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New York City Teenage Angst

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 05, 2018 09:00 AM |

By Angelos Angelidis

Over the winter break, Angelos explored New York as well as his interest in photography. Read on to hear how he is expanding his skill set and broadening the scope of his academic studies while abroad.

Angelos Angelidis1.jpg

I think that for a lot of people going through university, uncertainty with regards to our future career path is perhaps one of the major factors causing anxiety. Personally, I went into university as a physical geographer but I am currently particularly interested in working in the arts. Whether that would be in the film industry or at a museum I do not know yet and I am not even sure if this is just a phase that will eventually fade away. However, I know that as a person I cannot constrain myself in terms of what I am genuinely interested in, even if that means that I end up being a jack of all trades but a master of none. Therefore, I am embracing the multifaceted nature of my identity and I am seeing my year abroad in University of Toronto, as an opportunity to broaden my academic curriculum specifically to include art history, cinema studies and photography courses.

Angelos Angelidis2.jpgAfter having completed a “Photography 1” course and working with a film camera for the first half of the fall semester, I was very excited to shoot film in my winter break. Being a mere 12-hour bus ride away from Toronto, I went on a trip to New York City with a good friend of mine and I carried around a Kodak disposable camera (with a Kodak Max Versatility Plus 800 colour film) and a Nikon FM10 (with an Ilford 400 black & white film). We stayed in the city for six days and it was buzzing with life. The saying that New York City is the city that never sleeps was true since even behind the walls of our hotel room we could still hear cars and sirens late at night, making them an integral sonic element of the dazzling urban fabric. It was surprising to see how the metropolis that epitomises the peak of capitalist consumerism was not as “modern” as it is usually perceived to be. The old public transport infrastructure alongside the large number of skyscrapers that were built in the 20th century, give the city a sense of history deeply embedded amongst more contemporary buildings towering above one’s head. Generally, the soaring height of most buildings provides more space for architects to experiment with eye-catching designs, that create a very iconic skyline.

The most shocking aspect of the city was the large number of homeless people sleeping in the streets of Manhattan and inside subway waggons. It is so easy to make yourself immune to the sight of homeless people in New York City just to avoid accepting the falsity of upward social mobility that the American Dream promises to the masses. In a way, being able to live and survive in New York City requires you to be brutally individualistic at times. The notion of individual freedom that is so famously represented by the Statue of Liberty masks and hides an underlying obedience to the forces of capitalism.

Overall, the trip was a great experience and an opportunity for me to practise my photography skills a bit more. This coming semester I will be taking a “Photography 2” class since I felt that the “Photography 1” course allowed me to explore my creativity and gain new skills that might one day prove to be very useful in terms of pursuing the right career for me. I am still unclear as to what I want to do and new options have been put on the table, such as working in the film industry, which is stressful in terms of not feeling qualified enough to pursue my interests. However, I remind myself that I should view my anxiety about the future as a marker of privilege of having enough options to choose from rather than it being caused by lack of opportunities. Therefore, I am glad that this year abroad has given me the freedom to further broaden the scope of my academic studies and gain new practical skills.

Angelos Angelidis3.jpg

Map of the Month

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Mar 01, 2018 09:00 AM |

by Nick Mann

This month with the "Beast from the East" hitting the UK and causing us to all to shiver - I thought it would be fun to see what the Russians were indicting in 1954.  The map is of the January average temperature from a Russian 1954 Atlas produced in Moscow that we have in our Atlas collection.


Click here for more information on the Map Library.



From Physical Geography to Political Ecology: A Journey to Tie Them Up

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Feb 27, 2018 12:04 PM |

by Loan Diep

The beginning of the adventure was no piece of cake. I come from Brittany (France), and after only a year in London with a shaky level of English, I took the plunge after some years away from academia and signed up for a BSc in Environmental Geography. In all honesty, I struggled quite a lot. During the weekend and on several evenings I was working as a manager in a bar, which was giving me little time to improve my reading and writing skills. But lecturers and friends I made on my course encouraged me a lot, and that helped me throughout the three years of the degree. I even got the chance to study for 6 months in Adelaide, Australia, which was an absolute blast. My interest in environmental impacts and hydrology grew over the years. My background was in physical sciences, which was really relevant, but I was missing something political in my approach though I was not sure how to go about it. Eventually I graduated after completing my dissertation on Hydrological Modelling and Climate Change Impacts in South-East Asia.


