Learning from Disasters


It's not every day that the subject of your doctoral research project makes headlines on national television. But that's just what happened to Ilan Kelman (pictured left) when, in autumn 2000, images of British Prime Minister Tony Blair talking to flood-affected people and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott wading through floodwaters made the national news. "A lot of people suffered and the flooding hit the political radar," recalls Kelman, whose work focuses on disasters, their effects on the built environment, and the vulnerabilities of communities.

Coverage of the flooding was a vindication of sorts for the relevance of his research, but Kelman isn't in it for the headlines. Rather, he sees himself as an engineer of human progress, part of a slow, steady process that will eventually help to "build safe and healthy communities." For Kelman, who is in fact an engineer, it's a nearly perfect career, combining as it does "theoretical, practical, and operational work--the challenge was always to know how the theory works in reality"--and crossing over from academia into governmental, nongovernmental organisations (NGO), and private sectors. The most important thing, though, is improving peoples' welfare.

Kelman studied engineering science--a course that includes elements of environmental science, chemistry, physics, and biology--at the University of Toronto, completing a MASc (Master of Applied Science) in the discipline. His first taste of research in disasters was for his master's dissertation, in which he investigated the role of technology in managing vulnerability to natural disasters by examining case studies of volcanic eruptions in Montserrat and the Philippines.

Flooding at Yalding in southeast England October 2000

At the time he did not aspire to a Ph.D., but he was keen to get work experience in international development. He was especially drawn to the subject of islands and their vulnerabilities, not only to natural disasters but also to sociological and economic forces. Two field trips especially helped him map out his professional future, showing him "how research and studies on island development can be applied in practical terms." The first trip was to a Gaelic-speaking area of Ireland, where he researched and then developed an information resource on renewable energy to help sustain remote, dwindling rural communities--mainland and island--in western Ireland.

The second trip was to Barbados, where he joined the Organization for Cooperation in Overseas Development (OCOD), a Canadian NGO, researching and analysing island vulnerability to and sustainability after disasters. These projects "helped me to solidify [the notion] that working on island vulnerability would be a viable career focus," he explains.

When Kelman's work in Barbados was finished, an advertisement for a Ph.D. studentship at Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment (CURBE) caught his attention. The project was entitled "Coastal Settlements at Risk," so its relevance to island vulnerability and sustainability was apparent. In 1999, Kelman took up his position at CURBE, which is based at the Department of Architecture in the University of Cambridge. It is an interdisciplinary venture with staff and students from the departments of architecture, engineering, geography, earth sciences, and public health.

Flooding at Tonbridge southeast England October 2000

For his doctoral work, Kelman investigated locations in England where the risk of flooding to residential areas was high and studied the vulnerability of the housing structures to water. Together with his colleague James Brown, who used computer-simulated flooding models, they predicted the structural damage and economic loss likely to result from floods.

In 2000, as if on cue, serious flooding occurred across Britain. More than 10,000 properties were affected. For residents of the flooded areas it was a disaster, but for Kelman, it was a chance to get some excellent data. Kelman and Brown measured the impact flooding had on the affected communities and made suggestions aimed at mitigating the effects of future flooding.

For his postdoc, Kelman stayed at CURBE, using the same approach to quantify the potential loss to the built environment and making mitigation recommendations. But this time he focused on a different kind of disaster: volcanic eruptions on the islands Tenerife, São Miguel of the Azores, and Guadeloupe. Despite the different cause, says Kelman, the research, "was very similar to what I did for my Ph.D."

Teide Volcano on Tenerife

Working in disaster research, says Kelman, requires knowledge of various physical sciences and interacting with a diverse range of professionals with backgrounds from emergency medicine to sociology and engineering. Kelman finds this aspect of his work appealing, though he stresses the importance of refining communication skills. "It is important to combine and share ideas and technical specialties," says Kelman. "We all have different contributions to make. It's important to keep an open mind, accept differences, and recognise [that] communication takes time."

For early career scientists interested in working in the science of disasters, Kelman says people can enter from various technical fields. What is important, in his opinion, is to be "flexible, to adapt to differing cultures and circumstances" and above all, "be open-minded," he says. He is emphatic that researchers in the sector "have to collaborate, you can't be afraid to share ideas."

Kelman has just moved to the Center for Capacity Building in Colorado where he works as a visiting scientist. Here he will examine the vulnerability of the built environment in the context of multihazards. One of Kelman's future research ambitions is to examine the effects of these hazards on the short- and long-term vulnerability of islands. His other main research interest will be "disaster diplomacy"; a field in its infancy, that explores whether the occurrence of disasters can reduce conflicts and assist diplomatic and international relations.

So what is the ultimate career reward for disaster researchers? According to Kelman, it is to eliminate disasters, to see to it that "if a hazard occurs there is no 'disaster': no human loss and minimal sociological and economical damage." But it's a slow, steady process. "There are never 'jumping for joy' [eureka] moments," he admits, just a long-term sense of well being. "There is a very strong altruistic element to the work because as a researcher you have the responsibility to help people."

"If you have initiative and energy," advises Kelman, "and are willing to commit to helping people and society, please grasp the opportunities. We need more people. We have so much work to do even before a disaster happens."

Meet Researchers in the Science of Disasters

Ilan Kelman highly recommends the following two conferences.

In Europe, the European Geosciences Union's General Assembly 2006 held in Vienna which covers excellent disaster research related to the physical sciences.

In the U.S. the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado hosts a highly inter-disciplinary conference Hazards Research and Applications Workshop which Kelman says "is a fantastic mixture of researchers and practitioners."

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers