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Online PhD examining during the COVID 19 crisis

James on tracking the impacts of fires from satellites

Online PhD examining during the COVID 19 crisis

Congratulations to Dr James Brennan, a member of UCL Geography’s Environmental Modelling and Observation (EMO) research cluster, whose thesis was successfully defended 'virtually', online, on 26 March.

This is the department's first such PhD defence in the wake of COVID 19, with the shift to online teaching, supervision and learning. The examination date had been arranged several months before, and it was agreed that using online tools was much preferable to postponing it indefinitely.

So James and the examiners, Dr Gareth Roberts (Southampton) and UCL Geography’s Professor Jon French, convened from home via Microsoft Teams.

The viva went off smoothly and both examiners were very impressed with the depth and scope of the work. James felt that, after getting over the initial feeling of unfamiliarity, the online viva discussion actually worked very well.

Over the coming months other students and supervisors will face the challenges of whether to arrange PhD vivas online or to postpone. While doing it this way may not suit every student or situation, it's reassuring to know it can be done!

The thesis, ‘New techniques and insights for burned area monitoring from remote sensing data’, presents new ways of using satellite data to track the impact of large-scale fires. Satellites are the only way to assess the impact of fires consistently and globally.

Fires are highly dynamic and unpredictable and have a large impact on the carbon cycle, climate, human health (through smoke and soot) and natural resources. At present, however, there is no consensus on the best way to compare different estimates of burned area from different satellites and algorithms.

James addressed this problem by developing a new framework allowing models to be compared like-for-like. He also developed improved ways to assess the uncertainty in estimates of burned area, and to combine them with such estimates from new satellites.

Some of James’s work has already been published in the journal Biogeosciences Discussions ( and he is working with UCL colleagues in the EMO group to publish more.

The PhD was supported by the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO, which also supports other EO work in UCL Geography.


Dr James Brennan