[Image 1: Modelling Alcudia Lagoon Hydrodynamics, BSc Environmental Geography fieldwork in Mallorca]

Following my degree at UCL Geography, I enrolled straight onto the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning. The MSc came as a real revelation where I started to explore another aspect of environmental issues in societies. At the DPU, the research environment, the lectures, my classmates, and our fieldwork in Peru were very inspiring. I discovered totally new approaches to water problems, including that of urban governance and resilience. However, I missed the physical science angle, and so I started to reflect on science integration and knowledge in urban planning. This is also when I started to develop my interest in green infrastructure, to which I came back to several years after.


[Image 2: Working in contexts of eviction, or how improvised focus group discussions are most insightful, Lima fieldwork]

After graduation from the DPU, I worked as a consultant for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). I was offered fantastic opportunities to work on cities, urban resilience and resource efficiency for UNEP. I even got to go to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) world congress in Seoul where I presented this research with IIED.

In parallel, I joined Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). It started with an internship in Monitoring and Evaluation. I was part of the teams supporting well-established programmes in Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Mozambique, Madagascar and Bangladesh. That was a first experience in the development sector, opening up a whole new world of challenges and diversity of interests. In the middle of this realm of strategic power games, I was endlessly wondering if there was an escape to alleviate misery in the ‘slums’ for which we were working. I then worked for the consultancy arm of WSUP, which was a very small but fast-growing team. It functioned a bit like a start-up in its structure, so I got to do a lot of things there. I helped to manage all types of projects, including a particular one in India, advising the government to stop open defecation as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, the national Clean India Campaign. That’s also when I discovered sanitation and that all the ‘shit’ it involves, was in fact a very trendy topic…

At WSUP, I also led what became one of my most fascinating research projects in the Middle East and North Africa region. I worked with IIED and UNICEF on water provision during conflicts and population movements to advise government and non-government actors in Jordan and Lebanon, but also Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq. I particularly remember attending a very inspiring community workshop in Jordan, about which I wrote a short piece. This project has been key in my life because I was given a whole panel of opportunities to learn, debate, act, write, present, and much more to reflect on.


[Image 3: Community workshop with women representatives on water challenges in Jordan during conflicts and population movements]

I am now back at UCL, as a PhD candidate at the Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience (USAR) of the CEGE department. Here I focus on green infrastructure project design and implementation in dense cities. This is where I am now bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together: urban governance, its challenges for ecosystems development and low incomes, the struggle for nature conservation, flood risks, but also social inequalities in cities. USAR has enabled me to explore both the technical and socio-political aspects of societal problems and my aim is now to do something about this to inform decision-making for the future of cities.


Coventry Bomb Damage Map

Posted by ucfanlm at Feb 01, 2018 09:00 AM |

by Nick Mann, Learning Resources Co-ordinator

This month I have put up a map that has recently been donated from Coventry University. It is titled “Central Reconstruction Area. Bomb Damage Map.”  There is no date and was produced by the City of Coventry Planning Department.  It is interesting that there are no roads labelled and the addition of silhouetted airplanes which I assume are the bombers, that are aligned in a north easterly direction.

Coventry bomb damage

UCL Geographer to Fast Streamer

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Dec 06, 2017 04:15 PM |

This is the next article in a series of blog posts from UCL Geography alumni, talking about how their degree led them to where they are now….

by Gemma Kane

gemma-kane.jpgThroughout my degree, I didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted to do once I graduated, except that I probably wanted to work in the public sector, and do something that had a positive impact on people’s lives. I studied BA Geography, although took both human and physical modules, and graduated in 2016. It was the variety of the Civil Service Fast Stream - and the opportunity to see many different parts of the public sector - that attracted me to the scheme. It meant I could rotate frequently and see which areas I liked and disliked, as I didn’t really understand how government worked and the different roles available before I started. I’m doing the Generalist Fast Stream, although there are now fifteen different schemes ranging from Communications to Science and Engineering to Commercial. I only applied to this and Ofgem’s graduate scheme, as these were the only two that sparked my interest, and there’s not very many public-sector grad schemes compared to other industries.

The scheme is four years long, which is a lot longer than most graduate roles, and comprises of four six-month postings, including a secondment out of the Civil Service, and two year-long postings. It’s designed to be a fast track route in a management position, and in the longer term, into a senior civil servant role.

My first posting was in the Home Office’s International Strategy and Engagement Team, where I got to work on some really interesting issues such as counter terrorism, serious organised crime, and migration. My main role was coordinating UK attendance at multilateral events, and I was lucky enough to travel to Los Angeles and Rome to see how these work and international relationships are built.


Figure 1: ‘Perks of the job’ Visiting the US Customs and Border Protection for a multilateral meeting with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in Los Angeles, California.

