Those trillions of particles floating around our skies

EllieProfessor Eleanor Highwood (EH) researches climate physics at the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading. Millions of tiny particles in the sky make cloud droplets and scatter sunlight, and Ellie is interested in trying to predict how changes in these aerosols will change our future. Here, she explains her passion for her research and how she wanted to be a Soapbox Science (SS) speaker to introduce the public to these particles so that they can understand the likely future discussions about aerosols in climate and air quality. Ellie will be on her London soapbox this Sunday, 29th of June, 12-3. Come and listen to her talk entitled “When smoke gets in your skies: the effect of atmospheric aerosols on weather and climate” on the Southbank! You can also follow Ellie on twitter @EllieHighwood


SS: Hi Ellie, and welcome to our Q&A session! We have learnt a little bit about you with your previous blog, but with this interview we thought we’ll focus on your research and career path. So let’s start with your career path: how did you get to your current position?

EH: As a physics undergraduate I was interested in nuclear physics, medical physics or atmospheric physics. In the end I decided I would be too squeamish for medical physics, and it was easier to understand how atmospheric physics was relevant to the real world than nuclear physics. I came to Reading as a PhD student about 20 years ago, then stayed on as a postdoc researcher and made myself indispensable to the Department. I got a lectureship in 2001 and then moved up through Senior Lecturer and to Professor in 2011, as well as having 2 sons and 2 periods of maternity leave during that time. Now I’m Head of Department with responsibility for 51 academics and 90 research staff – I didn’t see that happening when I joined all that time ago.


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

EH: When I was 12 my (male) physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. I set out to prove him wrong. This may not have been the best reason, but when I moved schools I had a very good physics teacher who had been a PhD student herself and encouraged me to aim high with my physics. Also my Dad was a research scientist and latterly a research manager, and I think this probably played a larger role than I realised at the time. The fact that I was good at science and enjoyed the organised nature of school science also helped. I realise now that science is not always that organised!


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

EH: Atmospheric aerosols are so tiny that we often need a microscope to see them. Yet they are involved in so many parts of our lives. Most obviously they affect air quality, health and visibility. They scatter sunlight back to space and also make clouds more reflective and so increases in aerosol can lead to a cooling of the Earth’s surface. This makes them important in climate change. My research includes both trying to find out what these particles are made of and how they affect sunlight by flying through plumes of them in a specially instrumented aircraft, and also seeing what happens when you include these particles in global climate models. It’s a bit like detective work trying to get models and measurements to agree; that tells us about the processes affecting these particles in the atmosphere and that’s what we need to know to be able to predict future climate change and air quality. Oh, and without aerosols we wouldn’t really have raindrops.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science?

EH: Personally, the challenge of communicating in a new way to a new audience. Scientifically, the desire to make people aware of the trillions of particles floating around our skies.


SS: OK, so the event is this WE! How do you feel? How would you sum up in one word your expectations for the day?

EH: Adrenalin!!


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

EH: I would tell everyone that science isn’t harder than any other subject. We all use scientific methods every day without even trying, every time we form a theory, or try something out. By labelling science as hard, those with less confidence are put off from pursuing study or a career in science. Since those with less confidence generally include women, people of a minority of any sort, the old and the young, removing the “hard” label opens it up to everyone.


SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia? 

EH: If you think you have a good understanding of the role of a junior academic, then find a mentor and a sponsor (these are often different people but not necessarily) and go for it. It’s tough, but rewarding. It’s also amongst the most flexible of workplaces, although the culture of long working hours can be persistent (but it is possible to fight this). However, don’t assume that you need to be or indeed that you will want to be, an academic for ever – it can open doors to the most surprising of places.

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