Postgraduate focus: Tackling big world challenges

International PhD students (left to right): Chisom Ifeobu; Sally Montgomery; Tamara Zambiasi; Noor Mazhar

One of the factors that makes Newnham such a stimulating intellectual environment is the presence of a large, diverse body of postgraduate students who come from a wide range of educational systems and many different countries and whose research represents a huge gamut of intellectual endeavour, writes Postgraduate Tutor Dr Kate Fleet.

The research environment thus created provides a springboard for the exchange of ideas and fosters new ways of thinking and conceptualising while the international nature of Newnham’s postgraduate body adds a richness to the College community.

Many of Newnham’s research students are engaged with and seek solutions to the global problems of today, problems that affect us all and impact the world we live in. At the forefront of their fields and producing cutting-edge research, these young scholars will undoubtedly make an impact on developments in the academic arena and beyond.

Renewable energy

Chisom Ifeobu from Nigeria is a PhD candidate in Engineering, focusing on onshore wind turbines’ foundations, where cutting costs could boost sustainable development in Africa. ‘I’m trying to make construction more efficient and cheaper so developing countries are more likely to adopt them. Currently, in the soil I study, a huge slab of concrete is needed to secure turbines in the ground. I believe if you can consider how the foundation behaves with wind loading you could save a lot of material, reduce carbon emissions and cut costs.’

Chisom uses a scaled-down model to run experiments and numerical modelling to understand the interaction between soil and the foundation. ‘The aim is to understand the behaviour of the conventional concrete slab foundation, then propose solutions, such as more innovative shapes, varying the size and the depth to which the foundation is embedded; could deeper foundations reduce the size and cost? It’s exciting because I’m the first one to do it and the solutions are applicable across the world.’

The Schofield Centre (the University’s geotechnical engineering lab) is an international community of students and researchers and people bring ideas from their own countries, she says. ‘Relationships build because we share everything. Older students guide new students to prepare their first models and share tips to improve. We help each other out.’

Human-environment relations

Sally Montgomery from Australia spent over a year living on Lord Howe Island for her Social Anthropology PhD studying human–environment relations on this World Heritage site. The island, off the east coast of Australia, is a unique ecosystem benefiting from robust environmental conservation efforts. Part of her focus was on issues including pollution, invasive species eradication and human uses of the environment.

She said: ‘I’m exploring issues such as marine plastic pollution, environmental grief, population management and environmental science. The idea of belonging is a central question: what and who belongs, or not, on the Island? How can notions of belonging be understood more broadly to help answer questions about how humans may better coexist with natural environments?

‘My interest was spurred by my love for nature growing up in Australia, but I realised my passion for it in Cambridge. I arrived in 2020 so came straight into Covid. It was a hard start but eased by the sense of community and people I met; and inspiration from the department and Newnham College. Social anthropology really relies on  trying to understand a culture, so I decided to do my research in a unique part of Australia and bring back to the Lord Howe Island community the international perspective that I have gained at Cambridge.’

Access to water

Tamara Zambiasi from Brazil is a PhD candidate in Geography; her thesis is ‘Brazil in the global contra-flow: The privatisation of basic sanitation as an instrument for universalising access to water’. She’s looking at the finance and governance of water in Brazil: the way that states perceive ownership and the impact of the financial market on producing and delivering water; how it affects rights to water, investment in pipes and so on. Brazil has faced scarcity and droughts for many years, with restrictions for households, for instance in São Paulo. Last year legislation made it easier for private companies to get involved.

Tamara said: ‘The UK is an interesting example for financialisation of water. I have found in Cambridge and other universities people who are looking at water management in Jakarta; and at renationalisation. I was struggling even to find literature before I came to Cambridge, but now I’m making these connections. Supervision makes a lot of difference in this process; my supervisor is Emma Mawdsley, who has helped me to be more critical.’

Housing developments

Noor Mazhar from Pakistan is doing her PhD with joint supervision from the Departments of Architecture and Geography. Noor is focusing on the formation of rental markets through incremental densification in Cape Town. Her research explores how planned density differs from actual density as households incrementally build, adapt, and repurpose their homes, and how different stakeholders engage with the process.

She explains: ‘Under apartheid, Black people could not own homes in cities. Post apartheid, over three million houses have been provided to families that meet the qualifying criteria.

‘However, there is a “gap market”, a group of people who earn too much to qualify for state-subsidised housing and too little to be able to obtain a mortgage. This group often live in rented dwellings built in the backyards of formally constructed homes. These are constructed in planned areas, but without approvals or permits, and often contravene building and planning regulations. It’s not unique to South Africa but the scale there is unparalleled. The government is now encouraging backyard dwellings to formalise.’

Noor is still considering the contours of her research and values the support Newnham offers. ‘I really like the College system – a learning community with support available for everything.’

  • Photo shows international PhD students (left to right): Chisom Ifeobu; Sally Montgomery; Tamara Zambiasi; Noor Mazhar