Hear about Miriam’s experience and how her research has taken her around the world to learn about environmental, climate and energy issues from both local and national perspectives in an international context.
About Miriam Aczel
Miriam is conducting her PhD degree to improve global environmental and health policy. Her research has taken her around the world, while being recognized as an 'Outstanding Student' at Imperial College London. Join us to hear about her experience of studying in the UK and get inspired to pursue your own journey.
What motivated you to study in the UK?
I chose to study in the UK because of the impressive dedication to scientific and research excellence, and the range of opportunities for international collaboration. The UK attracts a diverse student population and I felt that studying in that environment would give me the global perspective necessary to be a good problem solver who can make positive changes in the world.
What was the greatest challenge you experienced when studying abroad?
Relocating to a new city poses multiple challenges. I was overwhelmed by the process of deciding where to live and had underestimated just how big London truly is! Imperial provided much-needed--and appreciated- support for international students. The International Students’ Office helped me navigate complicated issues, from opening a bank account to finding housing, as well as providing guidance regarding visa issues. My advice: don’t wait to look for housing—get in contact with your prospective school’s international office as soon as possible.
Why did you choose Imperial College London?
I chose Imperial because of the opportunity to study at a world class university specializing in science and technology—and I was particularly attracted to the range of opportunities and experiences available in London.
What was the most valuable experience about studying in the UK?
I really enjoyed learning about environmental, climate, and energy issues from both local and national perspectives, as well as within wider European Union and international contexts. As one example of UK’s emphasis on international collaboration, I had the chance to participate in a research exchange program with China’s Tsinghua University, that involved attending workshops with Chinese students traveling to the UK and then I went to Beijing to conduct research at Tsinghua’s law department. It was rewarding to share ideas on similar problems from our different perspectives. During my MSc, I volunteered for a semester at the London Natural History Museum, in the museum’s core research laboratories. I gained hands-on experience using CT scanning equipment, interacted with visitors to share the work of our project within the museum, and experienced a different side of London’s vibrant science community.
What inspired you to conduct research?
I think that today’s most pressing problems—climate change, deforestation and habitat loss, hunger, poverty—are not constrained by state borders, and to find solutions, we need to foster both international collaboration as well as engagement of all different types of expertise. I became interested in environmental issues because these problems—and their potential solutions—lie at the intersection of science and climate data, as well as the social and human dimensions of behaviour and consumption patterns. How we choose to balance the benefits of development with the right to live in environmentally healthy communities poses a significant challenge we must overcome.
What are you working on at the moment?
My PhD research looks at ‘fracking’ for shale gas extraction—a controversial technology with demonstrated impacts on the environment, human and animal health, climate change and human rights. I have been developing case studies on shale gas extraction in a range of countries, with differing political and social frameworks (USA, France, Algeria, China) to analyse environmental and health impacts of fracking. My objective is to propose recommendations to improve environmental and health protections in the UK, through a citizen-driven approach. As part of my study, I am looking at how ‘citizen science’—non-specialist data collection—can strengthen environmental protections and add to a growing body of important scientific information. I’ve also recently joined an exciting project on the socio-legal implications of greenhouse gas removal technologies.
What do you consider your biggest achievements?
My department and Imperial as well as UK contacts I’ve made during my time as a student have encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities and to set high goals for myself. I’m proud that I’ve been able to publish several research papers in academic journals, while still a student. In 2018, I received an Outstanding Student Achievement Award from Imperial. I particularly value this award as it was given to recognize my non-academic achievements: one of my efforts has been co-founding and co-directing a non-profit that works to promote science and math education in Cambodia. This is significant because it meant that Imperial viewed my contributions outside my coursework as important, too. I was honoured to be nominated and attend the Normandy World Peace forum as the North American delegate. As part of the forum, I had the opportunity to discuss how citizen science could help to address climate change issues, as well as my belief that environmental sustainability is crucial to achieving global peace.
How do you think you can make a difference?
My research uses a multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving related to climate change and energy. Similarly, my work has examined how the science and technology related to the energy debate is communicated most effectively, as well as how ‘citizen science’ can create a cadre of citizens empowered to advocate on behalf of their communities. I am dedicated to reanalyzing and reassessing my research problem from multiple viewpoints and through collaboration with others in different fields, yet working towards shared goals of sustainability, energy provision, protection of human rights.
If you had the chance to give advice to your younger-self, what would that be?
My advice would be to actively seek opportunities for collaboration and sharing ideas as soon as possible. It’s never too early to start trying to make a difference, and Imperial and the UK have a lot of opportunities to support and encourage students to pursue their ideas. The fact that something hasn’t been done before makes it a perfect opportunity to give it a try. Don’t be afraid of failing—the best solutions are born from failures. My second piece of advice is to gain technical literacy because it will be applicable to any field. My advice is don’t be afraid to try something ‘uncomfortable’ and don’t be afraid to change the direction you’ve set for yourself.
What skills and abilities do you consider important for women to develop?
I think technical literacy and the ability to read and understand important data and scientific concepts, but also to be able to express them in a coherent fashion is crucial. Learning to stand up for my ideas in public, to have confidence in my ideas and advocate for a point of view that might not be popular, is a skill I’m still working on—but a vital one, especially for women in fields where they tend to be underrepresented.
What advice would you give to women who are thinking about studying in the UK?
My advice is to get as many perspectives as possible from people at the universities you are considering. Talk to everyone! Students, faculty and administrators to find out as much as you can about the day-to-day experience of living and studying. In particular, talk to women who are currently students or have been students in the past. Seek out women members of the faculty to learn how they view the positive and negative aspects of their departments.
Describe your experience in the UK in 3 words: eye-opening, curiosity-driven and hands-on.
I am inspired by learning about other people’s experiences, in University and beyond.
I am passionate about public engagement and communication of science and environmental issues, and developing mechanisms to involve kids.