STEAMing ahead


54805-kettle_teaserI have spent an inspiring couple of days at the Association for Science Education Conference held here at Reading, picking up ideas (and freebies) for my outreach work. A strong theme emerging across several sessions that I have attended is the potential for learning opportunities that could be gained by working across traditional “arts” and “science” boundary. The newest additional to my acronym dictionary is therefore STEAM, being Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Two sessions were particularly inspiring. Carole Kenrick @Lab13_Gillespie described her time as a “scientist/inventor” in residence in a state primary school, running Lab_13. Amongst the many fantastic activities and initiatives she set up during this time which included helping with curriculum and staff CPD, supporting students to run a science committee and doing some original research with the students that reached the national press, Carole also started a STEAM club. She described how this had evolved from Science Club, to STEM club and finally to STEAM, entraining and enthusing more and more children and parents as it made the transition. By bringing creative arts and science together through, for example, designing robot costumes, backpacks, growing and producing their own plant-based dyes and then using these to make textiles, children who “didn’t like science” began to involve themselves in it, and “science geeks” found new creative talents and skills. Carole has written this up for teachwire and as a blog.

The second STEAM themed session I attended was a keynote lecture by Marcus du Sautoy on The Art of Mathematics and the Mathematics of Art. In a well attended and thought provoking lecture, he focused on particular examples where mathematics is linked, either knowingly or unknowingly, to arts. Firstly music, considering the work of Oliver Messiaen who used repeats of rhythm and chords with different prime numbers in each to great effect in the piece he wrote for a prisoner of war camp quartet, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the end of time”) . Also in music, I was intrigued to discover that Indian musicians appear to have been aware of the Fibonacci sequence way before Fibonacci – it describes the number of patterns you can make with successive numbers of quaver beats for example. quaver

The connection between music and maths has often been made, but perhaps the other examples were less familiar. Firstly, in the visual arts, du Sautoy considered the success of Jackson Pollock paintings, attributed to them being fractals, and more than that, having similar fractal dimensions to those that we see in nature. This characteristic means that the level of complexity doesn’t change, no matter how much you “zoom in” to a Pollock painting, or in the natural world, trees. We also found out that to fake this you need to paint as a chaotic pendulum, one where the pivot moves as well as the pendulum. Apparently Pollock was able to do this through a natural combination of drunkenness and bad balance….

And finally to literature. The example used here was The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Slightly different from the other examples, it is thought that this was a deliberate attempt by Borges to try to understand Poincare’s mathematics via literature. It dectorusdescribes a library “that some call the universe” and discusses whether it is finite or not, some of the most challenging questions still being addressed in science today.

To my mind, science is already a creative subject. What could be more creative than dreaming up hypotheses, designing experiments, designing technology and equipment to deliver them and making visualisations of our data and results? Recent emphasis on novel visualisations of climate data for example have attracted much attention and featured in Olympic games opening ceremonies. But it is probably true that the majority of people beginning their science journey don’t see it this way. The explicit A in STEAM could help us to demonstrate that aspect and perhaps attract some new interest. It might also encourage the creative side in career scientists, although many of them already demonstrate this.

So, are you ready to put the A into STEM?





A significant revision to the climate impact of increasing concentrations of methane

Summary and Frequently Asked Questions relating to the paper:

Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide: A significant revision of the methane radiative forcing by M. Etminan, G. Myhre, E.J. Highwood and K.P.Shine., Geophys. Res. Lett, 43, doi:10.1002/2016GL071930

Just when I thought it was safe to take a holiday, our paper presenting new detailed calculations of the radiative forcing for carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane was published in Geophysical Research Letters on 27th December. For me, this paper was a blast from the past, as one of the first papers I wrote as a postdoc in 1998 was on a similar topic,  and shares 3 out of 4 authors, myself, Keith Shine and Gunnar Myhre.

