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.




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?

Happy New Year!

I guess being brought up in a family where education was highly valued, and now working in a University, it is probably not surprising that the start of the new academic year always feels more significant to me than the change in digits in January. As a child, early September was always a time of excitement (and occasionally a little anxiety), returning to school with new uniform, new shoes and a new pencil case. Most of my social activities also depended on it being a school term – the bands, orchestras and choirs only rehearsed in school weeks. As a University student, the start of the new year heralded  an early start, a long drive up the M6 to Manchester (which always included Dad waking me up at Keele services and piloting me around to get a full English breakfast), and new lectures and friendships to build. Only once have I been less than eager to start a new academic year. When I began my PhD here at Reading 20 years ago this week (ouch), I moved from a house-share with good friends to a concrete tower block with 17 rooms sharing one kitchen and one large institutional bathroom on each floor. I actually cried. Dad quite rightly told me not to be silly – I was 21 – he was probably grateful for the shorter drive! Sure enough, although that accommodation was not great (and is now no longer in use), I made friends and had a good time. And as for Reading… well I’m still here 🙂

Of course, since I am not a student anymore, the long summer vacations are no longer. As I continue to struggle to explain to my grandparents, my in-laws and some of the school-gate parents, just because there are no undergraduates does not mean we are “on holiday”. It is true that there is one less type of task or interruption and campus takes on a more relaxed vibe, but our MSc students work on their dissertations from April to August and we are still supervising research students and staff. In our research intensive department, are still grant deadlines to meet and increasing numbers of meetings and conferences to attend or even organise. Undergraduates have resit exams in late August, and the first two weeks of September are spent marking MSc dissertations and exam papers. There is usually around one week between the past years MSc cohort leaving and the new one arriving. Many of my colleagues have commented that this year “it hasn’t stopped”, and it does seem that periods of respite from multiple demands on our time are becoming shorter. As a result it is harder than ever to find precious unbroken periods of a couple of hours to immerse oneself in the latest research or a tricky programming challenge.

This year I am seeing the New Year in wearing my dual hats of Mum and Professor. I took my eldest son shopping for new school shoes and  was unable to resist buying myself a new notebook and pen for old times sake. Today is the first day of the new University term and campus is buzzing with lost but eager students. I still get “butterflies” of anticipation, these days more for their sake than mine. Whilst I like the more relaxed feel of campus in the holidays, by the end of the summer, it feels good to see the campus full with the people for whom we exist again. I look forward to meeting them and learning new things from them.

Traditionally of course, people make resolutions at New Year. So, here are mine:

1. I will accept that I cannot miraculously conjure up time and therefore will use my time more wisely by delegating some tasks, prioritising using the “important” vs “urgent” framework and  blocking out one morning a week for research, and earmark specific time periods for completing all the little admin jobs that I would otherwise allow myself to procrastinate over

2. I will say “no” to any more “opportunities” before February 2014 since my diary is full enough. I will monitor the build up of meetings after that time and stop accepting invitations when I start to feel panicky when looking at my diary

3. I will keep better notes from meetings with students and postdocs.

4. I will have lunch or coffee in the main Met building once per week, and make time for lunch with my closest colleagues in Lyle once per week.

5. I will focus on activities central to my core mission, understanding the world around us, empowering others, and communicating science and my science-life

All the best for 2013-14!

Professorial luxuries

I was promoted to full Professor in October 2011. Since then I have been asked on many occasions “how’s life as a Professor?”. The questioners usually fit into one of 3 categories:

  • a senior colleague who is making sure I’m ok (I assume!)
  • a peer who has also been recently promoted, who is  checking that our experiences are similar
  • a more junior colleague who is interested in my response in connection with their own career development.

It’s actually a very hard question to answer because I was asked to be a Head of Department (HoD) very soon after my promotion came into effect, and thus much of the experiences of the past 18 months have incorporated both the promotion to professor and the new responsibilities of Departmental leadership.

The “personal titles” or promotion process at our institution takes a long time and involves several hurdles. I may expound on this process in a different post at a later date, but the point here is that my change of status was made public in May 2011. I started preparing for my HoD role by shadowing the existing incumbent in Jan 2012 so I suppose I had 7 months in which to “just” be a Professor. Here are a few thoughts I had at the start of that time.

  1. Yes! Finally! I have made it to the top, and I must be doing something right after all.
  2. Phew. I’m tired.
  3. Now I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, so I can afford myself the luxury of prioritising research and other activities as suits me, and not as I think suits the promotion process.
  4. Err… and what is that exactly?

If I am lucky, I will have around 20 years ahead of me as a professor (allowing for good behaviour and no further tweaking of the retirement age). The traditional image of professors is usually male, 50+ and somewhat absent minded.  Clearly, I don’t meet at least 2 of those criteria (my research group can probably comment on the other), and in my field at least I know many other “young” professors. It is no longer a role that we get for a few years before retirement. It is likely that I will have several “goes” at formal leadership roles, and will need to adjust from ”being in charge” to “not being  in charge” several times during that period.  In the longer term, there are two main routes, stay as a research and teaching based professor – perhaps developing a new area, or move towards University management, via Head of School, Dean etc. As yet, I have no clear ideas on this one, but I also don’t think I need to just yet!

