BRUSSELS—The speakers for the TEDx event here in December were selected for their audacity: They mapped their own way instead of sticking to well-trod paths. One of them was Tiziana Rossetto, a professor of earthquake engineering at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom who began researching tsunamis after visiting Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Rossetto has been leading a collaborative effort to create a better experimental setup for generating model tsunami waves in the lab, something she had been told was impossible due to tsunamis’ extremely long wavelengths. Her research aims to develop new insights into the behavior of tsunamis near shore and onshore and how to make coastal infrastructure more resistant to their devastating effects. Rossetto also founded the Earthquake and People Interaction Centre (EPICentre) at UCL, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to investigating risks and mitigating damage from natural hazards. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What drew you to earthquake engineering?
A: I started with a course in earthquake engineering in my fourth year at university, and it really fascinated me. I knew somebody who was a researcher in the field, and he said, “There is so much to discover.” It’s such a new science, there’s a big impact to be had. Everything that you do could actually be used and save lives. It’s that sort of idealism that got me into the subject. After that, it was going to my first earthquake, the Bhuj earthquake in 2001 in India, and looking at the real damage that happened. I’ve been to another seven earthquakes and tsunamis since, and it’s terrible. It really drives home the importance of what you’re doing when you see people suffering and how these events change lives so completely. It gives me strength and motivation to continue to do more work, to push myself harder in the field.
Q: What personal qualities have made your career possible?
A: Like all engineers, I’m technically minded, but one of the advantages that I have is being able to work in an interdisciplinary environment by having an open mind and being humble enough to realize that you can’t be an expert in everything. As problems become bigger, especially in the case of natural disasters, we have to work more and more with other scientists, other engineering groups, but also with the social sciences—psychologists, disaster managers, historians—and statisticians. … I find that at the border of these disciplines is where real innovation is happening.
Q: Did you experience self-doubt?
A: Enormous, enormous self-doubt. But I think that’s where the collaboration comes in. It’s realizing where your limitations are and saying, “I need help,” enlisting people and enthusing them, getting them interested in collaborating with you and solving the problem together, respecting that they know a lot more than you do in their fields.
So it’s identifying some of the questions that are beyond your discipline and not being scared of your crazy ideas.
Q: How do you convince people to collaborate?
A: You sit them down and basically talk at them for ages and ages until they give in; that’s my tactic. And offer them lots of coffee and maybe a croissant. I just try to give them some of my enthusiasm and show them how important it really is. I think they convince themselves once they start to look into the area and see the gaping knowledge gaps that are there. It’s quite a large motivation in itself to say, “I could do something to fill this gap.”
Q: How did you set up your first collaboration?
A: Partly it’s due to my being in a university that has so many different disciplines and a very open-door policy. One of my crazy ideas, for example, was to explore why people who live in seismic areas don’t prepare. When you go to earthquakes, you see that the risk depends on so much more than just the structures and buildings. Cultural habits play such an important role in how people live in their houses. Most often, the structural solutions are there and the communities know the hazard, yet they do not prepare, so there must be something related to their perception of risk. So I went to speak to a psychologist in my university, and I said, “Why is this?” And she answered, “I don’t know. Let’s look at it together.” So we started to explore the field, and now we’re coming up with some really interesting results.
So it’s identifying some of the questions that are beyond your discipline and not being scared of your crazy ideas—not being scared of stating them and just blatantly knocking on people’s doors and saying, “Look, I don’t understand why.”
Q: How did you start your tsunami research?
A: That was another one of my crazy ideas: Why don’t we use earthquake engineering techniques for assessing buildings to look at tsunamis? Coming back from the field, I found out there wasn’t a lot of information on what forces tsunamis impart on buildings, so we came up with a new type of tsunami generator to look at these waves. I’ve moved into sort of a traditional coastal engineering type of field, very different from my own, in order to get the information I need to do my job in structural engineering and look at the building’s response to tsunamis. It’s having the courage to say, “Why don’t we just generate our own tsunamis in the lab?” and not being afraid of the challenges involved.
Q: How did you go about founding EPICentre at such an early career stage?
A: It’s been a sort of organic growth. It started in 2007 with just me and one Ph.D. student, and now we are eight academics and about 30 researchers. Everyone has their own area of research and funding, but then there are projects where we do a lot together. That’s exciting and new, and it stimulates young people from all over the world to want to work with us. And if you’ve got good people, there’s not too much management to do.
Q: You also have a young family. How do you manage?
A: Yes. I have two toddlers, 4 years old and 6 months. I think it’s just being organized and making sure that you have the help that you need and that you don’t promise too much and then don’t deliver. I also think being a woman and having a family now, compared to the past, is much more accepted in academia and in engineering. I have a very supportive department. Even though it’s a civil engineering department, half of the staff members are women, which is I think quite unique. Partly it was a visionary head of department that we had, Nick Tyler; he really saw the benefit of having a very mixed grouping of academic staff.
Q: Is there anything you would do differently in your career?
A: Not really. I think I’ve been very fortunate to find a good position in an environment that is very accepting of nontraditional ideas, and that gives me the freedom to follow the lines of research that I want to. I went in quite naively. As a young graduate there was a position available, and I just went for it and I got it, and it just suited my character and my way of doing things extremely well, so in a way it’s a little bit of luck as well.
Q: Any advice for young scientists on how to succeed in academia?
A: Don’t be scared to be different. I think difference is actually a strength. And be tenacious—really, don’t give up. Just keep going for your dreams.