Next I moved to the Ministry of Justice to work in their Transformation team, which aimed on build a simpler, smarter and more unified department. I worked on changes to the departmental operating model and this gave me a real insight into all the corporate back of house functions it takes to run such a large organisation. I learnt valuable project management and finance skills, which although don’t sound the most exciting, are key for most roles in government.

Currently, I’m on secondment to the NHS at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, working on digital strategy. It’s really valuable to get out of central government and see how wider public organisations interact with the centre. Plus, it’s a fascinating place to be working - it’s the largest Biomedical Campus outside Europe and I’ve met some incredibly interested, talented and motivated people.


Figure 2: Cambridge Biomedical Campus, which houses stakeholders ranging from NHS Trusts, pharmaceutical companies, the University of Cambridge, and multiple research institutes.

One of the advantages of the Fast Stream is that I get to use both the content and the skills I learnt in my degree. Geography is really broad and has strong links to a lot of government policy. For example, when working at the Home Office, modules such as ‘Migration and Transnationalism’ really aided my understanding of some of the complex issues I was dealing with. Plus, I’ve had to do a lot of written briefings for senior colleagues and Ministers, and the communication skills you pick up in a degree have been crucial to helping me do this. As much as I knew I didn’t want to be an academic, it’s nice to know that I can use what I learnt at UCL Geography. The scheme is mentally very challenging so you always feel like you’re being stretched which is rewarding when it pays off.

I also personally find it really interesting to work on issues that impact people’s everyday lives and that you see all the time in the news. It reminds me how important the work of Civil Servants is, particularly in light of Brexit; I think it’s a fascinating time to be working in government.

Studying Geography has definitely helped me during my time on the scheme. The subject is really varied, and as a Civil Servant, you need both strong written and analytical skills. The wide range of modules I took at UCL meant I could develop both aspects of this and gave me a strong foundation to build on in each of my roles. This is particularly helpful with the Fast Stream as, because you’re only in each posting for six months initially, you really get thrown in at the deep end and have to get to grips with things pretty quickly.

The Geography department at UCL specifically gives students a lot of opportunities to become involved in departmental activities, which helped me a lot both in terms of the application process and in giving me skills outside of studying for my degree. For example, I was President of the UCL Geographical Society, Chair of the Staff Student Consultative Committee, a transition mentor for first year students, and helped in the running of departmental open days. Not only is this good for CV boosting, but working with staff and students across the department gave me a solid footing for the politics and people skills required as a Civil Servant. Given its varied nature, Geography may not at first lend itself to an obvious or particular career path, which can mean job searching can be daunting. However, I think this actually gives Geographers an advantage, as they have such a breadth of skills and can fit their experience to most jobs and tends to make us well rounded candidates. So, my advice would be to leverage this to your advantage, as it’s something employers really value!


How I evolved from being a UCL Geography graduate to a marine scientist in the Galápagos

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 21, 2017 11:20 AM |

This is the first in a series of blog posts from UCL Geography alumni, talking about how their degree led them to where they are now….

by Salome Buglass

Salome Buglass-1

Fig 1: Salome in front of Darwin’s Arch at Darwin and Wolfe Islands, the most northern islands of the Galápagos. Waters here harbor one of highest biomass of sharks and top predator fish species (photo credit: Salome Buglass - Charles Darwin Foundation)

When I decided to do a BSc in geography at UCL, I never imaged that would end up being a marine ecologist working in the Galápagos Islands, as part of the first ever characterisation of deep-sea seamount ecosystems in the archipelago. I definitely never thought I would be tagging tiger sharks to study their movements in the marine reserve.

Salome Buglass-2

Fig 2: Seeing tiger shark swim off after successfully tagging it with a satellite and acoustic tag (photo credit: Harry Reyes- Charles Darwin Foundation/Galapagos National Park)

In July 2016 I touched down in the Enchanted Islands and dodged iguanas as I crunched up the gravel path to meet the team and start my new job as a marine ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation. My work here focuses on researching key questions on inter-tidal and deep-sea ecosystems, commercial fisheries and shark populations to support informed decision making for the Galapagos Marine Reserve. When I’m asked how I got this job, my short answer is “Saw the ad, applied, got lucky!”

The long story is …. I studied geography. I have always been interested in organisms, nature, conservation, people, and development, particularly in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, as my maternal roots come from this region. No other degree except the multi-disciplinary subject of geography enabled me to mix and match courses such as ecology, palaeoclimatology, hydroclimatology and coastal systems, with courses on people and cities, development and poverty, natural resource management conservation and livelihoods. For my BSc thesis I did a baseline study on water quality and macroinvertebrates communities of a high-altitude river catchment in the Andes (with Anson Mackay as my supervisor) and collaborated with Cuenca’s (Ecuador’s third largest city) environmental management department.  And this, fortuitously, 8 years later, proved to be a key stepping stone to the Galapagos, as it provided me with a letter of recommendation from an Ecuadorian institution underscoring my scientific and Latin-American credentials.  However, there were a few more serendipitous detours before all the stones lined up to create my water-logged path here.