The recent paper, co-authored with PhD student Maryam Etminan, describes new research on methane’s climate impact that has been performed at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, UK and the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) in Norway; it indicates that the climate effect of changes in methane concentrations due to human activity has been significantly underestimated. It also uses these detailed calculations to revise the simplified expressions for estimating radiative forcing adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The new calculations indicate that the direct effect of increases in the concentration of methane on climate is 25% higher than represented by the expressions previously adopted by the  IPCC, making its present-day radiative forcing (relative to pre-industrial values) about one-third as powerful as carbon dioxide.

The paper has attracted some attention on social media as the calculations may have an impact on policy decisions in the future. Therefore I take the opportunity here, with much of the text below written by my co-author Keith Shine, to both summarise the study and answer some of the questions that have arisen so far.

Does this mean that our previous estimates of radiative forcing due to carbon dioxide have been over-estimated?

No. Carbon dioxide remains the most significant greenhouse gas driving human induced climate change.

In fact in this study we also looked at the estimates of forcing due to carbon dioxide using the same physical understanding as used for methane, and found forcing very similar to previous estimates, except for some underestimation at very high carbon dioxide concentrations.

So if the forcing due to methane has been underestimated in the past, why hasn’t the global mean temperature increased more?

The climate impact (e.g. temperature change) resulting from a radiative forcing change in the atmosphere depends on both the radiative forcing and how the climate system responds to that forcing. Although we have shown that the carbon dioxide forcings are little different to our earlier calculations, there are other changes that cause a radiative forcing that have documented very large uncertainties, for example aerosols (and in particular their impact on clouds) that could easily counteract the additional forcing from methane. Even if we knew the forcing accurately, the uncertainty in the climate response is also large enough that it isn’t a problem to reconcile the observed temperature changes. We are in fact refining the uncertainties through this type of study.

So why the focus on methane?

Human activity has led to more than a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of methane since the 18th century. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. It is the second most important greenhouse gas driving human-induced climate change, after carbon dioxide. Its warming effect had been calculated to be about one-quarter of that due to carbon dioxide. Methane emissions due to human activity come from agricultural sources, such as livestock, soil management and rice production, and from the production and use of coal, oil and natural gas.

What did you do that was different?

Previous calculations had focused attention on the role of methane in the “greenhouse” trapping of infrared energy emitted by the Earth and its atmosphere, primarily at wavelengths of around 7.5 microns. The vital element in the new research is that detailed account is taken of the way methane absorbs infrared energy emitted by the Sun, at wavelengths between 1 and 4 microns.

The effect of this additional absorption of Sun’s infrared radiation is complicated, as it depends on the altitudes at which the additional energy is absorbed. This determines whether the extra absorption enhances or opposes the greenhouse trapping. It has been known for many years that the absorption of the Sun’s energy by carbon dioxide reduces its climate effect by about 4%, because much of the additional absorption happens high in the atmosphere.

The new calculations of the effect of methane indicate that much of the extra absorption is in the lower part of the atmosphere, where it has a warming effect. The research shows that clouds play a particularly important role in causing this enhanced warming effect. Clouds scatter some of the sun’s rays back into space; it is the additional absorption of these scattered rays by methane that drives the warming effect, a factor that had not been included in earlier studies.

Are these results important for climate change negotiations?

The new calculations are important for not only quantifying methane’s contribution to human-induced climate change, but also for the operation of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This takes into account emissions of many greenhouse gases in addition to carbon dioxide. The emissions of these other greenhouse gases are given a “carbon-dioxide equivalence” by multiplying them by a quantity called the “100-year Global Warming Potential” GWP(100); a similar approach is likely to be adopted by most countries for the operation of the UNFCCC’s more recent Paris Agreement.

