Picture of Uche looking sideways in an airport

Uche Okpara

Why did you choose to study for a PhD?

Before coming to Leeds in 2012 to study for a PhD, I was already employed as a University Lecturer in Nigeria and had also completed an MSc in Sustainable Environmental Management funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK. A PhD came across as a natural next step following a full doctoral scholarship award I secured from the Nigerian Government. So, I felt I needed to earn a PhD to prepare myself to pursue my long-term career goals of making important discoveries and scholarly impacts in my chosen field, and also to be able to successfully train the next generation of change agents and contribute to the development of Africa.

Tell us about your research.

Since the past eight years, my interest has been to stimulate scientific understanding of interdisciplinary problem-based research that traverses the broad subject areas of sustainability, environment, human security and global development at range of scales in both multi-functional urban and rural settings. The research projects I worked on during my PhD cross-cut these broad areas but focused in particular on the nexus of climate shocks, lake drying and violent conflict in the Lake Chad basin in Africa.

The projects involved:

  1. developing theoretical and empirical understandings of climate conflict relations, and policy and social processes for peace and water governance arrangements in fragile contexts;
  2. working and building partnerships with multiple stakeholders (community leaders, government officials, NGOs and academic researchers) to co-develop sustainable development and environmental management pathways that balance competing social-ecological priorities and human welfare needs in Lake Chad; and
  3. implementing mixed methods social science research approaches as well as advancing forward thinking transdisciplinary research tools and techniques that are participatory, inclusive and deliberative.

The geographical location of my PhD research in the Lake Chad Basin was particularly challenging and today I am glad that I managed the security and high-risk situation of my fieldwork extremely well. 

Engagement in high-quality PhD research at the School of Earth and Environment has enabled me to:

  • develop a new integrated resilience assessment tool – this is becoming the standard model for analysing vulnerabilities to environmental change and resource risks in water-scarce environments;
  • create a new database capturing conflict and environmental sustainability concerns for use in conflict-sensitive environmental governance planning, delivering a product of direct relevance for environment and development decision-making;
  • advance new insights on how different portrayals of resilience and vulnerability influence the discursive formation of climate conflict issues - first research in the world to demonstrate how different discourses of climate and security are constructed and represented in scholarly articles.

I have broadened my research focus further since I completed my PhD to consider issues around peace-prosperity modelling, nexus approaches, socio-ecological systems, food security, refugee economy, land degradation neutrality, climate services, plastic pollution and the importance of gender considerations in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.

What was your favourite part of your PhD?

I cherish several aspects of my PhD journey. I cherish those moments during my PhD when I won my first research fellowship grant from the US Social Science Research Council, and when I published my first ISI journal paper. This paper opened several doors, including invitations for interviews with journalists from several UK and US media houses such as the BBC and the UK Times Newspaper. I enjoyed the challenge of developing new approaches for conducting research in conflict zones, including methods for operationalising climate and conflict links that nobody else had used before in a transboundary river basin context. Overall, I enjoyed my conference travels around the world, the several talks I gave about my work and my field work in the Lake Chad basin. The opportunity to work with expert interpreters and the inspiring native knowledge on environmental change and human security I gained through my interactions with village chiefs and local stakeholders made field work a valuable learning adventure for me. I also enjoyed the pleasant intellectual engagements I had with my supervisors. These amazing experiences made my PhD journey a pleasant one.

What have you been doing since you graduate?

Since my graduation, I have worked as Research Fellow on several projects at the University of Leeds, including contributing to teaching and student education across various modules, publishing academic papers, speaking at conferences, organising scholarly workshops, and preparing research bids for the Global Challenges Research Fund and other bodies supporting international research on environment and development. I am constantly offering refereeing services to several leading international journals, and mentoring and supervising undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Has your degree been useful to you in finding work?

Yes, it has! The intellectual challenge of conducting research and getting a doctorate has equipped me with several transferable skills that have become very useful in my work as a university researcher, teacher and consultant.

What are your long-term career goals?

Because I currently work in academia, I am keen about doing what I love: research, teaching and community service. I hope to continue to work to develop and maintain an internationally outstanding publication and research profile, building interdisciplinary research partnerships around the world, advising governments and acquiring new projects focusing on different aspects of the SDGs.

What would you say to someone else who may be considering studying a PhD at the School of Earth and Environment?

The School is a great place to study. It has an excellent mix of world-class researchers, first class laboratories and environmentally friendly e-learning facilities. Everything on offer here is unique, from excellent on-campus housing and strong mentorship and advising programmes to wider networking opportunities (students here are from about 145 countries). Leeds itself is a thriving multi-cultural and multi-faith city with lots of galleries, theatres and more. It is hard to find any student who does not like Leeds.