Episode 33: Laura Wilcox

Inequities exist throughout the scientific enterprise. Women continue to be progressively underrepresented at more senior career stages. Access to excellent research universities is unequally distributed. Representation by many minority groups is low. Nature Geoscience has an entire Focus issue on accessibility, or the lack thereof.

The barriers to entry obviously vary hugely among nations. Just have a look at the authors of papers in Nature … you’ll see a lot more from England than Eritrea. It’d be easy to think that within a country like the UK, it would therefore be pretty simple to get into science. But as I found out in my interview with Laura Wilcox from the University of Reading, it still isn’t so easy, even for the English.

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Laura grew up in northern England in Stoke-on-Trent, at the center of the Liverpool-Birmingham-Sheffield triangle. It was, and is, a sparsely populated, gloomy, windy place [UPDATE: Laura let me know that Stoke itself if quite industrial … the pretty stuff is a ways out]. Think moors, 60 mph fog, pubs with roaring fires and rabbit pie (ok, I’m fantasizing about the last part).

All of which suited Laura fine, and from the start she loved nature and science (not the journals, at least not yet). Still, though, she’d not met anyone with a PhD and there were precisely zero scientific role models. Most of her childhood friends pursued careers in trades, and only a few ended up in Universities. The idea of becoming a scientist simply didn’t occur to Laura until

Quite late on … I realized that actually I could be a scientist too

All it took, as is so often the case, was encouragement from one person. In Laura’s case it was a professor, and the first person she’d met with a PhD. Science, then, seemed like a viable possibility.

But entry into one of the world’s finest universities? Again, Laura didn’t even know she could apply to Oxford, and again it took just a slight bit of encouragement. Laura did apply to Oxford, and after four interviews with old white men, was admitted to Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

After a degree at Oxford, Laura moved to Reading, in many ways ground zero for meteorology and atmospheric sciences. For her PhD, Laura — after a sort of science speed-dating experience — worked with Keith Shine on the effects of aviation on tropospheric water vapor, along the way coming up with a new definition of the tropopause.

Since then, Laura has made a career out of studying aerosols, the endlessly vexing universe of tiny particles capable of altering … well, most anything you can think of in atmospheric sciences: cloud brightness, cloud lifetime, particle nucleation, local precipitation, monsoons, tropical cyclones, air quality, the position of jets. The problem, and challenge, is that

With aerosol, there’s uncertainty coming at you left right and center”

Laura made important progress on the role of aerosols in multidecadal climate variability, and she and her colleagues are in the thick of trying to trace down some of the sources of uncertainty in, for example, aerosol effects on cloud albedo. Emissions, transport, mixing, rain-out, particle formation. All are important, and most vary (strongly!) across models. It’s a huge, and important, task.

For many years now, Laura’s been carrying out this work through short term contracts at Reading, in essence a series of postdocs. This of course has its disadvantages, mitigated somewhat by having a husband with a permanent job as a barrister. A permanent scientific job would be nice, but the project work also gives Laura the sense that people at Reading value her work, and are keen to find ways for her to stay. And the project diversity is great, allowing Laura to work on topics like southern hemisphere dynamics, impacts of aerosols on regional climate, blocking and jets.

None of this is particularly easy, and taking a project from conception to publication can be years. Now, for example, Laura is trying to figure out if human emissions of aerosols are affecting atmospheric circulation in China and Europe, using a hierarchy of models (an approach discussed by Amy Clement in an earlier Forecast interview).

Making major progress on aerosols almost inevitably requires models and observations. Maybe especially for this field, it really seems like the division between observationalists and modelers is dissolving. They need each other to make serious progress, as each can only grapple with particular ends of a very slippery eel. It’s an encouraging development to see, and one that is occurring across many fields within climate science.

Clearly of most importance, though, Laura and I agree that bicycling to country pubs is a worthy pastime. Next time you are in Reading, I recommend The Pot Kiln, a mere 12-mile ride. The grouse is stunning. Maybe Laura will take you.

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