Harvard bound

Harvard bound

31 July 2015

An Australian National University (ANU) PhD graduate from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) has been awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University.

Kalman Robertson, who was awarded his degree in July, will move to Boston at the end of August to take up the Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Belfer Center for Science in International Affairs, at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Kalman first came to ANU from Bathurst in 2004, as an undergraduate with a passion for physics and law. He began studying a combined bachelor of science/bachelor of law degree, but at first struggled to find his way.

“As an undergraduate, I originally wanted to go into astrophysics and constitutional law, but it increasingly became clear that those things just don’t go together,” he says.

It was thanks to a research opportunity in the third year of his bachelor program that he turned to nuclear physics.

“One of the great things about ANU is you can research almost anything that you want to study. In my case, I thought it was the universe as a whole – it ended up being the atom – but colleagues all over the campus are studying the human mind, society, regulation. Anything that you want to know how it works, you can do it here.”

In the later years of his undergraduate degree, Kalman looked at combining his interest in nuclear physics with his studies in law. He did some work on international environmental law and nuclear waste disposal, but it wasn’t until his fifth year of study that he began to also look at international security.

Taking up a PhD at SDSC gave him the opportunity to combine all three of his interests into research on nuclear safeguards and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“The problem is that we have all these great peaceful applications for nuclear technology – nuclear power, nuclear medicine – but the technology that goes into the peaceful applications and the military applications is virtually identical. So what I research with safeguards is measures to verify that when a state says it’s using technology for peaceful purposes, it is in fact doing so. Then I started getting interested in international relations, such as overcoming the security dilemma, checking states are abiding by their international obligations, and providing states with a way to give an assurance to the international community that they are in fact doing the right thing.

“The really interesting question for me is, can you overcome these problems with technology, or are they inherently political as well? So that tension between technology and politics is what I’m most interested in.”

During his time at Harvard, he intends to continue his research on the IAEA and also delve further into other policy areas such as multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle – where multiple states work together to produce nuclear fuel in co-owned facilities – and also looking at arms control among states that already have nuclear weapons.

“One of the things I hope to gauge at Harvard is where I should be focusing my attention – should I stick to nuclear safeguards, or are there opportunities to start expanding into looking at reductions among nuclear-armed states? I’d really like to get into multilateral arms control in a bigger way. In some ways, administering safeguards in states that don’t have nuclear weapons, and just making sure that their activities are peaceful, is something that’s been done for a very long time. But in order to advance things we really need to be looking at arms control among all the states that actually have nuclear weapons. So I’d like to look at how verification can work in arms control.”

Kalman is unsure about where his research will take him after his fellowship ends in mid-2016.  

“I’m not sure if I want to stay in academia long-term. The great thing about the Belfer Center is that their research is very policy-oriented. Making more realistic and workable policy solutions is something I’m interested in, but whether I stay in academia or not, I’m not sure. I haven’t planned that far ahead,” he says.

After 11 years in Canberra, he concedes he will miss the city and his life here, but is excited about the opportunities studying overseas offers.

“In order to become a nuclear expert most people in Australia go overseas at some stage, to either the US or Europe, and study there as well, just because it’s such a small nuclear community in Australia. So there’s a degree of inevitability to it and it’s the right time for me.”

He will retain fond memories of his time at ANU and the chances he has had to combine his interests in areas that at first seem quite disparate.

“If there’s one place it’s really good to do interdisciplinary research, it’s right here. That’s one of the reasons I took up the PhD here – because I wanted to be able to continue my research both in physics and with the Centre for International Public Law. So as soon as I finished the law degree I just walked right down the road to SDSC. That’s the other great thing about ANU – you can walk right down the road and access any area of expertise you want.”

Find out how a postgraduate degree from the College of Asia and the Pacific can further your career at ANU Open Day, Saturday 29 August.


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