At MICSEA we strongly believe in the importance of research to inform our approach to both post-emergency and sustainable urban development challenges. Through research, we can reflect on how to improve current practices in the field and can strengthen advocacy with data and by sharing the multiple voices within communities that need to be heard. Due to the complexity of these subjects, it is critical to collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders to analyse specific contexts. We encourage our students to follow their inquiries and deepen their research interests through the master’s thesis, equipping them with skills and methodologies to carry out research and write an academic article.
This year, our students will present their thesis on the 8th-9th of July. We took this opportunity to reflect upon the relevance of the research process in this field. We had the pleasure of interviewing our alumni Matt Wilson, Lucía Wright, Mohamed Gad and Begoña Peiró about their experiences and professional development on the intersection of academia and practice.
Did the MICSEA thesis open an interest in you towards considering a research based career?
Matt: Yes it did. Over the course of my study at UIC, I started to see the benefit of having one foot in academia and one foot in architectural practice – a number of lecturers pursued both and I found their work helpfully both critical in analysis and propositional in output. Coming from an architectural practice background, I could see the value in research and academia being able to take a retrospective look at projects to honestly evaluate what worked and what didn’t.
Lucía: The research which I developed during my time in the MICSEA program definitely marked an important chapter in my life and defined the direction I have taken since then. The high-quality content of the courses at UIC, as well as the methodological input for the development of my thesis, provided a strong foundation for my professional development.The decision to pursue a research-based career was neither obvious nor intentional at the time. The reason I approached my work methodically and scientifically was to identify the right questions to ask about a given problem. Or as Dr. Marie Aquilino (President of Problem Wisdom and guest juror for the 2015 MICSEA Theses) emphasizes, “designing a better problem.”
Gad: Definitely. Though, I think research-based careers can range from purely academic work to research-based practice and/or policy, so really there are plenty of options. It’s important to be flexible and see what the topics interest you and who’s working on them. I think a mix of both helps bridging the academic-practice gap.
Begoña: The Master’s thesis was an excellent opportunity to start exploring certain questions of social interest that built on my past experiences and that I have continued working on after finishing the MICSEA. Beyond the themes on which I focused my research, the thesis was a great exercise to learn how to carry out research. From formulating a research question, to framing my question within a body of literature and to carrying out a literature review, to designing a research methodology, collecting and analysing data, presenting results, etc. All these skills are essential for anyone who wants to pursue an academic career, but also for those who want to work as scientist practitioners. In this way, the Master’s thesis not only opened an interest in me to consider a research-based career but prepared me for it. These skills were beneficial for me while working as an advisor for UN-Habitat, where I have been developing publications and working on applied research. Moreover, I will soon be starting my doctoral studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design with the support of La Caixa Fellowship Program, where I aim to continue improving my skills in advanced research.
How did MICSEA’s Master thesis contribute to define and enhance the topics you wish to develop?
Matt: One of the most valuable opportunities that the thesis opened up was the ability to make contact with key practitioners and academics in the field – it was through these contacts that my interest in further pursuing this line of research in a PhD emerged. The fact I was doing a Master’s thesis at UIC automatically gave me credibility when making contact with people to request interviews & information from.
Lucía: I have always insisted on practical application and making good use of the work that is generated in academia. I think that’s one of the most valuable components of the MICSEA program, because each task that is undertaken is aimed at making a contribution to areas facing ongoing urban challenges or post-disaster and post-conflict situations. After the MICSEA program, I continued to develop the topic of my thesis, and worked as a research assistant and research consultant in Barcelona with UN Habitat’s initiative Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance, in Singapore at the Nanyang Technological University, and in Germany at the Technical University of Darmstadt.
Gad: A thesis is a long and challenging task, but you will be an expert on the topic you are researching, try to keep up with how consultancies or organizations are approaching the issue you’re working on so you can create something that adds value. Working on my thesis gave me a chance to explore an interdisciplinary topic that matched my interests in urban planning and health and made me curious about pursuing this topic.
Begoña: Through my Master thesis I started researching how communities responded to a socio-environmental crisis partly caused by the impacts of climate change and drought. I investigated how a coalition of community members, activists, grassroots, academics, among others, emerged during Cape Town’s water crisis in 2018 as a response to the predominantly technocratic measures adopted by the authorities. Findings showed the relevance of understanding power dynamics, leadership functions, and psychosocial phenomena. This research project helped me understand how community resilience is not just about coping with the issues communities face, but about sharing the diagnosis of the problems, creating a shared vision, and mobilizing to become collective actors in policy decision-making.
