The academic nomad who averts disasters

Dr Ksenia Chmutina PhD MA FHEAis a Reader in Sustainable and Resilient Urbanism at Loughborough University, as well as Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Academic Deputy Lead of the Secure and Resilient Societies Research Challenge. We spoke to her about her journey to becoming an expert in the highly specialised discipline of disaster risk reduction and management and what lessons she had learnt along the way.

Urban vulnerability, sustainability and resilience are key areas of study for Dr Ksenia Chmutina, who has become an acknowledged and respected expert on how to manage disasters and minimise their risks while improving safety and security. These are not typically high-profile areas of academia but Ksenia’s background – which she describes as “transdisciplinary” – offers some clues as to why she chose to follow this path. 

“I have a pretty unusual education background,” she says, “and that is reflected in my research and in all the activities that I do. My undergraduate degree that I took in Russia was in political science and international relations; I then moved to China where I did an MA in politics and communication; then I came to the UK to do a PhD in engineering. Although my PhD was about developing a policy analysis framework, very quickly I had to learn about building performance and other things that I had no idea even existed. It was extremely challenging but I learnt so much!”

Initially, Ksenia wasn’t convinced that having a career in academia would enable her to use her skills to have any kind of “impact” in the world, preferring to work instead for non-governmental organisations. However, she soon came to realise that by developing her research interests she could bring together political science and disaster risk reduction which would enable her to challenge how disasters are understood and, consequently, how the risks of disasters can be reduced.

Helping the marginalised

Ksenia is particularly passionate about the subject because she recognises how disasters disproportionally affect the most marginalised people. She believes this is because those who are in power tend to be driven by profiteering and serving the political, social and business elites. It angers Ksenia how disasters are often portrayed as ‘unexpected shocks’ that cause people to lose their livelihoods, shelter, family, sense of dignity, and the physical infrastructure that makes their daily lives possible. In fact, she says, for the marginalised a disaster is not a new, sudden, or unexpected danger; it is “a continuation of everyday harm inflicted on those relegated to the margins of society”. Disasters don’t simply bring about suffering, she asserts, they expose it.

“As an academic, it is my job to think critically and to challenge the ‘normal’ if this ‘normal’ merely re-establishes the status quo,” says Ksenia. “What keeps me going is challenging the idea that trauma, suffering and displacement are unique to disaster events for those who have no voice in decision-making, no claim to an official place to live, a livelihood tied to meagre natural resources or a degraded environment. It is so important for me to challenge the narrative of disasters being sudden and ‘natural’. If we don’t do this, we will just keep ‘blaming nature’ and avoiding responsibility for failures of development.” 

Ksenia’s research into disaster risk creation was able to expose how people who have been systemically oppressed and marginalised are affected by disasters the most. However, having the evidence wasn’t enough – the arguments needed to be seen and heard. It was vital that the world understood how calling disasters ‘natural’ hid the truth of how avoidable crises are often rooted in marginalisation, discrimination, and inequitable access to resources, knowledge and support. In short, Ksenia and her colleagues aim to demystify disaster scholarship and make it much more accessible. By engaging with academics, activists, artists and practitioners from around the world, she aims to show that “we cannot work in disciplinary silos if we are to reduce disaster risks”. 

Coming back inspired

As an ‘academic nomad’, Ksenia considers herself “really privileged” to have travelled around the world and met so many inspiring people. To her, it is essential that when innovative solutions are developed they need to involve the people who are affected by the problem. Local researchers need to be involved because personal bond, trust and respect are critical if the solutions are going to work and have a positive impact.

“Every time I go somewhere, I come back inspired,” she says, “because I learn from every single person I meet. This learning doesn’t come mechanically, it comes through a dialogue, a conversation. I hope this is reflected in my research and in all my work because I try to amplify the kind of voices that may not necessarily be heard. It’s also important not to reinvent the wheel, so being able to learn from others is absolutely crucial.” 

As an academic exploring social aspects of disasters, the fight for equality is an integral part of Ksenia’s world and she feels a certain level of optimism about the move towards greater equality within academia. 

Change through listening 

“I see a massive shift,” she says. “We have started talking about equality and most importantly inequality, and there are so many amazing people who mobilise and gift their time to make a real difference. The kind of equality I hope for is multicultural, multilingual, polymorphic, pluralist, anti-hierarchical and anti-elitist. It is not equality based on the concept that ‘we know what’s good for everyone’.”

However, Ksenia is acutely aware that much more still needs to be done, with recent figures showing that there are 35 black women in UK higher education but 12,860 white male professors. She is amazed that people have expressed shock when they’ve seen such figures.

“Why are people surprised when it’s pretty obvious that our everyday lives are founded on white patriarchal and neoliberal values,” asks Ksenia, “and academia is no exception?”

She continues: “This is what needs challenging and changing. What I’ve learnt through my research and my equality, diversity and inclusion work is that a lot of changes come through listening and making sure that we amplify the voices of those who get left behind or are disadvantaged.

“I’ve also learnt that it’s important to ensure everyone is involved because everyone’s lived experience matters. Inequality in academia can only be challenged if we work in solidarity, with individuals coming together. At an institutional level, we need to make sure that people are heard and respected and that this solidarity and care are recognised and rewarded.”

Ksenia acknowledges that it is impossible to introduce ‘equality’ overnight. It will take years, she says, to encourage people to reflect on their own privileges and fragilities and to expose their own vulnerabilities. She adds: “We need to realise that we all need each other and we must all step out of our comfort zones and stop resisting change.” 

Learning important lessons

Ksenia says she has learnt several important lessons in her academic career… and she is happy to pass on two of the most important.

Firstly, it is okay to ask for help, she says. “Get a mentor, talk to senior colleagues, ask for feedback, discuss your challenges, failures and successes.”

Secondly, it is also okay to stop. “Take a break, have weekends off and take holidays. It is perfectly fine not to check your e-mail while you’re on holiday. It all sounds pretty obvious, but it took me a few years to realise that academic work never stops and that I may need to reduce my productivity sometimes if I still want to be good at what I’m doing.” 

Ksenia’s other top tips for a fruitful and happy life in academia are: 

  • Make time for yourself to focus on what you wantto do rather than what you needto do. “I spend one hour every morning, before I open my e-mails, reading something that is indirectly relevant to my research, and I cannot tell you how much I enjoy it.” 
  • Acknowledge that you achieve something every day, even if it is the smallest thing.   
  • Create a ‘nice e-mails’ folder. “Every time there’s a nice e-mail from a student or a colleague acknowledging my work, I file it into that folder. They work magic on really bad days!” 
  • Talk to comrades – sometimes even a social media post will do or a quick exchange of messages. “This is about a continuing dialogue on things that matter to all of us – giving back, supporting each other, having a quick moan, a place to be angry or to share something humorous.” 
  • Finally, decide when to finish for the day and stick with that decision – “even if half the tasks you meant to do are still not completed”.