I graduated from UCL at the peak of the global economic crisis in 2009. A time when the word firing was more commonly heard than hiring across the UK and Europe, principally in the environmental non-profit and public sector. So, I went to try my luck in the job market of the twin island nation Trinidad and Tobago. This wasn’t random. I’m part Trinidadian, I had a student loan, and no savings, and I needed a free roof. I was lucky enough to join my parents, who had just moved there for my mum’s work. I ended up living in Port of Spain for three years, working as a brand analyst in a major marketing firm after unsuccessfully trying to find paid work in my field. While I welcomed the chance to pick up a complete new skill set, one that I value to this day, I continuously sought opportunities or ways to be involved in some environmental or nature related activity. From supporting the Green Film Festival and assisting the set-up of a plastic recycling non-profit, to training as a diver and volunteer coral reef surveyor in Tobago.

Salome Buglass-3

Fig 3: Salome distracted by a curious sea lion while counting macro invertebrates along a transect line for the ecological monitoring project (photo credit: Patricia Marti Puig - Charles Darwin Foundation)

It turned out that reef checking experience was exactly what my future supervisor was looking for and it was my ticket to being accepted for a two-year master’s research degree in climate change at the Geography Department of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. I also have to thank Coca Cola, because working on their marketing campaign to get more kids drinking sugar across Trinidad schools made it clearer to me than ever that I had to find my way back into my true calling in science and conservation.

Rainy London had prepared me well for Vancouver, aka Raincouver, where I researched climate change impacts on tropical marine ecosystems with Dr Simon Donner. I got to lead my own field study in Tobago to investigate the resilience of coral reefs to mass bleaching events driven by  sea surface temperatures whilst also affected by terrestrial pollution. Apart from all the fascinating science at UBC, and earning extracurricular scientific diver certificates (which later set me apart from the competition to help “land” my job as marine scientist), I also got a good handle on the complex relationships between coastal communities and their seascapes.

Salome Buglass-4

Fig 4: School of endemic salemas dodging hungry sea lion (photo credit: Salome Buglass - Charles Darwin Foundation)

However, tying up my thesis was followed once again with having to face the daunting task of securing a permanent job. I definitely felt a bit of professional identity crisis at the time. I entered full job-search mode, selling myself as many things, e.g.  aquatic ecologist or environmental scientist to suit many different job openings, everything except geographer. I worked for six months as a junior ecologist consultant for a river health assessment programme, followed by working at an NGO on water resource management and governance. Both jobs were excellent experiences, but I was hoping to find full time employment in Vancouver. Due to the economic downturn in Canada this was turning out to be a tough nut to crack. I also applied for fantasy jobs, like marine ecologist in the Galapagos. Additionally, I followed my supervisor’s advice to take advantage of not being too busy (a euphemism for being between short-term contracts), to publish my thesis in a journal as soon as possible after graduating. Thanks Simon, because it turned out to be a major must-have for getting my current job.

As I had applied for so many jobs and some time had passed, I was gobsmacked when the good news arrived from the Charles Darwin Foundation. At the beginning, I admit I felt a bit like an imposter, having the marine biologist dream job, though technically I was a geographer (if titles mean anything really). However, after being here for over a year doing applied research to improve policies and management in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, I realized that my multidisciplinary background is actually a great fit for working in this place. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest and most famous marine protected areas in the world and faces major challenges related to problematic governance, the exponential growth of visitors, pressures from legal and illegal fishing, El Niño events -- and all of this superimposed by current and future effects of climate change (interesting right? Read UCL’s Peter Jones’ paper for more info on these intricacies).  Now when I find myself bouncing from fisheries management planning meetings, to doing logistically challenging field work to assess marine habitats, to writing papers on spatial and temporal distribution of species, or in a climate change workshop, I have really come to appreciate having studied geography as it could not have served me better.

For more details about the work I am currently doing, please do visit my website:

To expand your personal network and connect with UCL alumni like Salome please join the UCL Alumni Online Community

What it means to raise the Palestinian flag in today's America

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 03, 2017 04:25 PM |

by Tom Brocket


File 20170922 17241 pmod7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1



As American as anyone. scottagunn via Flickr, CC BY-NC
Tom Brocket, UCL


It is a wet and dreary February afternoon in Union City, the compact and densely populated township sitting on the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River. The rain leaves the streets deserted. Outside the North Bergen mayor’s office, a group of some 50 people cower under their umbrellas and crowd around the flagpoles to the left of the main entrance. The American flag is already raised atop the most prominent pole on the small patch of grass.