The GWP(100) for methane includes not only its direct impact on the Earth’s energy budget, but methane’s indirect role, via chemical reactions, on the abundance of other atmospheric gases, such as ozone. Applying the results of the new calculations to the value of the GWP(100) presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent (2013) assessment, enhances it by about 15%. This means that a 1-tonne emission of methane would be valued the same as 32 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, up from the IPCC’s most recent value of 28. Hence for countries with large emissions of methane due to human activity, it would lead to a significant re-valuing of their climate effect, relative to emissions of carbon dioxide.

Can you be more specific about that?

In fact the GWP values have changed substantially due to new research since the Kyoto Protocol, and these changes are reported in the IPCC reports.

CO2 remains the dominant greenhouse gas emission from both developed (so-called Annex1) countries (77%) and non-Annex1 (65%) countries but using our revised value in place of the IPCC AR5 value, methane emissions now exceed 40% of CO2 emissions in developing countries, in CO2 equivalent terms, up from 36%. In developed countries, they are now almost one-quarter of the CO2 emissions (23% up from 20%).


So when might these new values influence policy?

The research team identified a number of uncertainties in the calculation of this enhanced absorption by methane, which will require further research to reduce. The new results are unlikely to be recommended for adoption in international treaties until they have been fully considered by the assessment process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new research was partly funded by the Research Council of Norway, and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.

The full paper is   Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide: A significant revision of the methane radiative forcing by M. Etminan, G. Myhre, E. J. Highwood, and K. P. Shine, Geophysical Research Letters, published online 27 December 2016, DOI: 10.1002/2016GL071930

It is open access and can be found at

 The IPCC working group 1 (2013) assessment report “Climate Change 2013, The Physical Science Basis can be found at


Balance or blend?

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?


The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words…  my favorite English Breakfast tea!








Why do I “do” diversity and inclusion?

This week my job share in the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,  Simon Chandler-Wilde,  and I have been doing the first of several discussion sessions for staff at University of Reading. We are presenting our initial plans for making our University more diverse and inclusive and asking for feedback on proposed actions to get towards the Diversity and Inclusion targets recently agreed by our University Executive Board (such as increase in women in professorial roles and better representation of women and BAME staff on strategic decision making committees).

One question we got asked was… “you obviously chose to apply for these roles, so what got you into it?”. Here is the answer I gave, the first parts of which I have said before, but the final part I only realised when answering the question!

One of my core values is enabling people to reach their full potential. I have always mentored formally and informally and I love teaching. As a Head of Department I was responsible for career and personal development of academic and research staff. The most joyful parts of my job have been hearing that people have got the degree, new job, promotion or publication that they really deserved. I have literally jumped up and down in my office on several occasions. So a role in promoting and driving diversity and inclusion is very closely aligned to my core values.

I also have a sort of history of challenging gender stereotypes albeit in a parochial way:

When I was 7 I asked my Dad why only boys were allowed to sing in the church choir (he was in it himself). He told me to ask the vicar, who didn’t have a defensible answer (arguments are sometimes made about the different tonal quality of boys voices compared to girls but this was not a high cathedral choir). So two of us joined and pretty soon the number of junior choristers soared now that they could access the talent of the girls.

When I was 12 my male physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. When people tell me I can’t do something, that tends to motivate me to do exactly that (within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour and without breaking laws obviously). Later on, when I told the careers advisor that I wanted to do physics at university, he said “well I suppose you could be a teacher”. I AM a teacher of sorts but I don’t think this is what he had in  mind!

My first (and possibly only) bit of direct campaigning so far concerned the fact that at the boys school in our town they were allowed to study for 10 GCSEs whilst us girls were only allowed to do 8 subjects. To their credit, the school arranged for our Head mistress to teach a class of 6 of us French every morning before school so that we could do 9 subjects, which was a big commitment, but I was never given a satisfactory answer as to why we couldn’t do the same number in the first place.

