in us a curiosity of the rocks, the hills, and the buildings we saw and how they reflected their environment – she is from a long line of stone masons, so rocks, buildings and how they interact is somehow engrained in me. Growing up on Cork Harbour, I also vividly recall walks along the sea-shore outside our home and seeing material that had obviously come from the sewers of the local area, wondering why it was there, and could something be done about it. Thankfully, the wastewater treatment plant for the area is currently under construction, better late than never.

After my undergraduate degree in at UCD, I worked with the Geological Survey Ireland on the groundwater protection scheme for county Kilkenny and completed my PhD on the interplay between water melting from the glaciers and the bedrock of that county. These experiences have influenced my career (sometimes in ways that I only realise later).

I am also currently chair of the university’s Bachelor of Arts, Joint Honours programme. The BAJ currently has 1300 students, and as chairperson I look after the academic integrity of the programme, and help students progress through the programme – that is a real privilege and allows me to come into contact with many students each year. I have been fortunate enough to be co-presenter on an RTE1 documentary series called Building Ireland, which looks at the interplay of geography, engineering and architecture in projects such as the Shannon Scheme and Dublin’s whiskey distilleries. We are currently shooting the third series of this, and I’m looking forward to seeing it come together in the new year.


A Recent Project:

In June 2019, the Water Institute launched Backdrop, which is a project involving citizen scientists looking at water quality of the River Liffey, focusing in particular on the urban area from Lucan to the city centre. The PIs on this are Prof Fiona Regan and I. Our citizen scientists are made up of a combination of leisure users of the River Liffey (paddle boarders and kayakers) and people who are interested in the health of the river. The project is funded by the Royal Bank of Canada through Earthwatch’s Freshwater Watch programme, and many of RBC’s Dublin employees are among our scientist. Our scientists are collecting data on nutrients (nitrates and phosphates), turbidity, presence of algae, litter and other parameters on a monthly basis, using the methodology developed by Earthwatch and feeding the information back to the Water Institute via an app on their mobile devices.

The WaterBlitz fed into this. Earthwatch has been running the WaterBlitz on the Thames valley for nine years. The WaterBlitz allows the wider public to get involved in measuring and recording surface water bodies of interest to them. We were overwhelmed with the interest in this from the public – within 48 hours of opening registration, we had 300 people signed up! There’s a real appetite among Irish people to learn about the quality of their local water bodies, and then to protect those of good status, and help to improve those water bodies whose quality is poor. Over the weekend of the WaterBlitz, over 750 people collected data at 370 sites, and fed the results back on an app which also allowed them to see how their results compared to nearby records.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing how both of these projects have evolved, and the excitement among the citizen scientists as they have discovered more about their own areas. As researchers, we might take for granted the wonder that can be gained from noticing something new in an area that you might have seen a hundred times. These projects also give the citizen scientists ownership over both the data and the sites themselves.

Looking Forward To:

I am really looking forward to continuing working with the different groups in Backdrop over the coming years, and also possibly expanding this methodology out to other groups. It’s an exciting time to be involved in environmental science, as people become more aware of the impacts that they can have on their environment.


Water Challenges and How to Face Them:

Research on climate change suggests that, over the coming years, Ireland will experience more heavy rainfall events during the winter months, with the east of Ireland experiencing drier conditions in the summer months. This will put extra pressure on the already stretched water resources. We have seen that increased rainfall intensity leads to an increase in sediment being brought into streams and rivers. This, in turn, can increase the amount of nutrients in the surface water bodies, as well as posing problems for water treatment plants that abstract that water. This poses two challenges – first that of identifying the sources of these sediments and inputs and monitoring them, and secondly that of identifying ways in which sediment loss from the land surface can be prevented. In addition to this, many of the drains in urban areas are connected into the wastewater treatment systems, and with the increased intensity of rainfall, this puts extra pressure on these operations. We have seen in recent months and years how both of these factors are beginning to affect our water infrastructure. We also do not know where there are mis-connected sewers and discovering and mapping these will be an important step to lessen the pressures on our waterbodies. There is a lot to be done on these issues, and I look forward to working with both our citizen scientists and other colleagues on these issues.

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