UCL News


Spotlight on Dr Ilan Kelman

14 May 2014

This week the spotlight is on Ilan Kelman, Reader in Risk, Resilience & Global Health at the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction and UCL Institute for Global Health.

Dr Ilan Kelman

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a Reader in Risk, Resilience & Global Health, cross-appointed to two institutes, so I am 50% at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (UCL IRDR) and 50% at the Institute for Global Health (UCL IGH).

My mandate is to bring together health research and disaster research, integrating climate change into both. 

That covers topics such as disability and disaster, casualties in disasters, mental health impacts of climate change, disaster diplomacy and health diplomacy, theorising vulnerability and risk, and using performing arts to communicate health-related and disaster-related behavioural changes.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

It is an exciting position, particularly the joint appointment across two faculties, designed to bring people together, shatter disciplinary boundaries, draw on the rich histories of multiple fields and forge a bold research agenda linking health and disaster.

I started at UCL in November 2013. Before, I was a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Oslo, Norway.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my work when students and the public tell me that I have inspired them about science. 

It is important to challenge people, to make them think and take them outside of their comfort zone. Too often, that can be seen as threatening. 

Instead, it is a challenge and a privilege to be able to work with people from all walks of life to help them to discover scientific pathways for themselves.

That leads to me learning and being inspired, epiphanies with colleagues so that we generate original and exciting science and then the opportunity to bring students into that discovery process and to exchange knowledge with those outside of science.

When feedback on how we approach that is negative, then it is time to improve. When feedback on that is positive, then it makes the work worthwhile and we can be proud of our accomplishments and of using science to teach and to serve society.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

I co-coordinate the Many Strong Voices programme (MSV) with an organisation in Norway called GRID-Arendal.

MSV brings together the peoples of the Arctic and Small Island Developing states - several dozen tropical island countries - to meet the challenges of climate change, recognising that it is only one challenge amongst many within the context of disasters and sustainability. 

Climate change is a major influence on physical and mental health, livelihoods and community viability, especially in remote locations with small populations. 

MSV works with the peoples on their own terms, leading to building capacity for self-help, communicating the Arctic and island challenges and prospects to wider audiences, extensive media attention (including being named one of the world's top 10 climate change campaigns), and a series of original scientific publications.

Working with the Arctic peoples and islanders and bringing them together shows how much they understand their own needs, knowledge, and traditions. 

But they are also asking for assistance due to climate change's immense challenges, especially since they have contributed so little to climate change. 

MSV provides that balance of drawing on people's own skills and experiences alongside the power of local approaches, but complemented with external knowledge and resources. 

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

For novel, it would be The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, which is about trying to reconcile two different communities, serving as a metaphor for two different worlds.

The reconciliation succeeds through creating crisis and trying to search beyond one's own experiences and worldview in order to create a better joint future out of that crisis. 

The novel's protagonist is a creative and lonely individual who is forced to rebel against the indoctrinated way in which his society has been living. He is able to envisage the world beyond his community, which no one else has had the courage to see and, in doing so, he finds another 'world'. 

This provokes a crisis, from which he can then say that there is a need to bring together both worlds for the betterment of both. That defines, in a broad manner, what science should be about.

For music, it is a toss-up between The Planets by Gustav Holst and Johan de Meij's Symphony No. 1 'The Lord of the Rings' and Symphony No. 3 'Planet Earth'. The richness, depth and beauty of those pieces provide poetry and timelessness.

For film, I find the Inspector Morse series to be continually watchable. With Greek tragedies, Shakespearean comedies and Sherlock Holmes intertwined - coupled with enthralling direction and powerful acting - the episodes are fascinating and engaging. 

The one drawback is that they might have saddled Oxford with the reputation of having the highest murder rate in the world.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

The top ten unanswered interdisciplinary philosophy questions:

1. Combinatorics and philosophy: if you flip a monkey ten times, what is the probability that it bites you after landing on its head three times in a row?

2. Ethics and philosophy: if infinite ethicists were placed in front of infinite typewriters for infinite time, would an honest statement appear?

3. Geometry and philosophy: if angles can dance on the head of a pin, are they, ah, cute or just obtuse?

4. Sports and philosophy: when taking a penalty in soccer/football, if the ball lands on the goal line, how dramatically must the kicker fall down clutching his/her lower right leg before the ref red cards the goalie? 

How is that different for clutching his/her lower left leg? How is that different for clutching his/her lower right leg? How is that different for clutching his/her lower left leg? How is that different for clutching his/her lower right leg?

5. Game Theory and philosophy: consider the following endgame of the megaultrasuperchampions of 7D Hypericosohedral Reverse-Maximised Quintiple Chess: 375,687      ...      Ra3B7-4KK(D-4)7.3.7xe47H1-222B(1,4-T)5.98+++K1,3,4 (!) Should lavender and yellow resign to ensure that enough glazed doughnuts are left?

6. Music and philosophy: on an icy pavement, if you don't C#, will you Bb?

7. Cartography and philosophy: on a two-dimensional closed surface partitioned into sectors, what is the minimum number of colours that can be used to fill in the sectors, with no two sectors sharing a non-zero-length boundary having the same colour, that will win the Turner Prize?

8. Computer science and philosophy: if a sysadmin being teleported by iWatch 7.3 simultaneously uses it to stream 1 TBps video while untraceably hacking into multiple intelligence services on four different continents, how serious is his/her complaint that "It is too slow to tell the time while tweeting"?

9. Anthropology and philosophy: how frequently must you study yourself as a participant-observer so that the infinite regression produces a universe-ending tesseract?

10. Orthography and philosophy: y r u?

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Any famous chef from history or the current day, so that they could cook.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Never be afraid to stand up against injustice, power abuse and dictatorial leadership - especially in science where there is a view that scientists are objective and solid leaders in their pursuit of original and innovative knowledge. 

But scientists are human too, with nepotism and bias being rife among them. In an environment that is meant to foster independent creative thought while respectfully challenging norms, imposed top-down decisions on science and scientists, alongside failure to seek and corroborate evidence for opinions, should not be acceptable.

As the 18th-century writer Junius is said to have penned, "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures." I would advise my younger self to be the most loyal subject.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I prefer not to travel. I would much rather be working extensively in my local community and to enjoy what it offers, while making my research applicable to the local context. 

That would also be much more sustainable, from an environmental perspective as well as from a personal sanity perspective. 

Unfortunately, the nature of my research entails keeping the airlines and hotel companies in business, especially when the funder (fairly and legitimately) expects their funds to be used for fieldwork, intensive face-to-face project meetings and international scientific dissemination, including conferences. 

All that does indeed improve the science and does foster creativity and collaboration. Nonetheless, even though the travel is a privilege (so I can hardly complain, especially since I gain so much from it), I would much rather that my research money and time were used to support the local economy for local endeavours.

What is your favourite place?

I like islands, which is why I tend to make those my first choice for study locations. 

I have researched island communities from Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in Norway's Arctic to New Zealand's Chatham Islands - and many locations in between, including Barbados, Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland, Malta, the Seychelles, Timor-Leste and Tonga. 

As Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller for Western Europe, said in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932): "It's lucky that there are such a lot of islands in the world. I don't know what we should do without them."