When Thomas Elliot (Tom) cycled from Indonesia to London, he witnessed many people living in hardship. Motivated to research how consumption affects social and environmental justice in a bid to help reduce the hardship witnessed, the New Zealand national applied for an open PhD position at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), where he now works on a project that fuses urban metabolism and ecosystem services.
When Tom finished his Master’s in life cycle assessment, he did not know whether his next step should be to work or continue to study, let alone where to go next. Tom decided to travel from New Zealand to see his brother in London – without getting on a plane:
“I spent four months sailing through the Pacific Ocean with friends. Once we arrived in Indonesia, I cycled to London. Along the way, I met many people living in hardship, struggling with social and environmental injustice. It was clear that most of the suffering is unnecessary.
“Baring witness to these problems, I became especially motivated to research the role of consumption on social and environmental injustice, in the hope I could reduce the hardship I had witnessed.
“After arriving in London, I saw an advertisement on a research forum for the ESTIMUM project. It fits well with my interests, and that’s how I came to do my PhD.”
“Without ecosystem services our lives would be more difficult”
Tom is now in the third year of his PhD at LIST, where he works on the project ‘Ecosystem Service Toolbox developed from multi-scale Integrated Modelling of Urban Metabolism’ (ESTIMUM), led by Dr Benedetto Rugani.
“Urban metabolism is a metaphor used to describe the way in which materials and energy move through a city, adding value, and finally being released as wastes and emissions. This is used by industrial ecologists to understand the efficiency of energy and material flows, who is consuming them and where.”
Urban metabolism methods are typically applied to, for example, the flows of water or carbon. Another way to understand the relationship between nature and humans is by applying the concept of ‘ecosystem services’. Tom explains:
“Many ecological phenomena add value to the lives of humans, such as pollination of food plants, the water cycle, the carbon cycle and several others. We call these ecosystem services. Without ecosystem services our lives would be more difficult, or society would have to support those processes by artificial means.”
Better consumer choices based on science
Tom explains that ESTIMUM is a decision support tool, to help assess ecosystem services based on the urban metabolism modelling framework.
“As the city metabolises resources, ecosystem services are affected. My PhD attempts to measure these effects, and predict where they can occur in the future,” Tom explains.
Just as he was motivated to embark on a PhD to help reduce hardship, Tom wants his research to help people understand how their lifestyle has an impact on the planet and society:
“These impacts are often felt by people in other parts of the world, which makes the impacts quite invisible to the consumer. I will be happy if my research can help untangle the complexity of social and environmental impacts so that we can make better consumer choices based on science.”
“My ideal situation would be to help build this bridge between the research communities in Luxembourg and New Zealand”
Tom came to Luxembourg because of his PhD project, rather than specifically seeking out Luxembourg, but the Grand Duchy has somewhat won him over, especially the cultural diversity:
“As a New Zealander, I grew up on an island that limited the amount of cross-culture interactions. At the institute [LIST], I work with researchers from around the world with interesting and diverse life experiences to share.
“Both Luxembourg, and my host university in Portugal[i], have provided very enriching cultural experiences, fertilisation of new ideas and approaches to life, and I believe this is absolutely fundamental to safeguarding society against harmful asocial prejudices.”
Looking ahead, Tom plans to remain in Luxembourg beyond his PhD and sees value in forging research links between the Grand Duchy and his home country New Zealand, as the two countries share similar challenges, such as a dependence on importing some resources and rapid economic development in the services sector.
“My ideal situation would be to help build this bridge between the research communities in Luxembourg and New Zealand and work as a researcher on projects of mutual interest to the two nations,” Tom explains.
[i] While a PhD project can be carried out at any research performing institution, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) does not award PhD certificates, therefore PhD candidates must be affiliated with a degree-awarding university (in Luxembourg or abroad).
About Spotlight on Young Researchers
Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. The campaign is now in its 4th year, with 45+ researchers already featured. Discover more young researcher stories below.