After finishing my Master’s I had a great opportunity to continue exploring issues related to community resilience and climate change adaptation while working for UN-Habitat. I worked as lead author for UN-Habitat’s publication “Climate Change Vulnerability and Risk – A Guide for Community Assessments, Action Planning and Implementation”, which includes quantitative and qualitative methods and tools to achieve an in-depth and nuanced understanding of informal dwellers’ differentiated vulnerabilities. These have been tested in Laos, Myanmar, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. The guide emphasizes the critical role of participatory approaches and the importance of combining diverse knowledge types (including informal and indigenous knowledge) with scientific data. Through my doctoral research, I aim to study how residents in informal settlements build climate resilience and how such processes can be enhanced through the co-design of actions and policies.
How is your research relevant in your current practice and how could it impact the field?
Matt: My research interest is in healthcare infrastructure and post-disaster recovery. It has complemented my current professional work in healthcare infrastructure in Australia. My hope is that researching factors that can contribute to better long-term recovery for healthcare infrastructure and provision can provide tangible benefit to the field. There is currently little research in this specific area, and even less by architectural practitioners.
Lucía: After concluding my doctoral thesis in 2019, I joined Haselhorst Associates Consulting. Haselhorst Associates is a German management consultancy firm based in Starnberg, specialized in restructuring, strategy consulting, profit improvement, as well as comprehensive concepts for smart cities and the digitalization of companies. At Haselhorst Associates, I have been able to gain additional practical experience in municipal change management. I am responsible for the annual preparation of the smart city ranking “Digital Germany”. Whether it’s about improving urban infrastructures or defining a digital transformation roadmap, cities need to be prepared for change. Our knowledge base and methodological approach help cities achieve the needed transformation.
Gad: My research was on promoting urban health resilience using mobility and green space. I believe this research stream is gaining more momentum after the covid-19 pandemic. I started working in the humanitarian field after graduation and I shared my research with academics from my home university. Your impact depends on the topic of research, so make sure that you have an idea of the audience you want to address.
Begoña: Ever since I submitted my Master thesis, research has been present and has been highly relevant in my practice. An example of this is the work I did under the Fiji Resilient Informal Settlements project, financed by the Adaptation Fund. As an advisor for UN-Habitat and for the Ministry of Housing and Community Development, I worked as lead author for the development of 16 informal settlements Vulnerability and Risk Assessments (VRAs) and Action Plans (APs) under the UNFCCC Adaptation Fund project. The APs present community-based infrastructure projects that were identified for each community, based on the findings from the assessment and through participatory planning processes. These will be implemented and financed by the project. In this way, the research conducted will have a direct impact on the 16 settlements. The work done under this project is framed within the broader global issue of how to build resilience for the close to one billion urban dwellers who live in informal settlements today. During my next career steps, I aim to focus on these issues, with the overall objective of promoting more equitable approaches to climate-resilience in informal settlements.
Our students are about to present their final thesis, what advice would you give them?
Matt: Try and keep your main idea very clear and simple – try explaining it to someone who is not an architect or academic. I presented it to my wife, who’s not an architect, who gave me very helpful advice to help me focus on the key points and explain the ideas clearly. It’s tempting to try and include every detail, but generally presentations are much more intelligible when just a few points are highlighted and explained well. And just enjoy sharing what you’ve discovered with your cohort – it can be really exciting!
Lucía: The MICSEA program and your work during the final phase is an opportunity to follow your genuine interests and immerse yourself in a topic you are truly passionate about. Don’t be afraid of challenging your own thoughts, adapting to new findings, and changing. Use this opportunity to define your field of work, expand your network, and contribute where is most needed and where you are best suited to make a significant contribution.
Gad: It’s important to give a quick/deep intro to the topic if it isn’t well known, so keep that part simple. Set the background of your research; what were the motives, what problems is it addressing and how? Clarify the scope of your study, explain the way you structured it. Avoid generalizations and speak only based on research. Most importantly, remember that the goal of your thesis is to answer a research question within a certain scope by satisfying specific objectives, it is not supposed to be a panacea, and always remember that every research has limitations.
Begoña: With regards to the presentation itself, I would advise students to ensure that they transmit the issue, the main objective, and the conclusions in a concise, compelling, and clear way. Obviously, the thesis itself and all the work done is extremely important, but being able to present it, communicate effectively and be able to impress your audience is also very important in the professional field. Given that it is a scientific piece of work, being able to demonstrate how it has been carried out with rigor is very important. Beyond the presentation itself, I would advise students to try to look for opportunities to leverage the work done. This is, not to understand the master thesis as a final product that is done and that you won’t revisit again, but to build on it.
From your experience, how can students pursue their research ambitions after the end of the Master’s program?
