The quake doctor - Ekbal Hussain

The quake doctor - Ekbal Hussain

  • Ekbal and Pembroke College

Ekbal Hussain (Pembroke 2008) describes how his passion for geosciences led to him working for the British Geological Survey. Today he studies earthquake movements to help understand the risks from future shocks to low-income countries.

Earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics became my new passion – and yes, as interesting as they are, geology isn’t just about rocks and fossils.

Ekbal Hussain

My dad moved from Bangladesh to the UK in the 1970s, to seek a better life for himself and his future family. With only primary education, however, he was stuck working in manual labour until he could train to become a chef. My mum was also from a similarly poor background, so never in their wildest dreams did they think their son would go to Cambridge University. My older brother dropped out of college, but I was always a bit nerdy and had an insatiable thirst for learning.

I was also extremely lucky to have had fantastic teachers at my state school in Birmingham (Cadbury College - by the chocolate factory) who fostered my enthusiasm for physics and maths. It was with their encouragement and support that I applied to Pembroke College to read Natural Sciences. 

Saying that my parents were proud when I received the acceptance letter is a major understatement. Being the first person in the entire family (my uncles were also from poor backgrounds) to attend university, let alone Cambridge, was a pretty big deal. To this day, and often to my embarrassment, my dad still likes to boast to new friends that his son graduated from Cambridge. Even though I also have a PhD from another university, in his mind the Cambridge achievement sits higher.

Enter the geosciences

I had always been good at maths and physics and had a strong interest in space. It was therefore quite clear that I’d go on to study astrophysics at university, which is what I applied for everywhere else. But all this changed at the Matriculation dinner when I sat across from my Director of Studies, Arwen Deuss, who encouraged me to try out geology – at the time I hadn’t decided what to pick as my fourth subject after physics, chemistry and maths. Before university, studying geology had never even crossed my mind.

Professor James Jackson gave the first lecture and I was completely mesmerised! I knew immediately that the world we live on is infinitely more interesting than I had ever considered before. Earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics became my new passion – and yes, as interesting as they are, geology isn’t just about rocks and fossils. I love that the Natural Sciences course allowed me this freedom and I consider this to be one of the most pivotal moments of my life so far.

The geoscience course taught me about the dynamic nature of the planet we live on, and the methods we use to disentangle its rich and often violent history. I learnt to see rocks and minerals as historians of the past, recording the conditions of the world in which they were created.

Quake doctor

During my undergraduate degree I very quickly developed a strong interest in earthquakes and tectonics. This led me to do a PhD in geophysics, researching how satellite data could be used to help us understand earthquake processes in Turkey.

It was around this time that I started appreciating the true impact of earthquakes on people and their livelihoods. Since 1900, earthquakes worldwide have been responsible for over two million fatalities and caused nearly $2 trillion (£1.53 trillion) of economic damage. 

But why do people die in earthquakes? It’s not the shaking ground that affects people, but the fatal attraction of gravity as buildings and infrastructure crumble and collapse. Most building collapses occur in poor countries. To me this was unacceptable. We don’t need to predict earthquakes in order to save people from them. Appropriate construction, planning and management can save lives.

In my current job as a researcher at the British Geological Survey, I try to disentangle the signatures of earthquake movements to understand the risks from future shocks to cities in low-income countries. I hope that my work will enable these cities to become more resilient to future earthquakes and other natural hazards.

Read Ekbal’s blog to find out more about humanity’s relationship with the physical world.

Ekbal obtained a MSci in Natural Sciences and attended Pembroke College.

If you would like to submit your own alumni story, send us an email for details of our submission guidelines. This article has been written by Ekbal Hussain and the opinions expressed are those of the author.