I have told those stories before. But yesterday it also struck me that there has been another driver in recent years. Having children exposes you to all sorts of gender stereotypes about working parents, mothers versus fathers etc. However, it’s when my children started school, in a primary school that serves a catchment area with great diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background and relationship with education, that I really became aware of some of my own biases. Not only that, but I realised that many of my children’s friends will not have the opportunities that they should have because of various biases, be that relating to gender, race or socio-economic background. Of course at University we see the product of these biases in that students from different backgrounds face additional challenges in applying to, being accepted at and progressing through their courses.

So I took this job in the hope that I can do something, in a small way, to ensure that all my children’s classmates get the opportunities they deserve. The University is my home environment so I start here, but I am now starting to be able to use the learning from this role to challenge my own biases and the behaviour in the School too.




Getting engaged via a diverse curriculum

“The one thing we all want to do is to engage our students”.

So began the Teaching and Learning Showcase on Diversifying the Curriculum that I attended at Reading yesterday. If my experience of this showcase of 5 different curriculum development projects across campus is anything to go by, the speakers know a lot about engaging students. Personal experience tells us that we learn more when we are engaged, and we engage when we can identify with what we are seeing, hearing and reading. Thus the recognition that diversifying our curriculum in terms of race and ethnicity is a natural conclusion in the light of the much publicised BME attainment gap in HE  and the increasing diversity of the students in our global university.

Dr Rebecca Harris from the Institute of Education kicked off the session relating their personal experience teaching secondary school teachers to deliver a diverse syllabus in their schools.  The issues raised by trainee teachers such as fear of offending no doubt also ring true for many of us, but can lead to “colour-blind” curricula which merely avoid the issue – often not successfully. Dr Harris also considered the concept of a “balanced” syllabus. As a climate scientist, I am used to talking, or indeed ranting, about the importance of a balanced approach in dissemination, but as was pointed out yesterday, even balance is a relative term and depends on the individual.

Dr Nicola Abram and Dr Nicole King from the School of Literature and Languages also talked about the importance of starting with a key part 1 module, in their case “Research and Critical methods”, so that students learn to challenge the classical canons of English Literature from the very start of their university career. This was achieved by adding new texts, for example essays by Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As this module involves around 200 students and therefore lots of staff, a happy by-product is that this redesign has also influenced other staff across the School.

Did you know that, as far as we are aware, Reading was the first UK University Department to hire a specialist lecturer in non-Western Philosophy? Nope, me neither. Dr Shalini Sinha now offers lectures and modules on Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Philosophy at a variety of levels, and crucially, includes 3 lectures on non-Western Philosophy in the first year module Human Nature. Western Philosophy has traditionally been very white male dominated and highly theoretical, but the non-Western view offers students the chance to consider the big questions such as who we are, how we should live, what it is to suffer, from very different perspectives. Again, the approach is to introduce a diversity of views early on in the programme, to contemporise the issues, link to students values and embed throughout lectures, seminars, essays and exams.

The sole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) offering was from Mrs Cristina Duckett from Construction Management (note to self… talk to STEM schools!) who neatly demonstrated that even the (ahem) driest of subjects, building regulations, can be a vehicle for diversifying the curriculum. Design and construction of buildings with ostensibly similar functions in different societies will reflect differing history, values, religious practices, climate and customs. Asking students to compare, for example, two house designs or two buildings for worship in different countries can bring in many aspects of diversity.

The final project returned to the importance of diverse curricula for prompting students to question their own sense of identity and values. Dr Julia Waters from Modern Languages and European Studies runs a Part 3 module on French Caribbean Literature which attracts a high proportion of BME students, including overseas and visiting students. French Caribbean literature is a relatively young literature and students have to confront assumptions not only about identity, European supremacy, language politics, post-colonial theory and black consciousness movements. Dr Waters finished with some very valuable reflections on her experiences, including her honesty about her own discomfort teaching this subject as a “white, middle-class woman” and incorrect assumptions that Black and Caribbean students would have insider knowledge about slavery, colonisation and contemporary world politics.