A new flag runs up the post behind immediately behind it. The crowd cheer and clap. When it reaches the summit, some climb onto the elevated bank and take selfies with their friends or children. The low wind takes some time to coax the flag from its entanglement, but eventually, the white, green and black stripes and the red triangle of the Palestinian flag are revealed.

Over the past five years, these Palestinian flag-raising ceremonies have become an annual fixture in several New Jersey towns with prominent Palestinian-American communities, such as North Bergen, Clifton and Paterson. I spent the majority of my time between these towns while conducting research on second-generation Palestinians living in the state.

When these events are reported on via news articles and Facebook posts, they are usually met with angry comments from the wider community. Many criticise the town halls for flying a non-American flag; some voice concern that flying the Palestinian flag endorses a nation of terrorists, or even fret that raising the flag of a majority-Muslim nation implies America is losing parts of its territory to religious and ethnic enclaves.

At the heart of these reactions is a belief that retaining such ties to countries of origin is antithetical to becoming American – an analysis upheld for many decades by literature on migrant “assimilation” in the US. But it is not simply an affiliation to an “elsewhere” that can explain the incensed reaction. After all, St Patrick’s day celebrations just across the Hudson pass without critical commentary, and the claiming of Irish, Scottish or Italian heritage by post-immigrant generations rarely leads to an accusation of being un-American, at least not today.

The point is that unlike those white European nations, the “elsewhere” to which Palestinian-Americans “belong” is an Arabic and majority-Muslim nation – and one that has for several decades been painted as a terrorist enemy of the US and its values.

Refuge and opportunity

In my own research, I argue that these flag-raising ceremonies are occasions for Palestinian-Americans to pay homage to their dual national loyalties and their transnational, diasporic identities, while making a bid for belonging and recognition in the US. As one community leader who organised the largest ceremony in 2016 told me emphatically:

[These days] aren’t political … they aren’t about the city of Clifton recognising the State of Palestine or Palestinian Authority. They are about recognising the contribution of the Palestinian community to that town. It could be Palestinians, or people from South American, European or Asian countries. All these different groups raise their flags here, like us.



A flag-raising ceremony in Paterson, New Jersey. B. C. Lorio via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND



Back in Union City, a figure in a local Palestinian rights group stood up and said:

I want to thank the town of North Bergen for this event recognising the Palestinian community. We are both proud Americans and proud Palestinians. Our fathers came here and found refuge and opportunity, and for that we are grateful. Later generations were born in and nurtured by this country, and woven into its fabric, and for that, we love it.

A local school teacher speaking next offered a similar sentiment:

We as Palestinians … all of us, from the halls of Congress to the halls of academia, we have contributed in substantial positive ways to this country, we are able to flourish as a community in America, here in North Bergen and across this great country. And today’s raising of the flag is a clear reflection of all we have accomplished today. God bless North Bergen, God bless America and God bless Palestine and its amazing people.

These events are ultimately less about the raising of the Palestinian flag, but raising it alongside the American flag. Packed with second and third-generation Palestinian-Americans who have grown up between both of these worlds, flag-raisings are rare opportunities to reconcile two seemingly incompatible identities.


There is a storied tradition of American thought that sees dual identities not as a threat to a cohesive national identity or antithetical to the process of “assimilation”, but as the very definition of America itself. As the progressive intellectual Randolph S. Bourne wrote in 1916: “America is … not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colours.”

Today, the raising of the Palestinian flag is a way to celebrate the contributions of an immigrant Muslim and Arab community against, as one speaker at the Union City flag-raising put it, “a backdrop of pervasive Islamophobia and discrimination in America”. His words rang true after Donald Trump’s first “Muslim ban”, the suddenly imposed travel restrictions that rocked Palestinians in New Jersey only a couple of months before, and the atmosphere of racialised nationalism that has hung in the air ever since Trump began his campaign in the summer of 2015.

The ConversationTo borrow a term from the anthropologist Thea Abu El-Haj, flag-raisings are also “bids for citizenship” – a way for Palestinian-Americans to demand inclusion and recognition in a country whose politics and culture have long positioned them as outsiders. To see the Palestinian flag raised alongside the American flag is to receive affirmation and recognition from their American towns – and to pay homage to the dual loyalties that have shaped Palestinian-American generations from the day they were born.

Tom Brocket, PhD Candidate in Geography, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Changing departments – the pros and cons of being away from home discipline(s)

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Sep 21, 2017 01:00 PM |

by Muki Haklay

Last weekend, I updated my Linkedin page to indicate that I’ve now completed the move between departments at UCL – from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering to the Department of Geography. It’s not just me – the Extreme Citizen Science group will be now based at the Department of Geography.

