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An interview with Chantalle Byron, Research Assistant at The Leverhulme Trust, CPGS in Legal Studies

Why did you choose your degree?  

I chose to do a PhD in Law because I was very interested in conducting in-depth research into climate-induced migration. In general, I hope to address and elevate the issues faced by countries of the developing world and find solutions that empower local and indigenous communities.  

Climate change is a very significant issue facing many developing countries today including the two Caribbean islands that I call home: the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, where I grew up, and The Commonwealth of Dominica, where I was born. In  2017,  both  islands  experienced the devastating impacts of Category 5++ hurricanes that caused substantial and widespread destruction. Today, many people have still been unable to return to their homes or engage in productive employment. I did not hear from my family in Dominica for almost a week following the hurricane and had no idea whether they had survived. Luckily, they did, but many other families were not so fortunate. Dominica has a very low GDP and relies heavily on its once magnificent environment, so recovery will be very hard and very slow.  

I  was disheartened to learn that the few international mechanisms available did not sufficiently protect a country and its citizens following such a disaster. This really cemented my desire to investigate deficiencies in the international environmental regime, and research innovative solutions to these problems. So far, I have completed theses on institutional reform and developing governance architecture on environmental security.    

What did you do before your time at Lucy?  

My higher academic learning commenced when I was 15 in  Antigua and Barbuda, with an A-Level equivalent qualification. The system is slightly different in the Caribbean, so I actually finished that two-year period with an  Associate Degree in Humanities along with my A-Levels. Next, I moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, where I completed a dual Bachelor of Science at Acadia University in Biology and Chemistry.    

After noticing a gap between the scientific community and law and policy makers, I chose to take a Senior Status LLB at the University of Essex, which allowed me to obtain a law degree in 2 years, rather than 3. Finally, I took the last year LLM here at Cambridge, to continue academic research at a more granular level. I was at Clare Hall last year, so I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the different and unique atmospheres of two Cambridge colleges.   

And what will you do afterwards?

After my PhD, I am hoping to do fieldwork in climate change adaptation, which will give me the opportunity to work closely with local and indigenous communities and organisations, while also experiencing different cultures. I would like to work within the UN or a similar organization, particularly on areas of increasing participation for indigenous people and negotiating related treaties. Eventually, due to my interests in climate-induced migration and environmental security, I hope to work alongside the UN Security Council, particularly if it chooses to create a subsidiary body on Environmental Security. I also think it is important to foster the next generation of environmental and climate lawyers. Therefore, l would like to find a way to balance my practical work with the academic, perhaps by holding a visiting professorship.  

What inspires you? 

I am constantly inspired by the Caribbean and similar regions and the resilience shown by its people. We still have some important issues to resolve, but I know there is so much passion across all generations, particularly mine and those following, to improve our countries and overcome the scars left by colonialism and imperialism.  

What are your key motivations?  

My key motivations are ensuring that our legal systems are equitable and fair, particularly to the countries and communities that have been and continue to be marginalised. Whilst I am an enthusiastic proponent of international cooperation, I want to ensure that developing nations are not taken advantage of and that they have equal opportunity to benefit from global action.  

What would you ultimately like to achieve? 

Ultimately, I would like to ensure that legal systems work for, rather than oppress marginalised communities, and elevate the countries that are now developing to be on equal footing with developed countries. 

I have lost the youthful naivety that once allowed me to believe that these goals are immediately achievable. But I am however very optimistic that in my lifetime through hard work and focus, impactful gains and progress can be realized. Accordingly, I do think it is important to remind myself on a daily basis, what I am working towards and why it is so important. I think this will ultimately help me and other similar minded individuals and organizations to be more successful at laying the foundation for a more equitable future. By always keeping the interests of the communities I am a part of and working for at the front of my mind will also ensure that I am giving back to my community at every opportunity, particularly by supporting and mentoring younger students, as I have been similarly supported and mentored throughout my life. 

Hopefully, my work can help to move us towards a more equitable system, inspire someone else to pick up the mantel, or catalyse the systemic change that we so desperately need. Although I hope to see wide sweeping changes during my career, I am aware that such international change can be painstakingly slow, but as Dr King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

What are the best and worst moments of your student experience so far, and what did you learn from these?   

The worst moment of my student experience occurred last year during my LLM, when I contracted COVID-19 in April- just a few weeks before my thesis was due. I was extremely sick for weeks, which made it far more challenging to finish my thesis and study for exams. However, I had little option but getting back to my work before I was fully recovered as I wanted to start my PhD this academic year and was opposed to putting off my assessment to the second period.    

My best experience actually arose out of my worst: namely, receiving a First for my LLM and having all the hard work I put in over the year pay off. I must have refreshed the CamSIS page a million times! Even when the results showed I had received a First and would meet the academic requirements of my PhD offer, I still couldn’t reconcile that COVID hadn’t ruined my chances. I restarted both my phone and laptop before the reality fully sunk in. Calling all my family and friends to give them the good news, was the most amazing feeling imaginable.    

My best non-academic moment was getting my first “bump” during the 2020 Lent Bumps, when I was captain of the Clare Hall Women’s rowing team. I’m really keen to get back on the river, once it is safe to do so, to row for Lucy!   

Why did you choose Lucy? What does the community provide? What's the best thing about being part of the Lucy community?  

I initially chose Lucy because I received some funding that required me to move to Lucy. I have been doing extra-curricular work with Prof Cordonier Segger for a year now and was able to get a good picture of the supportive environment that Lucy fosters. From speaking with other past and present Lucy students I knew that this college would be a good fit and that I would feel very welcome here. I really appreciate Lucy’s tradition of admitting students from under-represented background. This is such an important endeavour and not enough institutions take the time to advocate for this! 

Unfortunately, due to the COVID restrictions, I have not yet been able to have the full Lucy experience. Luckily, I am here for at least 3 years, so I am eagerly looking forward to taking part in the community and its traditions. So far, I have been struck and impressed by how friendly and helpful everyone is, from the President, Professor Dame Atkins, to my tutor, to my fellow students. The librarians in particular have been very attentive and kind, and I know they will be such a great resource in the coming months. The students also have an amazingly strong sense of community and seem very approachable – even the small things like receiving smiles from other students while walking past their booths in the library or making conversation while waiting on coffee. It is something I took for granted before, but especially with our very distanced and isolated world, even small gestures like this make me feel very welcome at Lucy.