Position: Senior Lecturer Field: Earth and ocean sciences Organisation: Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Waikato

Dr Willem de Lange, an earth scientist and lecturer at the University of Waikato, was born in the Netherlands and moved with his family to New Zealand when he was 18 months old. Since then, he has stayed put in Hamilton.

He did his Bachelor of Science, master’s and PhD at the University of Waikato and is now a Senior Lecturer in the Earth and Ocean Sciences Department there.

Willem is on the Tsunami Experts Panel, which advises the government on tsunami warnings.

Getting interested in tsunamis

Willem’s interest in natural history and science was nurtured in part by the Hamilton Junior Naturalists Club, which he joined in his school days. At the club’s Te Kauri Lodge, he learnt about plants, geology and fossils. At high school, he became interested in water as a resource and planned to be a hydrologist.

He recounts an incident that got him interested in tsunamis: “I have always been interested in waves and things at the beach. In fact, way back when I was little [1964], we went for a holiday to Pāpāmoa Beach but we had to evacuate because of the tsunami.” His interest in tsunamis led to his MSc, which looked at tsunami hazards.

When Willem was offered lecturing positions in earth sciences and computer science, he chose earth sciences as he wanted to get outside and not be tied to a computer all day, but he says with a laugh, ”Now I spend all my time behind a computer – there are three of them – doing computer modelling and simulation”. However, his involvement in numerical modelling and his research into tsunamis “tied together nicely”.

Willem’s research

Willem’s early research looked at the environmental impact of port development and the design of the harbour bridge in Tauranga. Professor Terry Healy was his MSc supervisor and also supervised Willem’s PhD research on wave-induced sediment transport and beach renourishment (building an artificial beach) at Pilot Bay near Mt Maunganui.

These days, as Willem is involved in teaching and supervising research at the university, he does most of his research through the graduate students he supervises. His new research interest is around solar effects on cliffs. His background on waves comes in handy here as the research involves trying to find a better way of defining the coastal hazards zone for coastal cliffs. This has both national and international application because cliffs form 80% of the world’s coastline.

Willem also supervises projects in the Pacific Islands, especially on climate change hazards.

I think I would get bored specialising in one area. I’m more eclectic. I like knowing how things work, so I like collaborations with lots of different people in lots of different areas.

A love of teaching

An interest in teaching has led to Willem’s involvement in a Teaching & Learning Research Initiative project, where he is looking at better ways of visualising the environment in order to teach about spatial relationships. “I am really interested in teaching – so I like seeing the light bulbs go on, and they suddenly get it and develop a passion for science.”

Useful links

In this Listener article, Willem discusses New Zealand’s tsunami risk in light of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
www.listener.co.nz/commentary/waves-of-fear/

This article is based on information current in 2011.

    Published 2 May 2011