On being an attribution scientist: Meet Claire Burke

pic3Claire Burke is a climate scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services in Exeter. She has an MPhys in Physics with Astrophysics and a PhD in astrophysics. Here she tells us about moving between scientific fields in her working life, her long-standing fascination with the stars, answering big, real-world questions, the attraction of “standing on a box in a city centre shouting about interesting science”, the improving working conditions for women in science and what keeps you going through your PhD. You can catch Dr. Burke at Soapbox Science in Exeter on June 11th,


SS: Claire, how did you get to your current position?

CB: My job title is ‘attribution scientist’ – that means I look for changes in the weather and extreme weather events to see if there is any sign of climate change, and then figure out what is causing that change (most of the time its human activities). Until about a year ago I was working as an astrophysicist. I have had a keen interest in the stars since I was quite young and studied physics at university with the aim of a research career in astro. I did my PhD in astrophysics and after that went on to do research in the evolution of galaxies in clusters, which is what I’ll be talking about at Soapbox Science.

It turned out the skills I used in my research in astro were also applicable to climate science. The opportunity to work on one of the biggest and most society-relevant research problems ever was pretty exciting, so I made a very optimistic job application. Fortunately for me, the analytical, mathematical and problem solving skills I had gained through my physics degree, PhD and astro research were exactly what is needed to do research on climate change. I’m still very much in love with the stars, and like to keep up to date with current research, but now I feel like my job is helping to save the world from climate change!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

 CB: When I was at high school I had a particularly inspiring (female) physics teacher. Her energetic lessons on how stars form and evolve were what originally inspired me to study physics and astrophysics. It was in those physics lessons that I first saw the stunning images of the universe taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about what these beautiful objects are and how they came to be, and of course, what our place in the Universe is.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

CB: The aim of my work in climate science is to figure out how humans are affecting the climate and what the weather will look like in the future as a result of our activities. Will there be more flooding? More heat waves? How will the changes in climate affect our food supply? Will climate change make some regions of the world uninhabitable? Answering these kinds of questions means I get to see the direct impact of human emissions on the world, and I get to help us figure out what we should do about it. My research informs our decisions on what emissions we need to cut, and how we can prepare for future extreme weather. Helping to solve one of the biggest challenges humankind has ever faced is definitely exciting!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

CB: Standing on a box in a city centre shouting about interesting science – isn’t that everyone’s idea of fun? I like talking to non-scientists about science. I think it’s important for scientists to tell the world about what they are studying so that everyone can be informed about what we do and what things we do and don’t know. The city centre is a fun new place for me to talk about my favourite subject to a whole range of different people.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

CB: Optimism.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

CB: When it comes to women in science, the scientific culture is definitely moving forward. There is no longer any tolerance for overt sexism or bad attitudes towards women. The change I would like to see is for better communication with the media and general public, so that everyone has a good idea of our current understanding of things, whether that be the weather or the latest breakthrough in medicine. I think we should be striving to help people have a better understanding of how the scientific method works so that we can make better decisions as a society.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

CB: If you love it, do it! And give it 100%. Science can be challenging but so long as you can remember why it is fascinating, or what important and exciting thing you are hoping to discover it’ll all be worth the effort. Also, related to my experience, I’d say don’t be afraid to apply your skills to new topics or even different fields. As a young scientist you have many transferrable skills and your different perspective on a problem in a different field of study could be the thing that is needed to solve it.


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