Siân Lane is a research scientist with the Met Office, where she studies weather to help improve weather forecasts. She studied physics at university, followed by an MSc in meteorology. She loves the outdoor fieldwork and flying large balloons around in the dark! Here she tells us how excellent teachers at school and university inspired her in physics and encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone. Listen to Siân talk about the fascinating science of the weather in Cambridge Market Square on 2nd July, 12-3pm. Siân will put Weather under the microscope (microscope not included!) and we’ll be hoping for sunny weather!
SS: Siân , how did you get to your current position?
SL: I’ve been interested in the weather ever since I got involved with gliding as a teenager. When I went to university as an undergraduate I wanted to keep my options open, so I chose physics and philosophy rather than meteorology. When I graduated I decided that I would give this whole weather thing a go, so I did an MSc and then a PhD in meteorology at the University of Reading. My PhD project was sponsored by the Met Office, and looked at the ability of our forecasting models to simulate the microclimate of London. My project was part of a larger campaign to gather lots of observational data within London’s urban heat island, and working on this campaign gave me the experience and skills that I needed to get a job in the observations-based research department of the Met Office. I actually applied for my current position on the assumption that I wouldn’t get the job, but might get some interview practice. Imagine my surprise when I found myself starting a full-time job at the Met Office halfway through the third year of my PhD!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
My parents have always been very keen to encourage my interests in whatever direction they happened to take me. As a child that included all sorts of things: painting, stamp collecting, My Little Pony… I remember having a chemistry set, and a variety of science-themed books, including one called “The Science Book for Girls: and Other Intelligent Beings”. I enjoyed science at school and had some really good physics teachers, which probably explains why I didn’t go into biology despite arguably being better at it than physics. I never really planned to become a scientist; I just kept doing what I found interesting until somehow I had spent nine years at university, and now it says “Siân Lane: Research Scientist” on my office door, so I guess I am one!
My PhD supervisor has also been a very important influence in my career so far. I originally applied to do a project with her because she taught the boundary-layer and micrometeorology course during my MSc course and she made it sound fascinating. She pushed me to develop skills that I never thought I would have; I used to be terrified of public speaking, and now I’m volunteering to stand on a box in the market square in Cambridge, talking to strangers about science!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
SL: I think that the most enjoyable part of my work is the fact that I get to go out in the field fairly often. That involves quite a lot of traipsing around the countryside, as well as wrangling stubbornly faulty equipment back into working order, and flying large balloons in the dark.
The most conceptually fascinating aspect of my work is probably that there is always another layer of complexity to deal with – every bit of progress we make makes our knowledge of what we’re studying a little less wrong, but there’s always more to understand.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
SL: I’ve been involved in a few public engagement events before (schools visits, science festivals etc.) and this seemed like something a little different. I like the idea of talking to an audience without being able to use PowerPoint slides as a crutch – it’s a different challenge to the average scientific conference.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
SL: My main concern is whether it’s going to rain!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
SL: I would really like more scientific research to be freely available to the public. There are a lot of dubious stories in the traditional media and online that start with “Scientists have found…” and I would love it if people could easily check those claims for themselves. If news outlets would start citing papers properly as well, that would be even better.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
SL: I’m not really an academic, given that I work in the Civil Service, but I would recommend talking to as many people as you can: fellow students, people at conferences, anyone in your field or outside of it. It’s a good way to find opportunities, and the more good professional relationships you have, the better! I think it’s especially important for female students to talk to other women in science. My female colleagues have been a great support network in what is still quite a male-dominated area, and seeing other women in more senior positions has really helped me to believe that I might be able to get there too one day.