At my first staff development review following my promotion, I was advised to spend some time thinking about what kind of professor I wanted to be. Most definitions of “professor”  are based on  “a scholarly teacher” or similar, but the precise meanings varies by country, and increasingly by university (at least within the UK). Wikipedia describes a professor in the UK as “a highly accomplished and recognized academic, and the title is in most cases awarded only after decades of scholarly work to senior academics”. The first of these definitions explicitly includes a reference to  teaching”, whilst the second doesn’t. In our research intensive Department, we have a lot of Professors, but their roles are diverse. Some are the leaders of national strategic research organisations, and tend not to be involved in lecturing although they do supervise PhD students and contribute substantially to the strategic direction of the Department. Others have specific links to external organisations or other academic institutions. Then there are those with the more conventional roles – a mix of research, teaching and administration duties.  I fit into the latter group, and that is where I have always felt at home – with a mix of roles.  For another view of professorial types, see Athene Donald’s excellent blog (see if you can spot me, you or your own closest professor amongst them – if not, invent a new one to fit!)

So, in answer to those questions, really it has been “business as usual”  since promotion in many ways, the main change is that the level of responsibilty of the administrative role has increased dramatically. I do feel like I can go my own way more – within reason I can decide whether or not to put in that proposal, go to that conference, do that outreach, tweet, or start that blog, without worrying about how it will look on my CV.  It does bring new opportunities for talks, contacts and experiences – not all of these have to be accepted (but those who know me will know that “no” has never been the easiest of words). The title of Professor does not provide immunity to imposter syndrome. It’s a bit like going up to the “big playground”  at school – the games and faces are new and a bit mysterious and you are not entirely sure how everything works but don’t want to ask. Nor does it mean you can stop thinking about your self-development. I also somehow feel more “visible” and therefore have to make sure I am more professional than ever before. Finally, it means a lot to my family, who are very proud of having a Professor amongst them, although some still aren’t sure what I actually do!

As to the luxuries in the title?

  • My professorial contract appears almost identical to the previous one except for a paragraph where I am apparently allowed to claim for 1st class rail travel – I have not yet tested this as I am usually travelling with others and that seems a bit unfriendly. I suspect my funding body doesn’t allow anyway it unless it’s the cheapest way to go.
  • Due to the increase in staff resulting from the University’s Academic Investment Programme, professors in Met no longer automatically get a larger office – I did, but that’s because I moved  to a different building as part of the expansion programme and the rooms over here are all large.
  • I do get a share in a PA –  without whom, the ship would definitely go down.

Proud to be a climate scientist

I really should know better than to discuss my job in public. Admitting to being a climate scientist tends to result in lengthy discussions of why we are told to reduce our carbon footprint when it’s developing nations that are “the problem”, why we think we can predict the climate in 100 years time when “tomorrow’s weather forecast is wrong”, and more recently defending our scientific integrity.

In fact there isn’t a typical “climate scientist” (leaving aside the generic “scientist” with his grey beard, white coat, socks and sandals that is!). Every one of my colleagues works in a very different way towards understanding the building blocks of our atmosphere and oceans and how changes in these affect day-to-day weather and year-to-year climate. My work concerns how particles in the atmosphere affect the way in which radiation from the sun reaches the ground. These “aerosols” are very small droplets of dissolved sulphate and nitrate chemicals and specks of soot from fossil fuel burning, desert dust picked up by Saharan winds, microscopic debris from volcanic eruptions and even sea salt from bursting bubbles on the ocean surface. One hundred times smaller than the droplets you might spray from an aerosol can, each one of these tiny particles suspended in the air has the potential to scatter or absorb radiation from the sun, preventing it from reaching the Earth’s surface and therefore potentially cooling the ground. Some of them can also attract enough water to spark the growth of cloud droplets – indeed without them it would take so long for enough water molecules to get together and grow that we’d never see clouds at all!

I fly through pollution plumes in the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement BAE146 aircraft. In recent years colleagues and I have measured aerosols from European pollution, African biomass burning and desert dust, and volcanic ash. Once I know how big the particles are and what they are made of, I use computer simulations of sunlight bouncing off them to calculate how much of the suns light is prevented from reaching the surface. I can also tell colleagues what characteristics they should give these particles in their global climate model so that they can simulate their impact on climate change. If I venture to the coffee room I can learn about glacier melt, ocean current modelling, how to extract useful data from satellite instruments, the physics of hurricanes, the impact of road transport or supervolcanoes on surface temperature, or changes in African rainfall over the past decades. Other colleagues will be in laboratories, recreating constituents of our atmosphere or ocean in a controlled environment, while still more will actually be out in the weather making observations of atmosphere, ocean, land or ice. There are so many exciting ways of probing our earth-atmosphere system, but whichever one an individual climate scientist chooses, we all have the same goal – to understand the processes that make up our earth-ocean-atmosphere system. This will help to improve the quality of those climate (and weather) predictions.

So, I think overall I’m proud to say that I am a climate scientist. It’s just as well really, my only other option is to say that I am a physicist and that tends to result in a glazed expression and an abrupt end to the conversation. Hmm…. wait a minute, that could be useful…..

This article was originally published in theWeather magazine of the Royal Meteorological Society in 2010

Hello out there.

I am a professor of climate physics at the University of Reading in the UK. In this blog, the plan is to chart my journey through the worlds of atmospheric aerosols, climate change and academia. I hope it will explain a few things, highlight some fascinating science, and in due course explain to my two young sons what it is that I do all day!