Q&A with Gabriela Cabana-Alvear

Investigating energy generation in Brazil

Gabriela is a PhD student at the Department of Anthropology

It’s been hard adapting to the political changes in Brazil since I first started on my PhD. When I was applying for my PhD in 2017 Jair Bolsonaro, the current President of Brazil, was not even on the map.

Gabriela Cabana-Alvear

Gabriela Cabana-Alvear
Gabriela Cabana-Alvear

What are you currently researching?

I’m currently investigating energy generation in Brazil and the transition to renewable energies from the perspective of the state and state agencies. I’m looking at this within the context of global climate change negotiations.

How are you doing this?

I’ve just finished my research proposal and will be moving to Rio shortly for 18 months to start my ethnographic fieldwork in Brazil.

Once in Brazil, I will be interacting with policymakers and planning bodies looking at how energy will be produced in Brazil in the future.

There is a huge global movement towards sustainability at the moment and I’ll be looking at how the state in Brazil is reacting to this movement and managing it. We take it for granted that energy supply and demand will increase in the future and I want to explore how Brazil is planning for this.

What attracted you to this area of research?

I knew I wanted to research policy and the environment and I thought energy was a good way of matching these two areas.

I’m also originally from Chile and wanted to stay in Latin America and do something that would allow me to build a knowledge base from the perspective of the region.

As the majority of the Amazon is located in Brazil, the country’s energy policies have a massive impact on the rest of Latin America.

How will your research have a wider impact on society?

Although I would say anthropology is very interdisciplinary, it is sometimes hard to connect what we do with the wider discussion.

I hope my research will explore the main obstacles current political institutions face when addressing the climate crisis.

We are all pushing our governments to do more about climate change but we don’t really understand how policy can effectively be part of the problem and that’s why I’m so interested in bureaucracy.

Lots of decisions on what we want to do about energy, the type of energy we have and how much energy we need in the future have been completely taken out of the public sphere, so I really hope my research will highlight the importance of public debate in this area.

What has been the biggest highlight so far?

The quality of discussion in my department has been great. My cohort is really small so we’ve had a lot of time to talk about our research and discuss how it’s connected. I love that.

I’ve had lots of fascinating discussions on topics such as religion and urban issues with fellow PhD students and I find these conversations really enriching.

What has been your biggest challenge?

It’s been hard adapting to the political changes in Brazil since I first started on my PhD.  For example, when I was applying for my PhD in 2017 Jair Bolsonaro, the current President of Brazil, was not even on the map. The possibility of him being President was very remote.

I planned how my research would unfold with the government as a continuation of what it was before the election so I’ve been trying to work out what this change in government means for policymaking. Keeping up with all the political changes has been a challenge.

What is your favourite way to de-stress?

I live near some really beautiful parks so I enjoy walking in the park and riding my bike. I also find baking bread a great way to relax.

My favourite spots around campus for taking some time out are Lincoln’s Inn Fields or the sixth floor of the SU. The PhD Academy is also a great space to work.

What advice would you give to other PhD students trying to balance their workload?

For me, it’s been really important to keep my original motivation in mind. At the beginning of my PhD I was overwhelmed, as I felt I needed to read everything and be up-to-date with everything but that’s not really the point.

The point is to figure out what you need to understand. You need to give yourself space to be creative in the way you process new information and data.

Are you involved with any other activities at LSE?

I did my Master’s at LSE as well and volunteered with the Green Impact project, working with other departments to introduce more environmentally processes and behaviour.

In the last year, my department has started a movement for decolonisation of the university and we’re working with other departments on this.

Linked with this I’ve also been involved in the Change Makers project, which gives students the chance to make change at LSE through independent research.  I worked with two undergrads and a Master’s student to explore how we can rethink anthropology and explore what’s missing on the curriculum, bringing the perspective of alumni into the conversation. We gathered lots of useful information from people who wanted to talk about what decolonisation means for them and how we can improve the way we learn.