Matt: Be open to opportunities when they arise – sometimes not when you expect them! I was struggling to get work in the middle of the Covid pandemic so just decided to send off my Master’s thesis to some contacts I’d made at the Canadian Red Cross to see if they would be interested in further research in that area – and they were! It was at that point that I thought it could be really valuable to start a PhD on it, to go deeper into the topic.
Lucía: I have two thoughts regarding the post-MICSEA phase. First of all, the qualities you need to produce good quality research are often the same qualities you need to perform well both inside and outside of academia. Pursuing your research ambitions should remain an integral part of who you are. In other words, you should remain eager to solve problems and approach your work in a detailed and consistent manner, be creative, and remain open to new possibilities, solutions, and answers. Secondly, MICSEA offers a great network of institutions and people with much to offer, may it be in the form of an internship or through other project-based opportunities. I have witnessed outstanding examples of collaboration that emerged from the MICSEA community, enabling ongoing exchanges with long-term positive impact. Keeping in touch with your mentors and friends will undoubtedly provide a solid base and strengthen your learning from the program. My final words: Good luck to everyone! And enjoy the final sprint and the start of many new journeys!
Gad: I guess it depends a lot on your topic and whether your research feeds into academia or practice. I started reaching out to professors and using linkedin to connect with research groups and practitioners that would be interested in my research and to look for work opportunities. I was recently selected to present my research at the international conference on urban health, so I suggest you keep an eye out for conferences and student competitions that look for young researchers or thematic research topics.
Begoña: Career paths are very personal and there is no one-size-fits approach to pursuing a research career. In my opinion, finding one’s path requires a lot of exploration and curiosity. My motivation to pursue a doctoral degree is intrinsically linked to my experiences working on issues of socio-spatial inequalities. I started experiencing the realities that motivated me to seek a career in the international development field during my academic and early professional years while volunteering for NGOs such as Red Cross. While working in the private sector on architectural and urban projects across different scales I focused on how planning and design can spur innovation to address urban and climate-related challenges advanced my understanding of the more physical aspects of resilience. It was at this stage when I decided to seek specialization by studying the MICSEA. As part of the MICSEA, I did my internship at UN-Habitat’s Regional Office for Asia-Pacific, and since then, I have worked as an advisor for UN-Habitat. My advice would be to always remain curious, to explore and to expose yourself to a wide range of knowledge experiences. I think it is important to understand career paths as always being under constant development and seek specialized training in order to improve your research skills when you feel it is the right moment.
Mat Wilson is an Australian registered architect with over 5 years experience in the Australian healthcare architecture sector. He has a strong passion for humanitarian work, currently he is beginning a PhD on Transitional Field Hospitals following Natural Disasters having recently completed an MSc. in International Cooperation in Sustainable Emergency Architecture through UIC Barcelona. His goal is to bring together my background in healthcare architecture with my interest in emergency relief work. Outside of his professional background, he has spent time volunteering in Lebanon, working with Syrian refugees displaced by war. He has also had the opportunity to spend time volunteering in Argentina helping impoverished communities in slum neighbourhoods.
Dr. Lucía Wright joined Haselhorst Associates as a consultant in 2019 and is co-author of the study “Digital Germany”. She has a background in architecture, international cooperation and urban development. After her experience as a project manager of a non-profit organization in Mexico, she worked as a researcher and consultant at institutions in Germany, Singapore and Spain. With a detailed review of the case of Vietnam, she supported UN-Habitat as part of her doctoral studies with the aim of improving water supply in developing countries through global partnerships. Thematically, Lucía specializes in international cooperation, sustainable urban development, water governance, and smart cities and communities.
Mohammed Gad is an urban researcher and graduate of Mundus Urbano. He finished his second year at UIC, and he worked as a shelter and settlements consultant and intern at IOM after graduation. His research interests include urban health, mobility, migration, and gender. Gad worked in urban development and teaching in Cairo before starting his master’s. He holds a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering technologies from Cairo University with a focus on sustainability.
Begoña Peiró works in the fields of architecture and urban planning as researcher and practitioner. She focuses on urban climate resilience strategies, informal settlements upgrading and climate justice. She holds a M.Sc. in International Cooperation and Sustainable Emergency Architecture from the International University of Catalunya (UIC). Through her Master’s thesis, she explored the role of bottom up and community-based responses in building community resilience during the water crisis that the city of Cape Town faced in 2018. She also holds a Qualifying Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. Begoña has recently been awarded a La Caixa Fellowship to carry out her doctoral studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. As an advisor for organizations such as UN-Habitat and the Government of Fiji (Ministry of Housing and Community Development), Begoña has supported several projects in the Asia-Pacific Region while based in Japan and in Fiji. She is lead author for UN-Habitat ́s publication “Climate Change Vulnerability and Risk – A Guide for Community Assessments, Action Plans and Implementation”.