Astrophysicist wins sustainability award for tackling effects of climate change

An astrophysicist, who was a postgraduate student and an Enterprise Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) at the University of Sussex, has won award for using data to tackle effects of climate change.

Dr Leon Baruah completed a Masters degree with Prof Seb Oliver and then a PhD on the Dark Energy Survey with Prof Kathy Romer in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

He then returned to the university in 2017 to undertake an RSE Enterprise Fellowship. During the fellowship, Leon used the data analysis skills he’d learned studying astrophysics to calculate where to plant trees and create habitats in order to reduce the risk of flooding in landscapes.

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The project grew into a business and Leon now co-runs Sussex-based Viridian Logic. The company has just won the New Product, Service or Technology Award at the Sustainability Impact Awards 2020 which is run by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. The awards showcase organisations striving to tackle the global challenges of the climate and environmental emergency.

Dr Leon Baruah

Leon said: “The work I do now, in modelling where to plant trees and habitats that have the best chance of reducing the risk of flooding, uses the same essential understanding of data and statistics as I learned on the Dark Energy Survey. That’s where I learned many of the programming and data handling tricks that I now use.

“We were thrilled to win the Sustainability Impact Award. We’re a team of two, and we were up against some major engineering companies. I think we won because no-one had approached the problem in this way before. Our innovation is that we analyse ecological and geospatial data, with a hydrological perspective but in a statistical way, allowing us to recommend precisely where to plant trees or create habitats.

“In the past, people assumed the available survey data was too low-quality to be able to work in this way. But using techniques learned from astrophysics, we tease out as much information as possible from a dataset. It all goes back to astrophysical data analysis.”

Trees are effective at reducing flooding because their root systems absorb water. And building wetland areas create spaces which can hold excess rain and delay the downhill flow of water. These are powerful tools in the fight against the impact of climate change because they can help prevent the loss of soils and nutrients from rivers, and also stem flooding itself. This protects natural habitats while improving the environment for communities.

Professor Seb Oliver from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and a deputy pro-vice-chancellor for research at the university, worked with Leon on both his Masters degree and also his Enterprise Fellowship.

He said: “I am delighted that Leon has won this award it is a fantastic celebration of his achievement in having a great idea, recognising its potential to address an important issue and then have the perseverance to realise that potential. This is a great example of how the data science skills honed in undertaking fundamental research in astrophysics can be used to have significant benefits on Earth. This is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we aim to cultivate through the Data Intensive Science Centre at University of Sussex (DISCUS).”

Professor Kathy Romer from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex added: “Having supervised Leon during his PhD, I am extremely proud of him for winning this award.”

Leon’s plans for the future include incorporating Artificial Intelligence technology into his modelling so that Viridian Logic can operate a predictive flood warning system as well as recommending where habitats should be created.