With this move, I’m closing a circle of 20 years – in September 1997 I came to the Department of Geography at UCL to start my PhD studies at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (At the time, CASA was an inter-departmental centre with links to the Bartlett, Geography, and Geomatic Engineering). At the end of my PhD studies, in 2001, after four years of self-funding the PhD by working as a sysadmin in Geography, research assistant in CASA, and few other things, I was looking for opportunities to stay in London for a while.

Today, the plight of EU academics in the UK due to Brexit is a regular feature in the news. In a similar way, as a non-EU person, I had to take into account that every job that I’m applying to will require organising job permit, and consider how long it will last. This ‘silent’ part of the academic experience that was there for many people is becoming common knowledge, but that’s another story…

With that in mind, I have applied to quite a diverse range of jobs – and finding myself shortlisted at urban planning at MIT, Geography at Leicester, Geography at LSE, Geography at the Hebrew University (where I’ve done my BSc and MA), and Geomatic Engineering at UCL, in addition to management consultancy, and a GIS software company. The MIT, LSE and the commercial jobs weren’t successful, and Leicester offer came too early in the write-up process. In the end, UCL Geomatic Engineering materialised at the right time and this is where I ended.

I found myself staying at the department (including its merger with Civil and Environmental Engineering) for 15 years until it became clear that it is time to move because an incompatibility between the direction that my research evolved and the focus of the department. I did consider staying within the faculty of Engineering – some of my work is linked to computer science, and to interaction with geographical technologies which is related to Human-Computer Interaction, but it felt just as incompatible – after all, most of my work is appearing in journals and conferences that are not valued by computer scientists but by geographers. It was good to discover that my interest in moving to the Department of Geography was welcomed, and now the process is complete. So what have I learned in these 15 years of being a geographer (geographical information scientist) in a civil engineering department? and what reflections do I have about being a researcher of one discipline but having an academic position in another?

Straddling fences

Let’s start from my own position – Nadine Schuurman & Mike Goodchild interview from 1998:

NS Some of the human geographers have partially built their careers upon writing critiques of GIS. How meaningful is participation in these debates for people in GIS?
MG Quite meaningful for geographers interested in GIS. If I were advising a new graduate student on how to succeed in geography these days, my advice would be to try to straddle that fence. It wouldn’t be to come down on either side of it because you have to be able to talk to the rest of the discipline and yet you have to be able to use the technology (Schuurman 1998, emphasis added)

This matched also recommendations that I received before starting my PhD, and my own interest from previous studies in linking social aspects in the environment and society interface with GIS and technology. During my PhD, I was lucky to be linked to three areas of studies at UCL – CASA, with its focus on GIS, computer modelling and visualisation, the Environment and Society Research Unit (ESRU) in Geography, and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering expertise in the department of Computer Science. The result was that my PhD thesis had both a technical part, as well as social-theoretical part. It also demonstrated in papers that I wrote collaboratively during the PhD – for example, a technical paper about the use of agent-based modelling, was followed by a social theoretical paper about the methodological individualism that is embedded in the models at the time.

The technical part of my academic identity was part of the reason that Geomatic Engineering accepted me, and at least at the beginning I tried to fit in – e.g. by directing my attention to technical aspects of GIS data and processing representations and supervising a PhD on 3D data storage. However, participatory aspects of GIS continue to interest me – so I seized opportunities to develop this area. For example, once I heard about OpenStreetMap, I directed my research effort towards it, or when I learned about London 21 Sustainability Network effort to create a London Green Map, I offered help and designed MSc projects to support it. Since 2007, my research became more concentrated on participatory mapping and citizen science. As a result, the work that is linked to geomatic engineering (i.e. surveying, precise measurements, photogrammetry) shrank, as well as relationships with other areas of work in the department, this eventually led to where I am now.

Considering that I have found myself as an interdisciplinary researcher in a department that is completely outside either my ‘home’ disciplines (either Geography or Computer Science), had benefits and challenges.


The most important benefit, which eventually paid off, was the disciplinary freedom. While at the point of promotion applications, or specific evaluators for a research applications and such, I did provide a list of people who relate to my area of work (Geographic Information Science), on the day to day work I was not judged by disciplinary practices. Shortly after securing the lectureship, Paul Longley introduced me to the 3Ps – Publications, Pounds (grant money), and PhD students as criteria that you should pay attention to in terms of career development. Because of my involvement with London Technology Network, I’ve learned about the fourth P – Patents (as in wider impacts). With this insight in mind, I was aware that around me, people cannot evaluate my research on its merit so they will check these general matrices, and as long as they are there, it does not necessarily matter what I do. This freedom provided the scope to develop the combination of technology development which is embedded in social science research which I enjoy doing.

