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Challenge Leaders

The GCRF Challenge Leaders are responsible for the building and success of individual GCRF challenge portfolios and together collectively responsible for maximising the portfolios’ overall research excellence and real-world impact.

Nine Challenge Leaders have been appointed directing GCRF portfolios in Global Health, Food Systems, Conflict, Resilience, Education, and Sustainable Cities. Their goal is to make certain that the GCRF as a whole can have the greatest possible impact on global development and move the world closer towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Professor Helen Fletcher heads up the team of Challenge Leaders as UKRI’s Director of International Development.

The GCRF Challenge Leaders have been appointed to provide strong, intellectual and strategic leadership for each strategic research portfolio and to strengthen coordination across multiple delivery partners. They will draw on the knowledge and experience of the GCRF Strategic Advisory Group  as well as the various GCRF groups in the research councils and academies.

Challenge Leaders will:

  • promote focus, consolidation, integration and partnership for impact – working within and across portfolios
  • build strong and mutual relationships with key academic leaders, including Principal Investigators for GCRF Hubs, Growing Capability and Foundation projects
  • play a key role in shaping future investment, by helping to scope future call(s) for proposals and through active encouragement of innovative/interdisciplinary approaches
  • work with governments, development agencies, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, and other national and multilateral organisations to create and utilise pathways to deliver real-world impact, especially with regard to the most intractable development challenges
  • draw out potential impacts (new products, practice and policy influence) through networking investments, working with DFID officers and/or other “in-country” development actors
  • bring back intelligence to UKRI relevant to future GCRF strategy, based on these outcomes and interactions
  • promote a positive vision for the GCRF to government, public and other stakeholders; develop a strong GCRF narrative.

They will be charged with maximising the coherence and impact of each portfolio by working with UK Research and Innovation and other delivery partners, and to seek opportunities beyond GCRF through alignment/integration with the ODA portfolios (for example the Newton Fund) across UK Government and with other funders. They will strengthen international engagement and promote high-level dialogue with a wide range of international development funders, actors and agencies. They will work closely with the GCRF Hubs and other strategic investments as they come on stream, to ensure a close match between new insights emerging from GCRF researchers and the strategic needs and ambitions of development partners as framed by the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Challenge Leader biographies are below:

Professor Mark Pelling

King’s College London, Department of Geography


Mark Pelling is Professor of Geography at King’s College London.  His research interests include social and institutional aspects of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, with a particular focus on urban contexts. He has worked in Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. He has served as a consultant for UNHABITAT, UNDP, UNISDR, World Bank, DFID and a range of NGOs including Oxfam, Action Aid, Greenpeace, and The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Mark’s research is interdisciplinary and has been funded by ESRC, NERC, DFID, EC and the British Academy including large projects supported by the Belmont Forum. Mark is Principal Investigator of the ESRC-DFID programme Urban Africa: Risk Knowledge. He has served on the international scientific steering committees of Future Earth Coasts, Integrated Research on Disaster Risk and the Stockholm Environment Institute, and as a Coordinating Lead Author for the IPCC SREX and Working Group II urban chapters for AR5 and AR6. He is co-chair of the United Kingdom Alliance on Disaster Research.    

Mark has a PhD in Geography from the University of Liverpool, an MSc Marine Resource Management from Heriot-Watt and a BSc Geography from the University of Hull. He has taught at the University of Guyana, University of Liverpool and King’s College London and has been a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and University of Cape Town. He is the author of seven books including Adaptation to Climate Change: from resilience to transformation (Routledge 2011) and The Vulnerability of Cities: social resilience and natural disaster (Routledge 2003) and over 80 peer review papers and book chapters.

Dr John Rees

British Geological Survey, Director, Earth Hazards & Observatories


John Rees is Director of Earth Hazards and Observatories at the British Geological Survey.  His research interests include characterization of multi-hazards and long-term environmental change, the assessment of risks associated with these and options for building resilience to them. He has contributed to the development of risk analysis tools to support financial instruments in disaster risk reduction. John has worked in Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, particularly on urban, coastal and marine risks. He has worked for DFID, UNISDR and Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction (World Bank).

John has a highly interdisciplinary focus, working with and across many sectoral funders. He led the Major Group for Science and Technology during the development of the UN Sendai Framework. He has served on many international scientific steering committees - for instance on risk modelling and early warning systems. He chairs the UK Disasters Research Group – a collective of funders addressing UK investment in disaster research which works through the UK Collaborative for Development Studies (UKCDS).     

John has a Ph.D in Geology from Trinity College, Dublin, and a BSc in Geology from the University of Sheffield. He has previously been Leader of the Natural Hazard and Risk and Resilience themes at NERC, and was the RCUK Risk Research Champion. He held a START lectureship in West African universities, and currently is a visiting Professor at the University of Leicester. He is author of over 100 publications. 

