University of Melbourne Magazine

An eye for risk


    (BGeomE 2009, PhD 2014)


    When Katie Potts makes up her mind to do something, it gets done. Growing up in a small country town on the Victoria-NSW border she was so determined to study in Melbourne she chose a degree, Geomatic Engineering, that wasn’t offered locally.

    “I blindly picked it, but once I started to do it I really enjoyed it.”

    So much so that at just 26 she has completed her PhD and is a founding research fellow at the University’s Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety.

    “Disaster management is where my passion lies,” Potts says. In the era of climate change and ever-more-frequent freak weather events, her career fits into a niche that has grabbed the attention of governments and industry all over the world. The softly spoken, articulate engineer from Wahgunyah is at the forefront of the field.

    Geomatics is essentially 3D mapping and visualisation of land. “It’s quite diverse, from GPS satellites to remote sensing and surveying, and it also has a land administration and planning aspect to it, which is the area I ended up in,” Potts says.

    Central to her work is the layering of information from a variety of sources to identify risk in specific locations. “Property and address information is overlaid with topographic information, flood and bushfire overlays and then geographic information system software is used to identify properties at risk,” she explains. In the final year of her degree a project on the use of spatial information in the 2009 Victorian bushfire recovery introduced her to disaster management. Her PhD research took that a step further by showing how land information can be used by agencies and landowners to determine if they are at risk from a particular hazard. It concluded that national policy changes were needed.

    Moving between the Philippines – where her husband owns a factory making fire-retardant insulation out of treated recycled paper – and Melbourne, Potts says her long-distance relationship helped her knuckle down to get the PhD done.

    And while many of her friends are pulling big salaries working in industry, she’s committed to the Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety she helped set up last year.

    People still sometimes mistake her for a student, but Potts says she hasn’t really encountered any problems with being one of the youngest risk-mitigation experts around. “I just surprise people, I guess.”


    Read more about the CDMPS.