From history and education, English and French Caribbean literature, philosophy and construction, the common thread yesterday was that diversifying the curricula we teach begins with reflecting on our own practice, experiences and values, and how these colour (word chosen deliberately) our teaching. Finding ways to engage students with this thought process for themselves needs to  be embedded throughout our programmes, not just in a “Diversity silo”, and to start in Part 1, so that it carries through the rest of a student’s learning experiences.  This is a prime example of exploiting the so called “habit discontinuity hypothesis” which  states that when a context change disrupts individuals’ habits, a window opens in which behavior is more likely to be deliberately considered. Going to University is a major context change – giving us an exciting opportunity for all our diversity and inclusion work.

Working year: 2015

2015 was a year of big change for me. I stepped down as Head of Department of Meteorology, and took on the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion (role shared with my former Head of School, Prof. Simon Chandler-Wilde), thereby moving away a little from atmospheric research and more towards University leadership. Perhaps appropriately therefore, my year of work has been in itself diverse. Here are some images that capture the general idea.

  1. My changing career

2. Life on campus as a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

3. And life off campus getting out and about….

4. Some light reading…

5. Teaching my favorite module – Arran field course

6. Research trip to China – first visit there, and first long haul travelling in 9 years!

7. Traditional end of year Christmas Carols in Meteorology

2015-12-11 13.05.40

I wonder what 2016 will look like?

Ada Lovelace Day 2015

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, created as an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Two years ago I wrote a blog listing women in science that had inspired me, and invited colleagues to provide their female inspirations from the STEM world. You can see the original blog here .

Since then, there has been much attention on women in STEM, from government reports, the recent People Like Me campaign from WISE, and the infamous cases of “that” shirt and Tim Hunt’s remarks, about which debate still rages.

Athene Donald posted a blog yesterday encouraging us to examine our own biases and question whether we are doing our bit to supporting the next “Ada”. Interestingly, she mentions the implicit bias tests that many of us have been prompted to take, revealing a stronger association of men with science than women. I was shocked when I found a similar result for myself last year – I had a strong implicit bias for men and career vs women and home. The exact opposite of everything that I outwardly advocate and support. Since then I have been doing much exploring about bias and irrational thinking and can recommend “Irrationality: The enemy within” by Ben Goldacre (Foreword) and Stuart Sutherland (Author). There is no easy answer as to how to guard against these biases but I am starting to understand how and when they are most likely to come into play.

Undoubtedly exposure to diverse voices and personality could play a major role in challenging our biases. Over the past 2 years, Twitter has been a key part of broadening the diversity of my network and experience. I can engage in debates, discussions and everyday life with people across the world and across disciplines in a way that would have been a challenge before social media. Today then, for Ada Lovelace Day 2015, I offer you the social media version of my inspiration list. These people have opened my eyes wider, and for that, I thank them.

  • Jedidah Isler @JedidahIslerPhD Astrophysicist and 2015 TED Fellow
  • Mika McKinnon @mikamckinnon Field geophysicist and scifi consultant amongst many others
  • Sam Cristoforetti @astrosamantha    ISS astronaut
  • Nathalie Pettorelli @Petorelli     Ecologist, @SoapboxScience co-founder – Nathalie gave me the opportunity to stand on the South Bank in London and talk about aerosols, which re-ignited my love of science communication.
  • Ruth Mottram @ruth_mottram  climate scientist and glaciologist
  • Kate Marvel @DrKateMarvel climate scientist and science writer. Ex-cosmologist
  • Raychelle Burks  @DrRubidium Analytical chemist
  • Melissa Wilson Sayres @mwilsonsayres Sex chromosomes, populations and evolution. Brilliant posts on starting/running a lab
  • Jenny Martin @JennyMartin_UQ Crystallographer
  • Emma Johnston @DrEmmaLJohnston Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology
  • Dr Heather Williams @alrightPET Senior Medical Physicist and @SCience_Grrl Director
 And if you are looking for something to do to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2015, why not do one of the things on the “Just one action for women in science” list, also started by Athene.