Dr Neelam Raina 

Middlesex University, Associate Professor

Security Protracted Conflict, Refugee Crises and Forced Displacement

Neelam Raina is an Associate Professor of Design and Development at Middlesex University, London. Her research interests include conflict, material cultures, gender, and livelihood generation. Neelam has been working in the region of Kashmir (both Indian and Pakistani) since the early 2000s, and has conducted participatory action research including design and enterprise training for women in the region focussing on material cultures, identity and representation of the people of Kashmir. She has worked with NGOs, educational charities, and academic departments in India and Pakistan. Her recent work focusses on Iraqi heritage and material culture.  

Dr Raina was the Principal Investigator on the GCRF Partnership against Conflict Crime and Security Research (PaCCS) Value of Crafts in Conflict project which examined material and social practices through which women in Northern Pakistan reproduce themselves on a daily and generational basis and through which the social relations and material bases of capitalism are renewed to understand both the costs of conflict and the connections between vastly different sites of production. This interdisciplinary project allowed connections to be built between, creative home-based workers who are largely seen as peripheral, to development economics, and on the fringes of formal employment and contributors to GDP; to the larger notions of peace building, countering and preventing violent extremism, poverty spirals and conflict theory through culturally significant, socially relevant practices. Raina is also a Principal Investigator on the Post Textile Crafts of Iraq, which investigates the impact of the long-standing conflict in Iraq from the perspective of the Iraqi and Kurdish craftspeople. It looks at socio-economic changes in Iraq’s craft tradition, with a special focus on the craftswomen of Samawah in the south and Erbil in the Kurdish north. Her research explores the potential that material practices have, as a means of sustainable income generation, that in turn could contribute towards socio-economic reconstruction and post-conflict development.

Neelam has a Ph.D in Design and Development, and a Masters in Design and Manufacture from De Montfort University, Leicester. She also has a post graduate degree in Textile Design at NIFT in New Delhi. Raina did an undergraduate degree in History (Hons) at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. She is an editor for the International Journal of Traditional Arts, and her new work ‘Creative Economies of Culture in South Asia – Performers and Craftspeople’ comes out in 2019.

Dr Laura Hammond

SOAS University of London, department of development studies

Security Protracted Conflict, Refugee Crises and Forced Displacement

Laura Hammond is a Reader in Development Studies at SOAS University of London. Her research interests include conflict, forced migration, diasporas, and food and livelihood security. She has been working in the Horn of Africa (particularly Ethiopia and Somalia/Somaliland) since the early 1990s, and has conducted applied research consultancy for a wide range of development and humanitarian organizations, including UNDP, USAID, Oxfam, Medécins Sans Frontières, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the World Food Programme. 

Laura is Team Leader of the EU Trust Fund for Africa's Research and Evidence Facility which conducts research on migration and conflict dynamics in the Horn of Africa. She also heads the London International Development Centre (LIDC) Migration Leadership Team, which provides strategic advice to the ESRC and AHRC on migration and displacement issues. She is also Chair of the Independent Advisory Group for Country Information, an independent body which reviews the country of origin information products issued by the UK Home Office. 

Laura has a Ph.D in Anthropology from the University Wisconsin-Madison and did her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught at Clark University, the University of Reading, and was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex. She is the author of This Place Will Become Home: Refugee Repatriation to Ethiopia (Cornell University Press: 2004), co-editor with Johan Pottier and Christopher Cramer of Researching Violence in Africa: Ethical and Methodological Challenges (Brill: 2011) and numerous articles and chapters.

Dr Jaideep Gupte

Institute of Development Studies

Cities and Sustainable Infrastructure

Jaideep Gupte is Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies, at University of Sussex, where he leads the Cities Cluster and convenes the MA in Poverty and Development. Jaideep’s research interests include the governance and infrastructural implications of violence, poverty and development in the built environment. His research seeks to foreground the voices and everyday experiences of the most marginalised urban residents. He has served as a consultant for a variety of donor agencies (including DFID), UN Agencies (including Unicef), several urban local authorities (in South Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa) and a range of NGOs. He has conducted primary research in South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal) and sub-Saharan Africa (Sudan, Nigeria).

Jaideep’s research has been funded by the ESRC, DFID, and the EC among others. He is currently the Principle Investigator on ‘Smart Data for Inclusive Cities’ funded by the EC, Executive Director of the ‘Mobile Training Platforms for City Police’ funded by the World Justice Project, and was the Principle Investigator on the recently concluded ‘Informal work and wellbeing in South Asia’ funded by the South Asia Research Hub, DFID.      

