Jennifer Watling

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PhD archaeologist wins Young Researcher UK Award

The University of Exeter is celebrating a double win at a major awards ceremony; PhD archaeologist Jennifer Watling won the Scopus Young Researcher UK Award 2013 in the category of Arts & Humanities and the University was honoured for its commitment to fostering excellence in young researchers.

The bi-annual UK Scopus Young Researcher Award is an initiative developed by US-UK Fulbright Commission and Elsevier to foster UK research talent. The six award winners from a range of academic disciplines are all early career researchers who have published for the first time in 2010 or more recently, and have an affiliation to an institution in the United Kingdom. Nominations were assessed by a jury consisting of former Fulbright scholars and other discipline-specific experts.

Jennifer Watling’s award success is based on her research which uses plant remains, known as phytoliths to reconstruct human environment interactions in the past in the Amazon. She is studying phytoliths in relation to archaeological sites in order to look at the extent of landscape transformation by pre-historic (pre-Colombian) people in the Amazon.

The research involves extracting sediments from archaeological sites in the Brazilian state of Acre which has over 400 big earth work sites of perfectly formed geometrical shapes known as geolyphs.  These large bank-and-ditch structures do not appear to have been inhabited - however by looking at phytoliths and charcoal from different levels in exposed soil profiles, Jenny is able to show whether the landscape was dominated by savannah or forest at the time of their construction, and how the vegetation was subsequently altered.  She is the first person to look at the environmental history of the geolyph sites and the importance of her research has been recognised through this national award.

Jennifer explained:“I’m looking at empirical data to answer complex questions about how and to what extent humans altered the landscape of the Amazon centuries ago. This is the first time that we are using a scientific approach to address these questions. My research really looks at the big question about how “man made” the Amazon rainforest is.  By reconstructing vegetation and fire histories from before, during and after the construction of the geoglyphs, I’ll be able to tell the exact past extent, and legacy, of the human environmental impact in this region.”

Professor José Iriarte is an archaeologist at the University and is Jennifer’s supervisor. He said:“Since she started her undergraduate work at Exeter, Jennifer was an inquisitive sparkling student, passionate about learning the relationship of people and plants.  Jennifer deserves this award as she is also one of those unique students that can excel in the field, in the laboratory and also has exceptional communication skills.”

More than 60 university executives, policy makers, library directors and senior researchers attended the award ceremony in London, recognising the outstanding achievements of the UK's best early career researchers.

Penny Egan, Executive Director, US-UK Fulbright Commission said:"These awards are not just meant to acknowledge the outstanding performance of the young researchers; they should also be seen as confirmation of their ability to succeed in their chosen field. In addition, it will help them to feel more confident at the beginning of their careers and open up new opportunities for future work.”

The jury also selected the University of Exeter to receive a Scopus Fostering Great Research Institutional Award for its commitment to fostering excellence in young researchers.

"UK institutions consistently produce quality young talent, helping to contribute to the excellent research performance we see across the country," said Nick Fowler, Managing Director Academic & Government Institutions, Elsevier.

Professor Robert Van de Noort, Dean, College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter said: “I am delighted that the judges of the Scopus Awards have decided to present the ‘Fostering Great Research Award 2013’ to the University of Exeter. This recognises the PhD students, early career researchers, senior academic mentors and the professional services staff who have built a community of practice at Exeter that encourages the very highest levels of research performance. Many of our young researchers produce highly-cited papers early in their career, and I am very proud of them.”

Elsevier has hosted Scopus Young Researcher Awards around the world with various partner organisations since 1995, in a concerted effort to support the growth and development of research talent globally.

Date: 20 November 2013