Disciplines do set which journals you should publish in, what conferences you’re expected to present in, and similar aspects of an academic career. Being outside a discipline means that I could publish sometimes in computer science (my top cited paper) and sometime in geography and urban studies (my second top cited paper). Noticeably, I don’t have a single publication in a pure geomatic engineering journal. This allowed for exploring different directions of research that if I was inside a disciplinary department, I would not necessarily be able to do.

The second important benefit was to learn how to communicate with engineers and people who do not see the research from the same perspective as you. Because I was in an engineering department, I was applying to the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (the categorisation of my research on EPSRC website are interesting – and I know that they are not what I entered to the system!) and that meant that I needed to think about the reasons that someone who reviews my applications or judges them on a panel will see the benefits from their perspective. I had to learn how to think about structuring research applications, or submissions to REF so they are convincing and relevant to the reader – there was no point in going over the philosophy of technology reasons for researching VGI because this does not help in convincing the reader that my research is worth funding. Highlighting the technical advances and the potential for wider societal impact was more important.

Third, the position that I found myself in was pushing my interdisciplinary understanding further. Not only I had to get used to the engineering mindset and support engineering education (to a very minor extent), I also was in a position that I was doing participatory action research but within an engineering department, which made it more palatable for various researchers in the natural sciences and engineering to approach me while applying for funding. They needed a “safe” person to carry out a participatory part of a wider research project, and I guess that being based in an engineering department made it look this way.  Over the years, I had discussions if the group that I led can be considered as “social scientists” on a project, because of the departmental affiliation. I found it puzzling, but I guess that for reviewers who look less at the details of each applicant’s background, and used to look at affiliations, this worked.


The most obvious downside of being out of a disciplinary department is the issue of resources – this was frustrating while also understandable. Many requests for resources, such as appointing a lecturer in my area, were turned down. Throughout the whole period, the activities that I was carrying out were interesting, or even one that worth highlighting at a departmental level from time to time. When it came to the hard decisions on investment and resource allocation, the activities were not part of the core mission of the department and therefore not fundable. This left me with a continual need for bootstrapping and figuring out ways to secure resources.

The second downside is a version of the imposter syndrome that I started calling  “the hypocrite syndrome”. This is the downside of the communication across disciplines (and therefore epistemologies and ontologies) that I mentioned above. It is the feeling that while what drives the research is a social theory, the process of writing an application is about dampening it and emphasising technical aspects. A good example for this is in my paper about data quality of OpenStreetMap – if you read carefully the paper, it’s fairly obvious that my main reason to carry out quality assessment is so I can have a measure that will help me to show the social justice aspect of the project. Most of the papers that cite this work take it as a paper about data quality. It was a useful way of developing my research, but it doesn’t make you feel that you have provided a holistic description of what your aims are.

A third downside is the additional effort that was required to keep in touch with the development of the discussions in your home disciplines – I frequently went to geography conferences and followed the literature on HCI and computer science, but this is not a replacement for attending regular departmental seminars or even noticing discussions during departmental meetings, that keep you up to date with the general development. In Geography, I was lucky to be on the board for a leading journal (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) for about 5 years, and that provided another way to keep in touch and learn about the discipline.

Overall, I don’t regret the decision to go for an engineering department. The journey was interesting, I have learned a lot through it, and have developed my academic career this way. In hindsight, it did work well. What will happen next? I don’t know – I’ll probably need to reflect in 5 years what were the impacts of joining a disciplinary department…


“People perform better when they can be themselves” Stonewall

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Sep 19, 2017 04:50 PM |

by Anson Mackay and Helene Burningham

The Department has set up a new Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (EDInC), which builds on our Athena Swan bronze award, but with a much broader remit. Allied to this, Helene Burningham and I have decided to set up a Geography LGBTQ group called Out in Geography, to create a welcoming and inclusive environment in the department for all LGBTQ students and staff.

Why is this group necessary? At school, 55% of young LGB people experience homophobic harassment (Stonewall 2012), while at university, 20% LGB students and 33% trans students experience at least one form of bullying on campus (NUS 2014). At university, LGBTQ students are at a significantly higher risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues (METRO Youth Chances 2014), and tend to amass higher levels of risky debt than their heterosexual counterparts (NUS 2014). These factors result in high numbers of LGB students seriously considering dropping out of university, which rises to more than 50% for trans students. Unfortunately, LGBT students are less likely to talk to their tutor about issues related to their sexuality for fear of discrimination (ECU 2009). Issues of discrimination are not of course restricted to students; in UK universities over a third of LGBT staff have experienced negative treatment on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Nationwide, attacks on LGBTQ people have increased by almost 80% in the past few years.