Jaideep has a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College), an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Sussex, and a BA (Hons.) in Economics from Simon Fraser University. Jaideep’s research has received the Global Development Network Medal for Outstanding Research, Category: Rule of Law. He was formerly Prize Fellow of the Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai.

Professor Nicola Lowe 

University of Central Lancashire

Food Systems 

Nicola Lowe is Professor of Nutritional Sciences and Co-Director of the International Institute of Nutritional Science and Food Safety Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

After graduating from the University of Liverpool with a Ph.D in trace mineral metabolism, Nicola spent four years as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley where she conducted research examining the homeostatic response to dietary zinc depletion, returning to the University of Liverpool to continue this work until she joined UCLan in 2000. Her primary research interest is trace mineral metabolism, with a particular focus on zinc. From 2013 to 2017, she was Chair of Zinc-Net, a network of international scientists brought together through funding from the European Commission (COST Action), to address issues relating to the role of zinc in human health. She is currently conducting research in Pakistan to investigate novel biomarkers of zinc status, and the potential for wheat biofortification to alleviate zinc deficiency.

Nicola is also the research director and a trustee for the Abaseen Foundation. This Lancashire based charity is working alongside community members in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in north west Pakistan, to improve education and health care provision. In 2010, Nicola and her research team won The Times Higher Education’s International Collaboration of the Year award for their work to improve the nutrition and health status of communities in Peshawar, Pakistan and Blackburn, UK.

Dr Tahrat Shahid 

University of Oxford

Food Systems 

Tahrat Shahid has over a decade of international development and policy research experience in a variety of contexts. Her research interests include gender, agricultural development, food security, nutrition, and the politics of religion.

Tahrat began her career as a corporate debt advisory analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York City, after which she co-founded a non-profit organisation offering free burns and reconstructive surgery in Bangladesh. Afterwards, her work ranged from macroeconomic analysis at the Central Bank of Turkey in Ankara to poverty and social impact analysis at the World Bank in Washington, DC. Additionally, she focused on impact evaluation at Oxford Policy Management, with particular projects on agricultural cooperatives in Rwanda and mobile banking in Kenya. Prior to joining GCRF, she also led research for advocacy on agricultural policy, food security, and nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa for the ONE Campaign’s Global Policy Team in London.

Tahrat has a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford, a Master in Public Administration and International Development (MPA/ID) from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and an A.B. in Economics from Mount Holyoke College. She is currently writing a book on the results of her doctoral work (titled ‘Imaginary Lines? Islam and Secularism in the Politics of Family Laws in Bangladesh’) examining the political discourse around Islam, development policy, and women’s rights in Bangladesh.

Dr Kelsey Shanks

Ulster University


Kelsey Shanks is an Associate Researcher at Ulster University’s UNESCO Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Children and Youth. Her research agenda focuses on the relationship between education and conflict in divided societies, with exploration of education’s links to post-conflict stabilisation and peacebuilding agendas. She has conducted extensive research in Iraq, along with work in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Somalia, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Kelsey has led commissioned research projects for a range of international actors, including UNAMI, UNICEF, USAID and GIZ. She has a demonstrated record of external engagement, having provided guidance and briefings on education, peace and conflict to UN agencies, government bodies and various INGOs, most recently speaking at the Education Cannot Wait Education Forum on Syria and the UNICEF MENA education forum.

Kelsey has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Exeter. Her subsequent academic career has been research focused, with fellowships at the University of York Postwar Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) and the University of Exeter Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (IAIS). Kelsey is the author of Education and Ethno-Politics; Defending identity in Iraq (Routledge, 2015) and various book chapters and articles.

Professor Helen Lambert

University of Bristol

Global Health

Helen Lambert is Professor of Medical Anthropology at The University of Bristol.

Helen’s research interests include anthropological and interdisciplinary research on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and between October 2015 and September 2016 she was the AMR Research Champion for the Economic and Social Research Council.

Helen has also applied her anthropological perspectives to a range of public health issues including, popular understandings of health, illness and therapy; social and cultural dimensions of health systems; lay understandings of suicide and suicide prevention in social and kinship networks; and the role of ethnographic and other forms of qualitative research evidence in the formulation and evaluation of public health interventions.

Helen has worked with vulnerable communities in South Asia, with respect to HIV prevention and sexual health, having a particular focus on sex work and has also worked within and outside the formal health sector in India, looking at non-biomedical therapeutic traditions.

Helen has a D. Phil in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford and a B.A (Hons) in Human Sciences also from the University of Oxford.

To contact any of the challenge leaders please email challengeleaders@ukri.org