Monday, 17 January 2011

The Real Deal: Tamsin Edwards, Climate Modeller

What is it really like to be a woman working in science? 

In the first of a series of posts featuring real female scientists, I went straight to the source to find out - with climate guru Tamsin Edwards. I hope you enjoy her inspiring story.

Dr. Tamsin Edwards: Climate Modeller

What do you do & give 3 words that describe how you got there?

I'm a climate modeller. I use computer programs that simulate the behaviour of the earth - the atmosphere, oceans, vegetation, ice sheets and so on - to try to understand why the climate changed in the past and predict how it might change in the future. I'm particularly interested in the statistical, almost philosophical, questions about how certain these predictions can be.

Three words: super-curious greenie physicist.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?

Looking back, I was rather influenced by my family: I wanted to be a concert pianist like my Mum, then to work in the visual arts like my Dad, and at one point I passionately wanted to do something about the environment, inspired by my half-brother who works in sustainable design. Then my cousin recommended Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" when we were about 15 or 16 - saying something impenetrable but interesting about causality being reversed - and after reading it I was hooked on physics.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?

I enjoy my job more than anything I've done before (no offence meant to previous employers and colleagues!). It's such a broad research area - at various times I have needed to learn about the ocean currents and monsoon winds, about plankton, grasses and trees, about the bottom of the ocean and the top of the atmosphere, how the earth looked 55 million years ago and how it might look in a thousand years, about ice ages, volcanoes, hurricanes, industrial pollution, marshes and bogs, and human migration in the past. On top of all that, I do as much engagement work as possible, which means keeping up to speed with the evidence for humans causing climate change, the "denier" arguments against it, government policy, renewable technology and the psychology of how humans understand uncertainty and make decisions. It's not just the learning: I love multidisciplinary working, with its challenge of explaining ideas to different scientists.

Another reason is the importance of the questions. It blows my mind when I listen to a talk about how people might have to migrate for different predictions of sea level rise, or how we might have to use global technological projects ("geoengineering") to reduce the effects of climate change.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?

As well as the specific reasons above, I really enjoy the parts common to all science research - day-to-day problem-solving, chats over coffee that lead to new ideas, and the arguments (er, discussions) that force you to clarify your thinking.

There can be a lot of "book-keeping" - keeping track of a lot of information and triple-checking everything - when you are running a big set of climate simulations, and that's inevitably less interesting than looking at the actual results. But I also enjoy working out ways to make that easier and more reliable, so it's not that bad.

What do you enjoy other than science?

I'm still a fairly active musician, I do a bit of knitting and crochet, and I try to get to capoeira classes when I can. When I get the chance I love to potter about the house with my husband and cat, doing nothing in particular.

What would be your ideal holiday?

I'd love to go back to Brazil (a third time), as the music and people are wonderful, or to Australia, to see family. Showing a further lack of imagination, my ideal holiday is the last one I had, taking the train with my husband to Valencia: it has good cafes and restaurants, friendly people, interesting museums and architecture, and a beach to flop on to occasionally.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise)?

My Dad died this year, and I'm keenly aware of his influence: he was interested in everything and everyone.

I found Brian Cox, my PhD supervisor, quite inspiring: his enthusiasm, his passion for engagement, and his big-picture, ambitious view of scientific problems. Thinking about it, I might have inherited a little bit of bolshiness (er, I mean confidence) from him too!

I've been very lucky to work with some world-class climate scientists and mathematicians, and they continuously inspire me: their hard work, breadth and depth of knowledge, and generosity in giving time to early career researchers like me.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Pearls of widsom

I found myself in a situation yesterday when I was asked to spontaneously generate pearls of wisdom for some first year PhD students. I laughed, gulped down my (complimentary) apple juice and started with “aahh… I really don’t know”. Great… good start.

Of course, I offered some advice about getting the most out of your supervisor and about having a good plan of your time. But I guess there were a few other things I should probably have told them.

Like the famous “your writing gets better after a while” myth. That’s a good one. The real reason your papers and thesis chapters will have less red scribble on the toward the end is this: your supervisor was getting down to the end of the bottle of red it took him to actually face reading your horrendous grammatically incorrect and non-accessible writing.

Perhaps I should have puffed myself up until I was red in the face by screaming “Go and get a real job NOW if that’s all you’re going to do afterward – why are you surviving on such terrible money for four years when you could have a career!?” I assume, though, that they were aware of that one already.

When I was asked “Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently?” I genuinely groaned at the predictability of the question. I only hope that guy was more creative in his research than his networking skills.

There are no simple solutions. It’s your own journey, in your own time. Hell, it’s your own life! If you take six years to finish a three year degree there is nothing I can tell you at this point that will stop that from happening.

After a quick reminder to self not to volunteer for these things in the future for fear of completely demotivating the next generation of scientists, I felt compelled to go and have a haircut and a girly happy hour cocktail to wipe the experience from my memory.  

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


A quick update to apologize for the lack of posts lately - I've been off holidaying in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Australia. The lure of sunshine was too strong!

Watch this space...