While UCL Geography is a great place to work and study, we think that we can proactively make it one of the most welcoming departments for LGBTQ staff and students in the country. For example, students arriving from school may not yet have gone through the stress of ‘coming out’ to their friends and families. Schools are often seen as places of relative intolerance for LGBTQ people, so the onus is on us as a department to make a conscious break with that environment and to make being LGBTQ at university a positive experience.

The NUS has a number of recommendations for universities in general, but we think that we can adopt many of these department-wide immediately. These are intended to complement existing UCL LGBTQ networks, including the Equality Advisory Group, out@UCL and UCLU’s LGBT+ Student Network.

  • Encourage staff members to become a Friend of Out@UCL to expand the growing network of LGBTQ+ friends, allies and advocates. This network is open to all UCL staff, and training sessions are provided once a term.
  • Helene and I would like to encourage out LGBTQ Geography staff and students (from undergraduate to MSc to PhD) to act as mentors for other LGBTQ people in the department – if you would like to volunteer, please contact me directly for more details.
  • Establish points of contact in the department so that students and staff can easily report acts of harassment or bullying against themselves or someone else. Helene and I are happy to take on this role in the first instance, but if anyone else would like to volunteer, that would be great.
  • Include LGBT provision and positive content in prospectuses and open day literature
  • Provide a range of social activities, e.g. attend OutThinkers events, participation in LGBT History Month, museum and cinema visits with LGBT themes that occur both in and outside of campus etc
  • Through UCL ChangeMakers, work towards including LGBT perspectives in the Geography curriculum, whether this be related to content or known LGBT researchers

We have also set up a UCL Out in Geography Facebook group where notices will be posted, relevant literature held etc. If you have any queries, please drop us a line.

References cited:

ECU (2009) The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans staff and students in HE. London: Equality Challenge Unit.

METRO Youth Chances (2014) Survey of 16-25 year olds: first reference report. London: METRO.

NUS (2014) Education beyond the straight and narrow: LGBT students’ experience in higher education. London: NUS.

Stonewall (2012) The School Report: The Experiences of Gay Young People in Britain’s Schools in 2012. London: Stonewall.


Viv Jones in Russia

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Aug 30, 2017 04:45 PM |

by Professor Viv Jones

In August I spent two weeks in the remote Arctic region in the Nenets Zapovednik (Nature reserve) situated in the Pechora Delta; one of the largest wetlands in Northern Europe (see map below).  It is a remote area and only accessible by boat, taking about 5 hours to reach from the nearest town, Naryan Mar. The area is an important summer breeding ground for migratory birds with important populations of waders, swans and geese.  One species, the Bewick’s Swan is of particular interest since birds migrate from the Russian tundra, across Europe to the UK with wintering populations at reserves such as  WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) Slimbridge.  The numbers of Bewick’s has fallen by about 30% since the 1990s with effects of climate change, increased hunting and wetland habitat loss, and fatalities caused by power lines and wind turbines, all being thought to have adversely affected the populations.  Last year their migration route was tracked by Sacha Dench who flew with the swans in a paramotor supported by a land-team, and this year the aim of this expedition was to complete the filming, monitor the Bewick’s and other swans, and characterise the lakes and wetlands.


Over 10 days, colleagues from the Nature Reserve and the WWT helped by myself, PhD student Hannah Robson and the media team caught nearly 100 swans which were then rung and measured for biometrics such as weight. We sometimes captured birds that had been previously sighted in Slimbridge and other wetlands on their migratory route, and caught one Dutch bird which had been tagged with a GPS last year.


Hannah and I spent most of the time on the numerous shallow lakes which make up the delta (see photo below).  We collected zooplankton, algal samples and water chemistry samples from about 15 lakes from 3 different regions of the area to characterise their biology and also collected lake sediment cores from 10 lakes. The lakes were quite shallow (less than a metre deep) but surprisingly varied with some being fully fresh and other showing high conductivities, meaning they are connected to the tidal (salty) river systems. The lake sediment cores will give us a record of past changes and will enable us to investigate whether the lakes in the wetlands have been affected by recent environmental changes such as climate warming and long distance pollution.  In the next few months the cores will be radiometrically dated to determine how old the sediment is and then analysed for geochemistry to see if there is any evidence of pollution and also a variety of plant and animal fossils will be examined. We hope that the results will enable us to determine if the lakes have changed in the recent past and whether such changes might be detrimental to the swan populations.